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Western Press Review: Polish Voters Set Nation On Historic Course

Prague, 10 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western news commentators today are reacting to Poland's decision over the weekend to join the European Union. They also look at Britain's continuing reluctance to adopt the euro common currency, among other topics.


The "Financial Times" says the decision by Poles to ally with Brussels is nothing short of "historic" in view of the country's tortured past. "Membership of the EU, together with that of NATO, will create a secure, and one hopes prosperous, environment for a state that spent the 19th century wiped off the map and the second half of the 20th century unhappily trying to drag its communist anchor."

The paper says it is surprised by the relatively strong support shown by Polish voters (77 percent "yes" and voter turnout of 59 percent) because of what it calls the "niggardly" approach by the EU to enlargement negotiations and "[French] President Jacques Chirac's haughty reproach to countries such as Poland for daring to side with the U.S. over Iraq." But, the paper cautions, it's now up to Poland itself to make the most out of membership.

So, what does Poland bring to the EU? The paper says that Poles in negotiations with the EU have shown themselves to be "proud and prickly." But, the newspaper says, the Poles will likely be no more difficult than Spain, an "equally proud and prickly nation," and in any event, much less awkward or difficult than Britain.

The paper adds that Poland may bring real advantages by its proximity to Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. "This is becoming a forgotten belt of countries, with no foreseeable prospect of joining the EU or rejoining Russia. Yet the economic weakness and political instability of these countries could constitute a security threat to the EU. Poland is right to remind the EU that it needs an 'Ostpolitik' of positive engagement towards these countries and to underline that it could serve as the bridge."


"The Guardian," similarly, welcomes the Poles' decision to join the EU, pointing out that a "yes" vote was by no means guaranteed. The paper says that skepticism about the EU had gained ground in the heavily Catholic country after the EU draft constitution this year failed to include a role for a Christian God.

"The absence of a clearly defined role for the Christian God in the EU's draft constitution, with or without qualified majority voting, was another worry," the British paper says. "When combined with fears that, having struggled for centuries to establish its independent sovereignty, Poland was about to give it all away again to Brussels, it seemed for a while that the referendum would fall."

The paper says this is where the pope stepped in and saved the day for Brussels. "EU membership represented 'an act of historic justice,' the pope declared. Despite entrenched opposition from some euro-skeptic clergy, his view was communicated to the faithful in a pastoral letter read from pulpits across the country."

The paper concludes, "The pope pulled it off."


"The Christian Science Monitor" says the Polish referendum result is a crowning moment in the nation's rebirth. "Once a European power, Poland vanished in the late 1700s, gobbled up by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary," the Boston-based paper says. "Poland's brief independence after World War I ended when Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union devoured it again in 1939. After World War II, the country quickly fell under Soviet communist domination that lasted until 1989."

The paper links the referendum decision and Poland's recent choice to support the U.S. in the war against Iraq as demonstrating the country's new confidence. "Now a free Poland is confident enough both to join the U.S. in eliminating Saddam Hussein's murderous regime in Iraq and to resume its proper place among the states of a united Europe."

However, the paper says that EU membership will be "no picnic." "Poland's average income is less than half that of the West. Unemployment stands above 18 percent, and growth is sluggish."

The paper continues: "Integration with the larger European economy will mean a difficult transition for workers at outmoded factories, surplus farmers, and pensioners whose income is likely to shrink. That will have political consequences as these groups and their allies fight needed economic reforms."

Western papers today weigh in on Britain's announcement to defer a decision on whether to join the euro until next year, at the earliest. British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said Britain has failed to meet four out of five economic tests for entry into the euro. Although he justified the decision on economic grounds, newspaper editors -- it seems -- can't help but think that political motives, particularly Brown's well-known rivalry with Prime Minister Tony Blair, played a strong role.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" today in a long commentary says the decision comes as no great surprise given Brown's reputed reluctance to adopt the common currency. "Having appointed himself guardian of the five economic 'tests' his Treasury devised, Britain's famously euro-skeptic chancellor [Gordon Brown] wasn't about to give away the store."

The paper notes, however, that Brown in his speech to Parliament yesterday appeared to be surprisingly enthusiastic about the euro. "His tone was more upbeat -- some even described it as passionate -- than at any time in the past." The paper adds, "This may have been in part to cover for the obvious political loss the assessment represents to his boss and rival, Prime Minister Tony Blair." Blair is said to favor the euro, but may not have the political will to fight for his cause.

The paper says if Britain is ever to adopt the European common currency, the decision will have to be Blair's. "Either Mr. Blair will become more robust in his defense of the euro, which presumably will mean that his debates with the chancellor will become more public; or he will remain a backseat supporter, biding his time until he feels he can either convince Mr. Brown to change his view or assert his own vision over his chancellor's."

The paper concludes, "For all the talk about letting the economics decide the euro debate, the '300-pound gorilla in the room' is, once again, politics."


Commentator Martin Wolf, writing in the "Financial Times," calls Brown's announcement yesterday on the common currency "a perfect result" for a "euro"-skeptical nation.

Remarking on the hundreds of pages of economic analysis that Brown used to justify what was, in effect, a nondecision, Wolf says -- with a nod to Winston Churchill -- "Never in human history can so many have written so much for so small a result." He continues: "After publishing 18 detailed studies, plus a 246-page assessment, the Treasury's answer on U.K. membership of the European single currency remains what it was in 1997: 'not yet.' It is a warmer 'not yet.' But whether and when the U.K. will join remains obscure. The most plausible conclusion is that it is not going to happen in the next few years."

Wolf goes on to analyze prospects that Britain will ever decide one way or the other to stay out of or join the euro-zone and concludes that a firm decision is not likely anytime soon.

So, he asks: "Where does this leave us? In limbo, is the answer." And, he says that's where Britain should be. "This entire exercise shows that the British are not ready for membership."

German and Austrian papers also take a look at Poland's referendum to join the European Union.


Vienna's "Die Presse" calls the vote "impressive." Commentator Wolfgang Boehm writes that everything depends now on how Poland behaves within the EU. He writes: "Poland prompts fear and anxiety, for a land as big as Spain is pressing to join the EU. This is the largest country among the enlargement countries and at the same time the biggest risk for the union."

He says the main risk is economic. "Although considerable progress has been made, a quarter of the population still depends on agriculture, and this constitutes an economic time bomb."


Thomas Roser, in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," says jubilation at Poland's decision to join the EU may soon turn to sober reality. "The everyday worries will soon overshadow the sense of relief at the success of the referendum. Unemployment is extremely high, the country is shaken by political scandals. Before Warsaw actually joins the EU, it still has to deal with a whole mountain of tasks."


Thomas Urban in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" writes: "Poland will be strengthened as a new EU member...but old EU members must bear in mind that democratization has not been fully accomplished in Poland. If the Poles succeed in overcoming the weaknesses of a young democracy, in the end all parties will profit. That is to say all the EU members, including the Germans and last but not least Poland itself."

German newspapers react to a suicide car-bomb attack over the weekend in Afghanistan that left four German soldiers dead. Germany, along with the Netherlands, co-leads the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan.


Kurt Pries, writing in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," says these casualties have indeed come as a shock. Up until now, he says, Germans have been convinced that they have no need of an army for defense, but are becoming ever more aware that German forces are essential for security risks throughout the world. Only the actual meaning of this fact has eluded politicians, who have "muddied the issue" in discussing political legitimacy and Germany's military capacity.

Pries says the terror in Kabul has prompted the need for "greater accountability regarding the interests, precautions and limits of German missions abroad."


Nico Fried, in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," also says the death of the four Germans in a peaceful mission came as a shock and has helped to create greater awareness of the dangers entailed in such ventures. But, he says, a withdrawal of the forces would be "the beginning of the end."

To relinquish the task in Afghanistan would mean that all efforts to bring stability to the country would be wasted. It would mean that "Afghanistan has been left in the lurch."

On the other hand, says Fried, Germany's possibilities in Afghanistan are limited, and so it must concentrate on the security task at hand. He says that others must take care of other hot spots, such as Iraq and Congo.

He writes: "This has nothing to do with a cynical stance or racism and even less with a lack of a sense for responsibility. It just means that having begun one task, one must accomplish it properly."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" calls Afghanistan "a powder keg," where increasing danger from terrorists and warlords allows for little hope for a stable country.

The paper says German politicians must be open in discussing this situation. It must be made clear to the German public that engagement means casualties. The paper concludes that this has become even more pressing now that there is talk of further missions in Africa, where the situation is even less clear than in Afghanistan.


The editors at "The New York Times" take a look at what they call a "rare and alarming collaboration." They are referring to Sunday's (8 June) attack in the Gaza Strip in which three Palestinian terrorist groups joined forces to kill four Israeli soldiers.

Two of the groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are militantly Islamic. But the third, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, is associated with Fatah, the nationalist movement of Yassir Arafat. The paper notes that the attack came the day after Arafat belittled the peace summit meeting attended by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

The paper says the "events underline the need to repudiate Mr. Arafat, something Arab and some European governments fail to do by continuing to meet with him. It is also time to recalculate the divide within Palestinian society. Rather than categorize groups as Islamist or nationalist, one should distinguish between those that favor a negotiated two-state solution and those that pursue violence and terror."


Finally, Christine Domforth in "Die Presse" returns to the issue of Britain's entry -- or not -- into the euro-zone. Domforth says British Prime Minister Blair obviously has no desire to risk again opposing the conservative sentiment in Britain after taking such a gamble in the war with Iraq.

Besides, she adds, referring to the economic malaise in the euro-zone, "Britain is doing well in its splendid isolation, and who would want to be in bed with the sick anyway?"

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this press review.)

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.