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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 12:16 GMT
Poland sheds its EU illusions
Polish farm
Polish farmers are among the biggest Eurosceptics

As the prospect of joining the EU club becomes a not-too-distant reality, Poles have become more realistic about what membership can offer them.

Myths have slowly been dispelled, hopes have given way to a certain air of disappointment, and attention has focused on the nitty-gritty of the negotiations with Brussels.


I hope the Polish people, for centuries a true European people, by cultivating its values, will find its rightful place in the structures of the European community

Pope John Paul II
Despite this, the government says it expects the pro-EU side to win comfortably in next spring's referendum.

In its efforts to promote support for EU membership, it has been both helped and hindered by representatives of the Catholic church.

In August this year, an estimated 2.5 million people gathered on the meadows outside the city of Krakow to hear Pope John Paul II - formerly Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow - and still the greatest authority for Poles on many issues, including politics.

Gdansk shipyard workers are told of redundancies
EU membership will affect factories as well as farms
"I hope the Polish people, for centuries a true European people, by cultivating its values, will find its rightful place in the structures of the European community," he said.

"Not only will it lose nothing of its identity, but - through its own tradition - will enrich this continent and the whole world."

The Pope has been widely credited with sowing the seeds of freedom in the Soviet-dominated Polish People's Republic during his first papal visit in 1979 - and expounding the ethical principles which led to the birth of Solidarity and the fatal undermining of the Communist regime.

The fact that he has now endorsed EU membership is very significant - but the message did not get through to all Polish Catholics.

Catholic radicals

Take for example Radio Maryja - "the Catholic voice in your home" as it describes itself - which has become a mouthpiece for right-wing and nationalist Eurosceptics.

The Redemptorist Fathers, who run the station, have had a rough ride with Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the Archbishop of Warsaw, who has tried to rein in the station's independent line.


No country which joined the EU has ever lost anything. Nothing of its identity nor in the economic sense

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek

But Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the station's head, has succeeded in organising a political party, the League of Polish Families, which today occupies the far-right corner in the Polish parliament.

Radio Maryja gives a platform to those in the Church who fear the EU would challenge traditional Catholic values.

But pro-European bishops, like Tadeusz Pieronek, disagree.

"When people are about to set up home together and start a family, they may be unsure and afraid. And they should be - as there is an atmosphere of uncertainty at such a moment," he says.

"However, the whole European experience tells us that this a good choice. No country which joined the EU has ever lost anything. Nothing of its identity nor in the economic sense."

Grassroot concerns

In the north-eastern town of Bialystok, passers-by you meet on the street have rather mixed feelings about the EU.

"Maybe people will be better off. We'll have better roads, a stronger economy," said one.

"If we don't go in that direction [towards the EU], where else can we go?" said another.

A third said: "The country as a whole will benefit, there is no doubt about that. But as far as the ordinary employee is concerned, I am not so sure."

Poles have been watching accession negotiations uneasily, worried that the country could end up joining the EU on unfavourable terms.

'Dumping ground'

These fears increased when the EU disclosed it was only willing to offer a quarter of the subsidies enjoyed by current EU farmers to the Polish farmers in the first year after enlargement.


The EU is more keen on Poland's accession than Poland itself is. The union obviously pretends it is not interested that much

Andrzej Lepper
Self-Defence Party

There were also fears, at one point, that Poland would find itself a net contributor - paying more into the EU's coffers than it gets out.

This kind of thing is music to the ears of anti-European politicians like Andrzej Lepper, leader of the populist Self-Defence Party.

"The EU is more keen on Poland's accession than Poland itself is. The union obviously pretends it is not interested that much," he says.

"But each year EU exports to Poland amount to $16bn to $18bn. The EU has made Poland a dumping ground for its own production surpluses."

Polish farmers have particularly strong feelings about EU membership. A recent opinion poll suggested that most Poles are against putting the interest of the agricultural sector above all others, but the majority was wafer thin - 51%.

The referendum could be a close one.


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