Poland has voted overwhelmingly Saturday and Sunday to join the European Union. Early results show eight out of 10 Poles voted for EU membership.
Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski tells a cheering crowd at the presidential palace, the vote represents what he called Poland's return to Europe. He spoke shortly after early results made it clear more than 50 percent of voters -- the minimum required to make the ballot legally valid -- turned out to vote.
Local television also reported more than 80 percent of the voters said "Tak" -- the Polish for "Yes" -- to the ballot question: "Do you express your consent for the Republic of Poland to join the European Union?"
The outcome came as a major boost for embattled Prime Minister Leszek Miller, whose government saw its popularity decline in the wake of corruption scandals and widespread anger over high unemployment. Mr. Miller and other political leaders campaigned heavily for membership, which they believe will help Poland to overcome a legacy of 40 years of communist rule that ended in 1989.
Speaking to a pro-EU crowd, Mr. Miller made clear his country still faces major challenges. "We are returning to Europe with the tremendous potential of the Polish people." He cautions, however, that Poland has a hard road ahead in trying to bring its economy up to EU levels.
With nearly 40 million people, Poland will become the largest of the 10 candidate countries vying to join the 15-nation bloc next year. It is expected to hold voting power equal to Spain's and behind only Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy.
With most Poles supporting EU membership, the only question before the two-day referendum was whether enough voters would bother to vote. The government even asked European leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, to encourage Poles to cast their ballots.
Polish-born Pope John Paul II himself went out of his way to encourage mainly Catholic Poland to seize this historic opportunity and go out and vote. As he put it, "the Church in Europe needs the Polish peoples' witness to the faith."
News about the outcome of Poland's referendum is expected to be welcomed in the Czech Republic, which will vote on EU-membership next week, followed by the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia in September.
Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Lithuania have already approved entry into the European Union. Cyprus is the only candidate country that does not intend to hold a referendum on the issue.