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Poles, Voting to Join EU, Open 'Window of Opportunity'

Early results from a national referendum show a triumph over traditional voter apathy. Opponents fear loss of jobs, country's identity.

June 09, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman and Ela Kasprzycka | Times Staff Writers

WARSAW — Urged by their countryman Pope John Paul II and prodded by political leaders who said it was time to claim their place on the world stage, Poles overcame a tradition of voter apathy Sunday and were overwhelmingly approving a referendum on joining the European Union, according to early results from the vote.

The vote is expected to lift this economically troubled nation closer to the prosperity of Western Europe and underscores Poland's enhanced stature as a global player that backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Celebrations dotted this capital as Poles, repressed during the Cold War and stymied by recent financial problems, sensed they were moving closer to where they belong.

"We are coming back, we are coming back to a great European family. We are coming back to a place which Poland and Poles deserve for a thousand years of history," President Aleksander Kwasniewski said, adding, "I'm sure that today's decision opens good prospects for the future of our nation, for our country and the young generation."

Official results from 2,500 polling stations, or 10% of the total, found that Poles were approving the referendum to join the EU by 78%. Voter turnout was 59.6% -- well above the 50% needed to make the vote valid. Final results are expected today.

To ensure a higher than normal turnout, the Polish government held voting over two days as newspapers cajoled citizens to shelve their apathy and priests prayed for overflowing ballot boxes.

This predominantly Roman Catholic country of 39 million people is the largest of 10 nations, many of them part of the former Soviet Bloc, invited to join the EU by May 1, 2004. EU expansion for the new members will mean closer alliances with countries such as France, fewer restrictions on border crossings and improved economies for Europe's emerging markets. Such benefits for Poland are probably years away. With an 18% unemployment rate and public cynicism high as a result of government corruption scandals, Warsaw faces domestic reform before it can emerge as an influential EU player.

Poland has shown that it is not wary of politically snubbing its larger, more powerful European neighbors. Against the wishes of France and Germany, Poland supported with words and soldiers the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Some view this as a temporary diplomatic setback as Poland strengthens its ties with a Europe it needs to recover from 40 years of Communist rule that ended in 1989.

Opponents of the referendum believe joining the EU will strip away Poland's national identity and cost the country jobs, especially when it comes to farmers, who will receive much smaller subsidies than their Western European counterparts. The EU's critics were nearly silenced by "a crushing pro-European propaganda" that dominated radio, television and billboards, said Roman Giertych of the Polish Families League, which opposes EU membership.

Poland's biggest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, last week speculated on its front page -- with more than a hint of satire -- about the nation's condition in six years if the referendum was defeated. The paper suggested Poland would go begging to Europe's poorest country, Albania, and that a Bulgarian weightlifter would beat up a Polish tourist attempting to sneak through a border gate reserved for EU citizens.

The pope did not hide his opinion, either: "Poland needs Europe," he said, "and Europe needs Poland."

"I think it's a historical moment for Poland," said Agnieszka Kajdana, a graphic artist who voted for EU membership. "We have always wanted to be there and not here -- to belong to the West and not the East. History put us in a place where we did not feel at home. Now there's finally a chance to belong to that world from which we were exiled by force and history."

Others voted to join the EU with an eye toward the future.

"This is a window of opportunity for my children. The world will open for them," said Barbara Ulanicka, a chemist whose 11-year-old daughter, Magda, accompanied her to a Warsaw polling station. "They will have much better chances at finding good jobs, studying abroad and meeting interesting people."

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