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Poland Voting on EU Membership, Future

Many believe becoming part of the European Union will bring economic benefits. Others think their way of life will disappear.

June 08, 2003|Monika Scislowska | Associated Press Writer

MICHALIN, Poland — The architects of the "New Europe" like to say that bringing the former communist bloc into their wealthy, borderless union means a Europe "finally able to breathe with both lungs."

But to Marian Lubinski, whose family farms a couple of acres for its sustenance in the village of Michalin, it means the arrival of big agribusiness and the likely demise of an old tradition.

This weekend, Poles vote in a referendum on whether their country should join the 15-nation European Union. Politicians are locked in debate about weighty issues like Polish sovereignty and the impact of liberal west European ways on a conservative Roman Catholic country.

Opinion polls forecast a yes vote, and the nation of 38 million will be the largest of seven former Soviet bloc countries up for EU membership next year -- a defining moment in the slow, painful transformation of communist dictatorships into capitalist democracies.

More than that, for a country that was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II, joining will be what Polish-born Pope John Paul II calls "an act of historic justice."

Poles have always considered themselves integral to Western Europe, and they are quick to point out that they were the first on the continent to adopt a democratic constitution, albeit short-lived, in 1791.

The 1945 Yalta agreement that carved up post-World War II Europe put them behind the Iron Curtain in what they view as just one in a series of betrayals dating back to the late 18th century when Poland was partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Although such historic resentments resonate in Warsaw, people like the Lubinskis in their village 110 miles northeast of the capital have more immediate concerns about EU membership.

Theirs, along with many of Poland's estimated 2 million small family-owned plots, could disappear because of competition from larger producers.

Other traditional industries like mining and steel also face huge contractions as Poland modernizes its economy and seeks to comply with EU pressure to reduce subsidies.

Many state-owned industries have closed during 13 years of market reforms, leading to unemployment topping 18%.

Many like Lubinski, 63, who lives on a government pension of $150 a month, feel ignored by the politicians and don't trust their promises. "They go campaigning in big cities and avoid such forgotten places as here," he said. "I doubt if I will go vote. The mess will be greater, and we will be ever poorer."

Anti-EU campaigners have also managed to spread the idea that once the border comes down, Germans who were expelled after World War II will return to claim land. The EU, recognizing that fear and the farmers' concerns, has agreed to a seven-year moratorium on foreigners buying land in Poland.

The Polish Families' League, a small political party, maintains that Poland will be exploited as a source of cheap labor. The views are echoed by Self-Defense, a radical farmers' party, as well as the popular, radical Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja.

An opinion poll released Monday by the private OBOP agency said 83% of 939 adults queried said they will vote -- well over the 50% needed to validate the referendum. Of those, 74% said they support EU membership.

Joining means access to funds to clean up the environment, nurture small businesses and build needed roads in an Arizona-sized country that is a major transit route for goods but has only 98 miles of high-quality highway.

"I see a great chance for developing my business under the EU in the long run," said Halina Potocka, whose restaurant caters to tourists visiting the Renaissance town of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula River. "I will be able to get EU funds to employ more people and to build a small hotel. I also count on improvement of roads and infrastructure, which will make access to the village easier and will bring in more people."

In fact, Poland has been meshing into the EU for a long time since Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement broke the grip of communist rule in 1989.

Although the anti-EU forces have just a handful of seats in parliament, their arguments resonate in the countryside.

"We will be their farmhands and will have to buy their worst quality goods," said Irena Pociech, 70, a retired midwife selling sauerkraut in the spa town of Ciechocinek, northwest of Warsaw.

Witold Orlowski, chief economic advisor to President Aleksander Kwasniewski, denounces as "one great lie" the charge that prices will rise and Poles will get poorer, and says nothing will change if Poland rejects EU membership.

EU membership "is a chance for accelerating economic growth, if we know how to use it and how to use the funds we will get," he said.

He concedes that Poland may at first pay more in EU dues than it gets in subsidies, but insists that staying outside the club would discourage investors, stoke inflation and weaken the Polish currency.

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