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Poland: After EU Vote, Poles Wonder Where They Go From Here

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Poles are celebrating their decision to join the European Union. Although there are no final results as yet, it's clear that a majority of those voting in the weekend national referendum said "yes" to joining the EU. That followed worries that not enough people would turn out to make the vote valid. But where does Poland go from here? Poland's difficulties are now Europe's problems.

Prague, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There is pleasure and relief in both Warsaw and Brussels that the Polish people have given a decisive "yes" to joining the European Union next year.

Final results are not in yet, but it seems clear that more than three-quarters of those who voted in the weekend referendum endorsed joining. And turnout was well over the 50 percent mark needed to validate the result.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and European Commission President Romano Prodi both spoke of the "historic" moment, in which Poland has "returned to Europe."

Poland's choice means that the EU appears assured of a smooth run in the rest of the current wave of expansion, the largest it has ever undertaken. The Czech Republic holds a referendum next weekend, followed by Latvia and Estonia later in the year. Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Malta have already voted "yes."

Dan Keohane, an analyst with the Center for European Reform in London, says, "There will be so much momentum behind the pro-European sides in the remaining referendums, that it should help carry the day there."

For Poland itself, the simple decision of "yes" or "no" has not changed the bleaker situation on the ground. Record unemployment, exhaustion with the transition process, stalled reforms, and deep distrust of the minority government of leftist Prime Minister Leszek Miller all remain.

"The situation in Poland being as it is, I don't know how quickly it can be sorted out," Keohane says. "The EU is not going to sort out all of Poland's problems. Poland will have to sort most of them out itself."

And therein lies a major problem, according to analyst Alexander Smolar, head of the Stefan Batory Foundation, a Warsaw-based research institute.

"[The] Polish administration is not well-prepared yet, so this is the challenge of the next 11 months, before Poland formally enters the European Union, because if the Polish administration is not capable of assuring the creative, positive use of the funds given by the European Union, it will be a major destabilizing factor internally, and also between Poland and the EU," Smolar says.

Agriculture is one area where Poles must begin to feel some advantage of EU membership as quickly as possible. Farmers in Poland's huge and out-of-date agricultural industry are the most pessimistic group in the country, and they fear being worse off as the EU strives to reduce the agricultural subsidies it pays under its Common Agricultural Policy.

Smolar sees Poland as suffering in general from what he calls social depression, and one contributing factor is a lack of trust in the Miller government. He says a new government is probably necessary in the long run.

Smolar also sees Warsaw's task of building its political relations with its new partners in the union as a delicate one, particularly as there was friction over Poland's quick support for the United States in the Iraq war.

"On the Polish side there must certainly be more subtle policy and stronger feeling for the complexity of choice that a country like Poland must face; on the other side, old members of the European Union should certainly give up a paternalistic attitude," Smolar says.

Another Warsaw-based analyst, Antoni Kaminsky of the Institute of Political Studies, suggests that in at least some ways, the ordinary Polish man and woman in the street see the future more clearly than do the politicians.

"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," Kaminsky says. "The [Polish government's pro-EU] propaganda appealed to different groups, saying well, you will get this money, and you will get that money, trying to convince people they will benefit immediately, I think that is very bad propaganda."

The decision to join the EU, Smolar says, is neither the beginning nor the end of Poland's problems; it is instead the end of some problems, and the start of new ones.