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Poland Insists On Being Treated As An Equal EU Member - 2004-04-28

On Saturday, 10 new members will join the European Union in the bloc's biggest expansion yet. The largest is Poland, with 38 million people and a reputation for hard bargaining that has some EU officials wondering whether it will be a team player in a club that is, most often, run by consensus. Most Poles favor EU membership but insist that their country be treated as an equal by its bigger and wealthier new partners like France and Germany.

Scarred by invasions, occupation and 45 years behind the Iron Curtain, Poles are keen to assert their own identity as they join the European Union.

Poles have long cultivated their history of occasional glory interspersed with defeat and destruction as a model for future generations, and the slogan has always been you have to fight for Poland.

In late 2002, Polish negotiators fought with their EU counterparts until the very last minute over their country's accession terms. And last December, Poland and Spain stood up to France and Germany - the EU's most powerful countries - by refusing to agree to the EU's draft constitution because it would reduce their voting weight.

Will Poland, therefore, be too much of a hard bargainer to fit comfortably into a union where compromise is the usual way of doing business?

Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz:

"I believe that there are some people who really think so, that probably, at least in some other cases, this manifestation of some irritation that a newcomer who has to sit in a hall quietly, silently, suddenly speaks on his behalf, dares to say what is good or what is wrong," he said.

Poles were infuriated last year after Poland was denounced by French President Jacques Chirac for, in his words, missing a great opportunity to keep quiet, after Warsaw joined other countries in backing U.S. action against Saddam Hussein.

Professor Zbigniew Lewicki, who directs the American Studies Center at Warsaw University, says that kind of remark is indicative of the way France and Germany view Poland, as a second-rate country.

"By size and by economy, we cannot measure up to Germany or France," said Zbigniew Lewicki. "But there are various ways to let a country as proud as Poland and people as proud as [the] Polish, there are various ways to tell them that. If you tell them straightforwardly you better know where your place is and use the back staircase or the back entrance, nobody's going to accept it."

Some western Europeans believe Poles are too closely allied to the United States, and one German newspaper even accused the country last year of being what it called Washington's Trojan Donkey.

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller has compared Poland's alliance with the United States and its membership in the EU to the two wheels of a bicycle, saying both are important.

And Pawel Swieboda, who heads the European Integration Department at Poland's foreign ministry, says Warsaw will try to convince other EU members that it is essential to maintain what he calls a solid trans-Atlantic relationship.

"I believe we'll not have to make a choice between our European commitment and our commitment towards the United States, but we'll work inside the union to generate more consensus in favor of a closer relationship with the United States," he said.

Despite Warsaw's strong links to Washington, forged by longstanding U.S. support of its efforts to free itself from communist domination, Poland is now faced with balancing those ties with the need to cultivate better relations with its new EU partners.

Piotr Stasinski, the deputy editor of Warsaw's leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, says how that plays out will depend on how Poland fares in the EU.

"We have to find a balance, but finding it, or striking it, will take some years, and this very much depends on our first two, three years within the European Union," said Piotr Stasinski. "If it works well, and Poland won't be a net payer but rather a beneficiary, a clear beneficiary, the sentiment towards Europe will grow."

The question then becomes what kind of role will Poland play within the EU? Lena Kolarska Bobinska is the director of the Committee on Public Affairs, a leading Warsaw think tank.

"Poland will also have to find its place in the future Europe, will have to decide whether it is on the side of the more euro-skeptical Great Britain and Sweden or if it wants to join the core of Europe, those countries who want to strengthen the institutional construction of the European Union," said Lena Kolarska Bobinska.

But an answer to that question will have to wait. There is a rising populist movement in Poland now that is being fueled by frustration with high unemployment, corruption and perceptions that EU membership requires too many sacrifices from Poles. Established parties play the tough nationalist card in their dealings with the EU to ward off the populist threat.

So the most likely scenario in the immediate future is that Poles will make sure they are not taken for granted by the EU. Diplomats say membership in the bloc is not going to make what some call Poland's prickly nationalism go away.