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Poland: The Success of European Integration

by Elizabeth Pond

It bears repeating. The European Union's soft power works.

Not always, not everywhere, and not without reverses, but the EU has a transformational capacity to make others adopt their values: free, fair elections; rule of law; market economies that maximize the welfare of citizens; and a pan-European outlook.

As the Poles hold a no-drama election on October 9, it’s worth remembering how far the country has come as a result of European integration. Thirty years ago—not surprisingly for a people whose very nation had been dismembered and parceled out to Russian, Prussian, and Austrian overlords in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then suffered brutal Nazi and Soviet occupation in World War II—their predominant mood was a feeling of aggrieved victimization.

A generation ago, as the Berlin Wall fell, many older Poles still despised West as well as East Germans, refusing to acknowledge any postwar penitence for Hitler's murders. Even four years ago Poland's elected president and prime minister were still populist identical twins who were almost as suspicious of Protestant Europe and Polish liberalizers as they were of Russia.

No longer. Today Poland is a stable, mature European country. A poor land that once made the phrase "Polish economy" a synonym for chaos has drawn in $150 billion in Foreign Direct Investment and tripled its per capita GDP in purchasing power from $6,000 to $19,000 since 1989. Its economy, shaming fellow EU members, grew by four percent last year despite the world financial crisis.

Similarly, this land with no pre-1989 experience with real democracy—and a history of paralyzing noblemen's vetos over any government action—has now settled down to three main parties. They offer a clear choice among the Kaczynski twins' Catholic-chauvinist Law and Justice Party and two solid center-right and center-left parties. And Premier Donald Tusk, the moderate right's prime minister, leads Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the Law and Justice Party by between one and 15 percentage points heading into Sunday's reelection.

Moreover, seven years after joining the EU, Poland has stopped playing the populist spoilsport in the EU. It is displaying competence in its maiden turn at the half-year chairmanship of the European Council summits and ministerial councils. And, following belated admission by Moscow that it was indeed the Soviet secret police who murdered 4,500 Polish officers in Katyn Wood in 1943—and the tragic crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish politicians to a commemoration in Russia's Katyn last year—Poland has reached rapprochement with Russia. Moscow, for its part, has grudgingly come to acknowledge that its former client state is now the sixth-largest EU member and can no longer be pressured at will by Russia.

Poland's example fully justifies the hope of the EU's founding fathers that European economic cooperation would start a chain of reconciliation and democracy on the continent after two millennia of recurring wars.

First in the chain came the French-German rapprochement. France profited from Germany's economic prowess and Bonn profited from Paris's political legitimation of a reformed (West) Germany. In the process, the two countries became the "motor" of the then European Community. Once the two capitals hammered out any compromise between southern and northern European interests, France could generally sell the deal to the Mediterranean states, while Germany could sell the deal north of the Alps. The arrangement would generally contribute to the prosperity of all, and it led to a striking convergence of EC members' economies in the direction of the disciplined Germans (Greece excepted, as we now know).

Later, this model of comity between former sworn enemies spread to others in the Community. Ambassadors from Bonn mastered Dutch to spare Hollanders the pain of speaking German, and by the time the Berlin Wall fell, Germany and the Netherlands too were reconciled.

Polish-German rapprochement required the longest time to accomplish. It began tentatively in 1965 with a sensational exchange of letters between West German and Polish bishops offering forgiveness and asking to be forgiven for the suffering their compatriots had visited on each other in the past. It continued after the rise and suppression of the Polish Solidarity workers' union in the early 1980s and the flood of food and clothes that ordinary West Germans subsequently donated to help ordinary Poles. It culminated as key reformers in Solidarity decided, despite historic Polish antipathy toward Germans, that a democratic German unification would actually help rather than threaten Poles.

This trust was rewarded. Berlin armwrestled with Paris to award Poland a weighted vote in the EU commensurate to its large population. Berlin further pulled a reluctant Paris into regular "Weimar Triangle" consultations to give Warsaw an immediate pre-membership voice in EU affairs—and coached the Poles on who the key players were in NATO as well as the EU. Today a segment of the Berlin Wall on display in Gdansk testifies to the prescience of Solidarity's historic judgment.

In the uncharted post-cold-war environment Poland at first floundered both politically and economically. But it embraced the win-win cooperation over zero-sum confrontation in international relations. By 1999 it was admitted to the transatlantic alliance. By 2004 it met the European Union's economic and democratic criteria for accession. Backed by this double assurance of Poland's security, President (and former Communist minister) Alexander Kwasniewski played a crucial role in the non-violent success of the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine. And backed by this support, Poland finally felt sufficiently confident of its security to pursue friendly relations with its former hegemon of Russia.

Other Central European post-Communist states with no previous experience in the Western political arts have also transformed themselves into democracies and flourished. Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, may still struggle with organized crime and corruption. Hungary may struggle with authoritarian tendencies that sometimes strain the rule of law. But all of the EU's new members are vastly better governed and produce a better standard of living for their citizens than the Central Asian inheritors of the Soviet breakup—or the Afghan and Iraqi inheritors of a decade of Western military intervention.

By now, under the impact of EU soft power, Poles no longer view themselves as victims. On Sunday they will cast their votes as winners and defenders of the new status quo. However the unspectacular election turns out on Sunday, it will be a quiet but profound victory for the European Union.

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans and The Rebirth of Europe.

[Photo courtesy of rrrodrigo]

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