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For Many Poles, EU Membership Has Strong Cultural, Symbolic Importance - 2004-04-30

Poland joins the European Union Saturday, along with nine other nations, most of them from the former communist bloc. For many Poles, EU membership is the final acceptance back into the European family and has strong cultural and symbolic importance. But many analysts say the benefits of membership, like boosting the economy and improving the political system, are some time away. Though Poland has been involved with the West since the fall of communism 15 years ago, joining the EU formalizes the process. People on the streets of Warsaw have a lot to say about the EU.

Speaker 1: "Poland has always aspired to be a part Western Europe, to be a part of the West, and we've made it. In that sense it's historical."

Speaker 2:"It's a great thing for us. I think about some years of separating between the East and West bloc. So now we will be in the high - the better - society."

Speaker 3:"It's an opportunity for our country. An opportunity for our people."

But beneath the symbolism and history, day-to-day economic realities are harsh in Poland. Unemployment recently has run between 18 and 20 percent. Many jobs have been destroyed, though some jobs are also being created and parts of the economy have begun to pick up. Poles acknowledge that it will take time to bring up standards of living.

Speaker 1: "Economically it doesn't mean really anything from tomorrow. Nothing is going to change. To me it's not going to make any difference overnight. It's going to take some time.

Speaker 2: "Our economy is going much better than years before. So if we are optimistic, I am optimistic, I hope next five or seven years will be enough to be on the same level [with Western Europe].

Speaker 3: "In my opinion it will take a much longer time than they think to see the improvement for various areas of life and living in Poland."

In the countryside, where there are pockets of unemployment and the free market has brought a lot of hardship, many people resent the transition process.

But in the capital, there is an air of anticipation and hope for a better future. For many younger and educated Poles, the European Union opens the door to professional and economic opportunities.