Poland’s nervous “return” to Europe

Krzysztof Bobinski
28 April 2004

The barricades are up and the riot police are out in force. Shops in Warsaw’s city centre are closed and boarded, and police refuse ordinary people entry to the “safe” area. Amidst the eerie calm, the media keep tension high by chattering about the possibility of violent demonstrations by anti-globalist demonstrators and local trade unionists.

“For the first few years at least, the Poles won’t take the EU for granted, as you imply so many of its present citizens do. That’s because for many Poles, getting in will be too much like coming home”. Three years ago, Krzysztof Bobinski wrote an openDemocracy open letter to Reinhard Hesse: ‘A stork’s eye view from Poland’ (May 2001)

These security measures are in place because on the eve of Poland’s accession on Saturday 1 May to the European Union, Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is in town. The talk of “threats” is all the more credible as memory of the 11 March bombings in Madrid still lingers. Poles, whose military forces are in Iraq, wonder if they will be the next target of a terrorist attack. In a word: Poland on the eve of EU membership is joining the modern world.

An end or a beginning?

Poles perennially remind their fellow Europeans that their history and culture make their country the “heart of Europe” (in Norman Davies’s famous phrase). In this sense they judge their entry into the European Union to be a confirmation of what they have always known and felt rather than a wholly new departure.

But this return to the European fold without rising to the challenge of acquiring a fresh political identity - at least in the short term - carries its dangers: that Poles remain fixated on an outdated imaginative “model” of their place in Europe, seek consolation rather than inspiration in the past, draw energy from revived historical grievances which disfigure the new relationships they need to build, use Catholic and nationalist sentiments as a shelter from the modern world rather than a route to engagement with it, or seek (British-style) to “balance” their European and American alignments in a way that leaves both their EU partners and their own aspirations for security and prosperity unsatisfied.

Polish people have not quite realised that the end of 200 years of (mostly) bad historical experiences also opens a genuinely new chapter that requires them to develop fresh skills - not the tradition of resistance to all-comers fuelled by 19th century romantic literature but the somewhat more “protestant” qualities needed to build a modern state. Instead, we enter the EU with many of our old fears and phobias.

A small but emblematic example: the fact that Leszek Miller, Poland’s prime minister until his planned resignation on 2 May, is flying to Dublin for the enlargement celebrations in the aeroplane of German Chancellor, Gerhard Schrőder, has drawn much hostile, nationalist-inflected comment.

There are indeed some fears that Germans, millions of whom fled west amidst the collapse of Hitler’s Reich from what became Polish territory, will demand restoration of their pre-1945 property; but cross-border trade with Germans is proceeding apace without tensions and bilateral relations are likely to remain.

The latter is also true of the other two EU “giants”, Britain and France. Britain continues to earn Poles’ respect despite the scare-stories in the country’s notorious media about Polish welfare-seeking “scroungers” swarming into the UK. France’s president, Jacques Chirac, made no friends among EU candidate countries like Poland sympathetic to the United States’s policy over Iraq – components of “new Europe” in Donald Rumsfeld’s classification – when he said in February 2003 that they had “missed a great opportunity to remain silent”. But many Poles recognise that this is more of a “Chirac” than a “France” problem and the country’s culture continues to fascinate.

Meanwhile, the United States remains both popular and a magnet for the young – despite the fact that accession has stamped “European Union” on the country, and that Poland has won few rewards from Washington for its pro-war stance and deployment of forces in Iraq. Poland will continue to view America, via Nato, as a guarantor of its security through the short and medium term.

In relation to EU foreign policy and defence issues as a whole, Poland will pull together with other member states, recognising that its place – geographic, strategic, and political - is in Europe. Only in the context of even steeper deterioration in transatlantic relationships and a blocking of continuing European integration could Polish pro-American sentiment play a virulently negative role in the EU

The European complex

But here is the current paradox: there is almost no enthusiasm for European Union entry. The days when everyone in Poland seemed to be clamouring to enter the European Union - and were happy to be pulled into Nato by the United States – are long gone. In the mid-1990s the opinion polls were showing support for both institutions at over 80%. Now, as the accession deal with Brussels is done, Poles are wondering what they have let themselves in for.

Support for the EU is still bolstered by the conviction that membership is a good thing “in the long term”, but when asked about the short term, the polls show the numbers slipping to around 40% or less. Party political campaigners in the European parliament elections on 13 June 2004 predict a turnout of 20% - the real measure of interest in the whole business.

In effect, support for the EU seems to have peaked in summer 2003 during the referendum on entry when around 59% turned out to vote and 77.5% of those voted “yes”. That was a vote for the future, but after it people returned to everyday and immediate worries. Their main concern is the prospect of rising food prices in the wake of accession. The noise of the labour market shutters going up in most of the (existing) fifteen member states heightens the sense of exclusion and reinforces the feeling Poles have that they will be second-class citizens in the EU.

These doubts increased in the autumn of 2003 as the debate about the post-enlargement EU constitution set Poland and Spain against a majority of EU countries, led by Germany and France. The acrimonious Brussels summit of December 2003, which failed to agree on the details of the constitution, further undermined the pro-EU feelings of the country’s elites.

At the root of the dispute lay a change in the terms of membership that would govern national representation in decision-making by European institutions after enlargement. The voting formula agreed at the Nice summit of December 2000 gave Poland and Spain a weighted vote greater than their population size strictly merited. By 2003, the existing large EU states proposed instead a “double majority” system – requiring key decisions to be reached by a majority both of states and of 60% of the EU’s total population. The latter, less favourable system underlined the stark reality that, even though Poland is the largest by far of the ten new entrants, the even larger and richer nations are determined to rule the expanded EU.

Where does Poland go from here? The auguries are not good for the period after Leszek Miller’s departure. His government of ex-communists has imploded; the support for his Democratic Left-led coalition, 41% at the September 2001 general election, have declined to single figures. The parliament’s term has another year or so to run, but the political capital of the prime minister who took Poland into the EU, and attended the Brussels summit in a wheelchair (following a flying accident) determined to defend the Nice formula, has evaporated.

Leszek Miller’s exit on 2 May opens a discomforting prospect: weak interim government followed by early elections producing no clear majority, and successive fissile coalitions making governing the country difficult. The last few months have seen the emergence of a strong challenge from the populist Samoobrona (Self-defence) party led by Andrzej Lepper. Its strident rhetoric accuses the entire political establishment of corruption and of selling the country to foreign interests. This impresses those, mainly the poor and elderly, nostalgic for the welfare protection provided by the pre-1989 communist regime.

These problems mean that politicians at least are giving little thought to “European” issues. But many of Poland’s people are: the country will be awash in the summer with conferences and think-tank seminars examining at length Poland’s future role in the EU. What picture will emerge? Certainly Poland will want to pull the EU in the direction of an active policy towards its “near neighbourhood” – mainly bolstering the “Europe-isation” of the Ukraine but also Belarus and Moldova, but also helping ensure that Brussels keeps Russia at a safe distance.

A future without maps

Poland may be the heart of Europe, but money will remain at the heart of Poland’s relationship with the European Union. The best deal possible is that the flow of funds will remain capped at 4% of its GDP – the maximum that new member-states are thought capable of absorbing in any given year. For a country whose GDP is 40% of the average of the current fifteen member-states, the total aid flow will necessarily be low.

Yet EU aid funds are crucial for local communities like Płońsk, 60 kilometres north of Warsaw (and the home town of Ben Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel). Thanks to the EU, Płońsk will be able to fix roads and drainage systems in the space of two years rather than the ten years these projects would have taken if the town had been forced to use its own funds.

But will regional funds prove the best way of stimulating growth? Many Poles and EU citizens elsewhere are asking whether market solutions like tax breaks might attract inward investment and thus become a faster means of “equalisation” of living standards. Even if so, the older member-states are unlikely to agree to have the new entrants drawing capital away from them.

Much of the financial concern over Poland’s entry to the EU is grounded in the experience of its enormous agricultural sector. A third of the farmers in the enlarged EU will be Poles. Poland, under a government of any stripe, will push for solutions which help manage the inevitable reduction of the rural workforce while reinvigorating the countryside to create new sources of income – a policy of “diversification” that, notwithstanding the staggering costs and homogenising impulses of the Common Agricultural Policy, is advocated also by the EU Commission.

Polish think-tanks and even some elements of the government administration are engaged in creative thinking about how Poland’s economy might best benefit from enlargement. But will Poland be able to ensure that its projects and proposals are accepted in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union? The effervescent Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform says that countries have to be large and rich to have influence in the EU. But, she adds, that is not enough: countries also need stable governments backed by a strong civil service able to coordinate policy positions and win allies for them within the Commission and among member states.

This, continues Heather Grabbe, explains why Italy – whose chaotic presidency of the EU Commission culminated in the fiasco of the December 2003 summit in Brussels - remains unable to exert its full weight in the EU. It also explains why Poland could well find itself outmanoeuvred. The country is big but not rich, its governments tend to the unstable (it has had ten post-communist prime ministers in fifteen years) and the integrity of its public life is not unalloyed; a leading film producer has just been arrested in an eponymous corruption scandal – “Rywingate” – which has intimately touched the worlds of politics, media and public policy.

Will Poland be able to compensate for these deficiencies by behaving smartly once it is a full player in EU counsels? That is the greatest worry. The first few years of membership could find Poland’s politics in a chaotic state while its public administration is still weak and policy coordination still problematic. The row over the EU constitution has shown that Poland has a penchant for a confrontational rather than a consensual approach. In the longer term things could turn out well – in the context of the last 200 years of Polish history, 1 May 2004 offers some comfort here - but expect the first months and years to be bumpy.

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