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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May, 2003, 09:32 GMT 10:32 UK
Europe's new heavyweight
By Jan Repa
BBC Central Europe analyst

Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz and US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz has powerful friends
Poland's participation in the invasion of Iraq, and its self-declared role as America's "best friend" in Central-Eastern Europe, have set teeth on edge in France and Germany.

Both countries - the traditional EU heavyweights - worry about the political and economic implications of having to deal with a former Soviet satellite with a newly-rediscovered liking for the limelight.

It appears likely that when the EU enlarges, both sides will have a hard time learning to coexist.

In the 17th Century, Poland was the biggest state in Europe but by the end of the 18th, it had been wiped completely off the map
As Poles like to remind others, their country is comparable in size to Spain and accounts for more than half the population of the 10 countries due to join the EU in May 2004.

It is clearly not one of Europe's "small" nations - like the Czech Republic or Bulgaria. But it is not one of the acknowledged "big" countries either.

False dawns

Poles have often suffered from acute insecurity.

Krakow
Looking east, Poles see themselves as Westerners
In the 17th Century, Poland was the biggest state in Europe - but by the end of the 18th, it had been wiped completely off the map.

Since then, there have been several false dawns - and several determined attempts by neighbouring states to destroy the Polish identity itself.

When they look West, Poles tend to feel like poor and as despised "country cousins".

Looking East, they have traditionally seen themselves as superior "Westerners" in an "Eastern" environment.

Ideally, Poland would like to be friends both with countries like Germany and France - and with America.

But they do not trust the West Europeans to support them in a crisis.

They also note that when America is in dispute with Paris and Berlin, their own usefulness to Washington increases.

East-West bridge

Relying on the Americans may be a risky strategy in the longer term.

POLAND FACTS
Population: 39 million
Life expectancy: 68 years (men), 77 years (women)
Average annual income: $4,200
Total area: 312,685 sq km
Military personnel: 131,000
But, for the time being, it provides dividends in terms of higher international visibility.

Yet Poland is not, of itself, a major international player. In 1950, its GDP was roughly the same as Spain's.

Today - after half a century of Communist rule - it is two-and-a-half times smaller.

Although Poland aspires to be a bridge between the West and its own former Eastern "backyard", the degree of Polish investment and influence in countries like Ukraine or Belarus is tiny.

Relations with Russia remain cool and mistrustful.

Ultimately, Poles still have to demonstrate, to themselves and others, that they can make the grade.

Over the next few years, Poland can be expected to play the European Union game for whatever benefits it can extract.

There will also have to be a shift in attitude on the part of some West European countries, which will no longer be able to treat Poles as people to be ignored or patronised by turns.

Despite French reservations, Poland has been promised 27 votes on the EU Council of Ministers - only three fewer than Britain, France, Germany and Italy.




SEE ALSO:
Poland sets referendum date
17 Apr 03  |  Europe
Should Old Europe fear the New?
16 Apr 03  |  Business
Country profile: Poland
29 Apr 03  |  Country profiles


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