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Poland: Shake-Up May Not Hurt EU Accession

The departure in frustration of five key ministers from Poland's governing coalition this week has thrown the country into a political crisis. Will the shake-up delay the economic and agricultural reforms Poland must implement to join the EU? RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos talks to political analysts.

Prague, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The collapse of Poland's coalition government this week has left many questioning whether the crisis will slow the country's progress in negotiating EU accession.

Poland's center-right ruling coalition fell apart on Tuesday, when the market-oriented junior partner Freedom Union pulled out to leave the Solidarity bloc in charge of a weakened government without a parliamentary majority. The coalition, which led Poland into NATO last year, fell apart largely over budget and tax policy disputes.

The Freedom Union says it wants tighter spending control and tax cuts. It was also angry over the inability of the Solidarity bloc to keep its members in line for votes on key reforms. After two weeks of failure to agree on a replacement for Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, five key ministers announced they would be leaving the coalition.

Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, who is internationally respected as the "father of the Polish economic miracle," led the pullout. Balcerowicz is widely regarded as the man who can push through market-oriented reforms, and his departure has alarmed those advocating fast-track Polish membership in the EU. Brussels is demanding a swift reorganization of Poland's agricultural sector, which still employs around 30 percent of all working Poles. The EU is also calling for an energetic clean-up of heavy industrial areas.

But most observers, both in and out of the union, feel that the government shakeup will not significantly lengthen Poland's journey toward membership.

Politicians, predictably, are unanimous in insisting that Poland will conduct business as usual. Foreign Minster Bronislaw Geremek, who will remain in his post for a few more weeks in order to meet upcoming diplomatic obligations, says Poland's political stability and foreign policy will not be altered by the dissolution of the coalition.

And the French and German foreign ministers say that the coalition collapse will not affect Poland's EU aspirations.

Analysts agree -- as long as the crisis does not persist. John Palmer, director of the Brussels-based European Policy Center, says it would be too hasty to assume that a government crisis will derail long-term policy.

"Clearly, a government crisis at any time poses problems, particularly when Poland is engaged on a major reform strategy, which is clearly linked to its vocation to become a member of the European Union. Having said that, however, one shouldn't exaggerate the impact on Poland and on its EU aspirations of the latest government crisis. Better in a way that the crisis happened now than next year, when the negotiations will reach their climax."

Palmer says there are good grounds for believing that Poland's reform process will continue. He called the newly appointed finance minister, Jaroslaw Bauc, "reform-minded," and said that the Polish parliament is committed to bringing Polish law in line with EU norms.

But Palmer notes that the EU does want Poland to stabilize its government soon:

"The present situation would not be satisfactory if continued long-term. And the hope must be that the government crisis is resolved, in which case this will not have any lasting impact."

Poland has been one of the leading countries in the first wave of EU accession candidates. There has been some concern that if Poland falls behind in its reforms and its EU membership is delayed, other first-wave countries could also be held back.

But Palmer says a delay for Poland would not necessarily result in delays for other countries.

"There are some countries that are better placed to accede to the union as matters stand. And if ever there were to be a significant delay, the pressure on the union to proceed with those countries in the position to join would be very considerably indeed. Having said that, everybody wants to move, if at all possible, with Poland."

EU officials will not comment publicly on the effect of Poland's political crisis on its accession process.

But German commentator Thomas Urban writes in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" that "some European capitals are taking outright pleasure in Warsaw's government crisis." Urban says that it is now no longer inconceivable that Poland will not make it into the first wave of enlargement countries.

Urban notes that no EU members are pressing for Poland to join quickly because its entry would represent a burden for current member states -- both because of the many reforms still needed in the country and the sheer size of the population (40 million people).