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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
Poland's journey to Brussels
by Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Krakow

The group of three-year-olds shuffled nervously to the front of the stage.

The market square in Krakow
Poland knows it is as culturally rich as other established EU members

The piano began playing, they started to sing... and I could hardly believe my ears.

A group of Polish toddlers were performing English nursery rhymes!

"Rain, rain go away... we don't like a rainy day," which was extremely apt given the downpour outside.

The show was being put on in a typical Krakow cellar bar, by children from a bilingual kindergarten.

"We are joining the European Union in several weeks, and I hope that my daughter will travel a lot when she grows up," said one of the proud dads afterwards.

"Already, lots of people are coming to Krakow. I run a small hotel in the Old Town and I get lots of visitors from the United States, England and Germany."

Celebration

It is hard to escape Poland's imminent EU membership in Krakow.

On the medieval Grand Square, in the centre of town, there were posters on how to vote in the forthcoming European elections were put up months in advance.

They'll be holding a huge concert there on 1 May to mark Poland's entrance to the EU and for many people here there is more to celebrate than just the economic benefits.

"We are becoming equal. We mean the same as the rest of Europe," argues Danuta Glondys from the Villa Decius Association, a local NGO that runs seminars and study groups on European integration.

"We are not poorer in terms of our intellectual or cultural heritage, and for the first time this is proven."

But is this important for most Polish people?

"Yes. If you are brought up in a country where you are a second-class citizen, and suddenly you are told you are a first-class citizen, then it is important," says Ms Glondys.

Troubled history

Nowhere is Poland's cultural heritage better on display than in Krakow. The Villa Decius itself is an architectural gem - a 16th century mansion set in a park not far from the centre.

Jews at Auschwitz
Poland is still haunted by the horrors of Auschwitz

The better known sights, like the Wawel Castle or the 700-year-old Cloth Hall, bear the indelible stamp of Italian renaissance architecture.

But Krakow also bears the scars of Poland's troubled 20th century history.

Not far away the Auschwitz concentration camp bears testament to the horrors of the Nazi occupation, while the ugly tower blocks on the city periphery are a banal reminder of the more recent communist past.

The mental scars can also be felt. Poland's strongest political party at the moment, Samoobrana (Self-Defence), plays on fears of foreign domination with its anti-EU rhetoric.

Here, the spirit of "Homo Sovieticus" may also be playing a role.

"We have heritage from communist times which has influenced our thinking and ways of acting. One of the biggest problems in this country is that people are not willing to make decisions themselves," says Jakub Basista from Krakow's Jagellonian University.

"People were taught for years that someone else will make the decisions, and they still expect it. They don't know what's going to happen after we join the EU and they are very open to manipulation."

American influence

But while Poles are suspicious of Brussels, they are more open towards the United States - and here local history again influences contemporary outlooks.

Not only is American support for the Solidarity movement remembered. But at the end of the 19th century, a wave of emigration across the Atlantic began, and many people here have relatives somewhere in the United States.

The experience of communist rule is fading away, and we're joining Europe mentally.
Historian Andrzej Flis

"More than ten million Poles live in the States. Chicago is the second largest Polish city after Warsaw. So there's a popular perception of the Americans as reliable friends and allies," says historian Andrzej Flis.

But does this make Poland an American Trojan Horse in Europe?

"I don't think so. For our diplomacy the long-term priority is now Europe and the more we get integrated, the more this will be reflected," he says.

"Also, the Iraq war was very unpopular in Poland. This is also a sign of the Europeanisation of Poland. This experience of communist rule is fading away, and we're joining Europe mentally."


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