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Last Updated: Monday, 26 April, 2004, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Analysis: Eastern Europe reborn

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

On 1 May 2004, the European Union will undergo an historic change.

Most of the former communist states of central and eastern Europe will formally join.

Flags
Enlargement is a part of spectacular story of the re-birth of a region
Western Europe seems complacent about enlargement.

The rest of the world does not care much.

Many people think it is just another chapter in the long and sometimes wearisome story of the EU's quest for "integration".

But this enlargement is part of a spectacular story of the re-birth of a war-torn, downtrodden region as a dynamic centre of change and high ambition.

The leaders of eight free states of central and eastern Europe will take their places as full members of Europe's most important club.

The moment will be a symbol of their political coming of age.

The Poles and their neighbours are more sophisticated, and more determined, than Western Europeans realise. And they take their responsibilities seriously.

America's friend

In Warsaw, the country's Foreign Minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz , told me Poland is bringing "wisdom" to the EU's dealings with the unstable regions of eastern Europe, like Ukraine and Belarus.

Poland's top soldier, Chief of Staff General Czeslaw Piatas, said his country has willingly signed up to Nato's new strategy of "pre-emptive action" in case of need against terrorists or other threats to peace.

And recently, Nato announced that an important new Joint Warfare Training Centre would be based in Poland - the first Nato facility ever to be sited in any of the former Warsaw Pact states.
We have the right to present what we think is right
Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz
Polish Foreign Minister

Poland is one of the fastest-growing markets in Europe. Big Polish business deals - like its state privatisations and its purchase of American fighter planes for its air force - are among the biggest of their kind in Europe. With labour costs four times cheaper than in the West, the region can expect the flood of investment and fast growth to continue.

The country is also walking tall on the international stage:

  • A Polish general commands a 9,000-strong multinational division in south-central Iraq as part of the US-led coalition.
  • Poland has shown its firm political convictions, insisting - with Britain and others - that the EU's proposed role in military affairs must not rival Nato.

The Poles appear in opinion surveys to be the most pro-American nation in Europe.

Krzysztof Bobinski, a respected Polish commentator, says Poles simply "do not believe Europe would help" if their freedom were threatened again.

"Only America has the means and the will to do that," he adds.

Poland's core beliefs place it in sharp opposition to France, the traditional centre of gravity of European politics. In March 2003 France's President Jacques Chirac told the leaders of Eastern Europe that they should have "shut up", rather than take America's side over the Iraq war.

Better balance

Since then the French and German leaders have both warned Poland that it may lose financial help from the EU in the coming years if it stands in the way of their plans for the EU's future.

US General Richard B Myers (left) with General Czeslaw Piatas
General Piatas (right) has backed pre-emptive action in cases of need
In earlier negotiations, in 2000, Poland was awarded voting rights almost equal to those of Germany and France, which have much bigger populations.

For months, Mr Cimoszewicz said Poland would insist on sticking to those terms. He claimed they would lead to a "better balance" within Europe.

He has since shown readiness to compromise, but Poland won few backers for its tough stance. It promises to be a stubborn presence in the councils of the EU.

Over the touchstone issues for the enlarged EU - relations with the US and the call to respect the sensitivities of all states - Poland may well be in a majority.

With EU enlargement, the centre of gravity of Europe is moving east. And in an EU of 25 it will be harder to reach consensus on contentious matters.

That spells a long-term challenge to the European leadership of France and Germany. And big new opportunities for Poland and all the "new democracies" of the region.




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