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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 July 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Solidarity runs dry in Poland
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Poland

The famous Gdansk shipyard in Poland has been given an ultimatum by the European Commission: cut back or close down. Poland stands accused of breaching rules on state subsidies, designed to ensure fair competition.

Lech Walesa
Our reporter meets Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity trade union
"This shipyard is like a mother to us," Lech Walesa tells me. "Do you liquidate your own mother?"

He does not say kill, or strangle, or murder. He says liquidate.

The man who founded the independent Solidarity trade union in Gdansk in 1980 - and later became president of Poland - now sits in a spacious office, in one of the ancient gates which guard the old city. His famous moustache is as white today as the eagle on the Polish flag.

Symbols of Solidarity

A 15-minute walk away, Gate Two of the shipyard still reminds me of the grainy newspaper photographs from 1980, when a somewhat slimmer Lech Walesa scaled it to confront the management with a strike that turned into a revolution. The shape of the railings. The tall poplars growing behind them.

Gate Two at Gdansk shipyard
The shipyard has changed little in the past 27 years

No doubt the workers apologised to visiting journalists then too, about their humble lavatory in the guardroom.

But the symbols of Solidarity have grown up all around. The monument to the Trade Union - three tall crosses, adorned with anchors. A museum dedicated to Solidarity, and all who have drawn inspiration from her struggle, called Roads to Freedom.

With a superhuman effort to control his anger, Solidarity trade union leader Karol Guzikiewicz speaks into my microphone, as though he is addressing a vast crowd at the gates.

"I would like to take the opportunity of this interview, with an organisation which is listened to all over the world, to invite the officials at the European Union who will decide our fate, to come here and see every stone, every piece of ground first. To see what we have done, and what we plan to achieve," he says.

Karol was a young worker here when Solidarity was founded. He rose through the movement to become a seasoned union activist, a worker participating in the workers' defeat of a workers' state.

EU ultimatum

We sit in his car for a whirlwind tour of the shipyard. The news of the EU ultimatum hangs more heavily than a giant crane overhead.

Map of Poland

He drives fast and furiously through the crumbling industrial landscape - over the cobbles, the old rail tracks, the broken Tarmac - and reverses into a large rubbish bin. It topples over, but Karol single-handedly heaves it back onto its wheels.

This may be a scene of desolation, but there is no litter.

By the gate, an elderly lady carries away a poplar branch which has fallen in the wind. White clouds scud across a sky of Baltic blue. A sun, which is torturing countries further south, is gentler on the skin here. Seagulls wheel and cry news of the Brussels ultimatum like newsboys when war breaks out.

We arrive at the slipways, the main battlefield with the European Commission. Only three still operate, leased today from a Danish owner, until 2010. Brussels is demanding that they close two immediately, leaving only one.

Karol breathes heavily. "Do these people not realise," he asks, "that you cannot build a ship with only one slipway? You have to have two."

Property speculators

In distant Brussels, the European Commission spokesman on competition issues, Jonathan Todd, insists that Gdansk has been given "a last chance". It has until 21 August to comply.

Two-thirds of the land here has already been sold to developers. The shipyard says this has not been taken into account in the bureaucrats' calculations.

worker at the shipyard
Gdansk has orders from Germany and Norway for more ships

The European Commission, the workers mutter darkly, stands on the side of property speculators, who want the remaining land as well - and no rump shipyard on their expensive doorsteps.

The shipyard stands right on the edge of the old city. The developers plan smart flats here, on the shore of the Motlawa canal, and a yacht marina where the old slipways used to stand.

The management, for once, is with the workers.

"We have orders for new ships," insists Andrzej Jaworski, the general manager.

"Container vessels for Germany, research ships for Norway, vessels to transport liquid gas. And we have investors. The European Commission should be helping European yards compete with the yards of Asia, not closing us down."

The ownership of Polish shipyards is devilishly complicated. Since the return of capitalism, they have been subsidised, sold and splintered. Now the European Commission has accepted restructuring plans put forward by other Polish yards in Gdynia and Szczecin, but rejected that put forward by Gdansk.

If no new plan is put forward by the deadline, it will have to pay back 35m ($70m) in state aid, insists the Commission. Money which Gdansk claims it never received. It went to the others.

How can a union defend its members in the 21st Century?

"If necessary," says Karol, "we will go to Strasbourg. And tear down the masts, the flagpoles we gave as a gift to the European Parliament when Poland joined the European Union. But I hope it won't come to that."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 28 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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