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EU: Poland Heads Into Referendum With Chorus Of Encouragement

  • Breffni O'Rourke

This weekend Poland holds a crucial referendum on whether to join the European Union. Opinion polls indicate a big majority of Poles favor joining the union, but authorities fear not enough voters will turn out to validate the referendum. However, an array of world leaders, including Pope John Paul II, have beseeched Poles to vote "yes." Can Poland resist such blandishments?

Prague, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "If music be the food of love, play on," sighs one of the characters in a Shakespeare play. And if invitations be any guide, Poland must be the most warmly desired partner for the European Union for a long, long time.

An array of spiritual and political leaders have beseeched Poles to vote "yes" at this weekend's referendum on whether to join the European Union. Most Poles appear to favor membership, but getting them out to vote will be the difficult part. The referendum must have a more than 50-percent turnout to be valid, and that won't be easy to achieve.

The most famous living Pole, Pope John Paul II, metaphorically went on his knees on his birthday in May to urge his fellow countrymen to embrace EU membership.

The Polish Catholic bishops, who still wield great authority in Poland, have made a similar appeal.

This week German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made a generously worded appeal, saying Poland doesn't just need Europe, but Europe needs Poland, with "all its creative potential." Ireland's President Mary McAleese has urged Poles to turn out, saying staying at home would be a "slap in the face" to those who fought for the country's freedom. Sweden's Prime Minister Goeran Persson made a sober, Nordic appeal to the same ends. Even U.S. President George W. Bush, who visited last weekend, has said Poland's future lies within Europe.

Why the fuss over Poland? After all, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Slovaks and Lithuanians have all voted "yes" already, without such a fanfare. Analyst Dan Keohane of the Center for European Reform in London sees several reasons.

"There is the simple factor that Poland is a big country, it's the biggest of all the applicants, so there is a certain symbolism associated with Poland. Also, a lot of people associate with Poland the whole movement to bring down the communist regimes [in Europe]. They relate the beginnings of that, rightly or wrongly, with the Solidarity movement in Poland," Keohane says.

But Poland is swaying like a wounded bear, uncertain whether to trust itself in the dark woods which promise sanctuary. After the hard years of a shock transition process, Poles are tired. And the conservative rural population -- which makes up more than a third of the country's nearly 39 million people -- in particular is fearful that EU membership may impose new hardships on them because of the controversy over reining in the EU's vastly expensive Common Agricultural Policy.

And Poland is deeply mired in economic problems, with unemployment at record levels and per capita economic output at just 40 percent of the EU average. There is also repulsion with the domestic political scene, where the unpopular minority government of Prime Minister Leszek Miller is linked to corruption allegations.

Warsaw-based analyst Antoni Kaminski of the Institute of Political Studies, is critical of the way the government's "yes" campaign is promising that things will improve rapidly once Poland is inside the EU.

"I think it is a major mistake of the government in its pro-EU propaganda to assume that you have to appeal to the material interests of the people. People are much more realistic than that. They realize that the situation will not improve very quickly, but at the same time I think there is a growing realization that this is the only chance for the future," Kaminski says.

Keohane says that if the Polish vote goes well, then it will have great influence on the remaining candidates who have still to vote on joining the EU.

"If Poland votes "yes," I think there will be so much momentum behind the pro-European sides in the remaining votes that it should help carry the day there. But if Poland votes no, it would be quite disastrous -- not only for Poland, but for the prospective referendums in other countries," he says.

And there are hard-line elements in Poland who are vocal in opposing EU membership -- whether they are conservative priests who damn the EU for its "godless" ways, or the active politicians like Andreas Lepper of the Peasants Party. But it's doubtful these voices will be sufficient to produce a "no" vote.

Kaminski notes that there is a certain nervousness among a particular segment of the population, namely those who live in the western areas which were previously German territory.

"There is some caution among those people, who number between 10 and 15 million, who live in areas that were German until 1945. Most of these people were moved from areas which are now Ukrainian and Belarussian and Lithuanian," he says.

But Kaminski sees fears of retribution as ungrounded, since Germany makes no claims upon its former lands. Relations with Poland's powerful neighbor have not been better "since the Middle Ages," as he puts it.

In a certain sense, to once again quote Shakespeare, the coming referendum could be seen as much ado about nothing. If the referendum fails through low turnout, the Polish parliament will be given the chance to vote, bypassing the referendum process.

However, it might not be easy for Miller to muster the required two-third majority for parliamentary approval to be valid.

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