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The Entry of Poland
into the European Union

Moving the Center to the Periphery


James R. Thompson

The Entry of Poland into the European Union

Moving the Center to the Periphery

James R. Thompson

The entry of Poland into the EU in May of 2004 is more important than simple outsourcing to a cheap labor market. French farmers have already done everything possible to keep Polish agricultural products from entering into the European market. The imposition of ISO 9000 standards* on an economy devastated by fifty years of Communist and Nazi occupation will, naturally, be well beyond the ability of Polish agriculture to readily come into compliance. The same can be said of Polish manufacturing. As one intimately connected with quality control regimes, I am well aware of how vacuous vetting for ISO 9000 can be. Such vetting always requires one commodity that Poland greatly lacks: ready cash.

Kwasniewski is emerging as a master of Realpolitik.

The reality is that artificial barriers have been abuilding for years within the EU against Polish goods. Subsidized Danish butter and cheese compete in Poland with nonsubsidized Polish dairy products. Polish foods are stopped from entering the EU on the most preposterous of pretexts. At one point, for example, Polish cherries were not admitted into the EU lest the "health" of the French and Germans and Dutch be subject to the dangers associated with this fruit. And the dangers are only real because they are claimed to be so.

After Poland is admitted to the EU, artificial "quality control" vetting will be used to replace the simple embargoing which has kept many Polish goods out of EU markets for some years. The inefficiencies of French peasants will not be relaxed willingly. We recall that when French Beaujolais wines were criticized by a leading French wine magazine, the French winegrowers sued the journal into bankruptcy. Poles need not expect better treatment from the French dairy farmers and orchard growers.

Companies from the old EU will be exempt from artificial barriers as they build assembly plants and factories in Poland. Indeed, this has already taken place. The kind of maquiladora organization, whereby American manufacturers have portions of a manufactured commodity built across the border in Mexico, is already in evidence in Poland.

Sooner or later the trickle-down principle will work to raise the standard of Polish living to that associated with the older members of the EU. There is a long way to go. Unemployment in Poland is over 20 percent. When discouraged workers who no longer enter the statistical base are included, another 10 percent might well be added. For these people the standard of living is worse than it was under the Communists.

The peripheral countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece,
and Spain are Poland's natural allies in the EU.

How will the entry into the EU help the unemployed from the one-factory villages (where the one factory was allowed to perish in the early 1990s as per the advice of such experts as Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs)? Faced with unemployment among its own membership, EU labor leaders are not excited about bringing in Polish workers. Germany has for years preferred hiring Turks rather than Poles, apparently thinking that the similarly cultured Poles would be more inclined to stay after their work contracts expired--a big mistake, for Germany now has a large permanent minority of Turks and Kurds. For the near term future (seven years in the case of Germany and Austria), the terms of entry to the EU specifically exclude the ability of Polish workers to migrate to Germany and most of the other large players in the EU. So much for Poles becoming citizens of a United States of Europe. All citizens of the EU are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The Metternichs of the EU have thought all this out rather carefully. Yes, Poland can get into the EU, but in the immediate future the rights of Poles will be very different from those of French, Germans, or British. It is as though Poles had to be excluded by statute from many of the rights for which they had joined the European Union in the first place.

There is an old story about a poker game in a small Southern town near an Army training camp. Noticing one of its new recruits wandering into the house where the game was on, a kindly sergeant cautioned him, "Son, don't you know this game is crooked?" The private responded, "Sure, sarge, I know it is crooked. But it's the only game in town." The analogy for the Poles is painfully real.

Of course, justice would dictate that Poles be treated better than this. After all, Poland was the country that stood up to Hitler and Stalin. But Poland had allies in 1939--Britain and France--whose help against Hitler was minimal and who were perfectly content at Yalta to see Poland delivered into forty-five years of brutal Soviet bondage. Given its historical experience, the current deal for getting into the European Union should be viewed as relatively generous.

So Poland enters the European Union with a weak hand. However, the hand is being played by a strong poker player--Aleksander Kwasniewski. No Józef Beck, trusting the hearty good fellowship of his European "allies," Kwasniewski is emerging as a master of Realpolitik. The old EU buddies made a concession to Poland and Spain concerning voting in the European Parliament. Subsequently, it occurred to the Germans and French that this had been a mistake, a mistake which they invited Kwasniewski to allow to be taken back in the spirit of European good fellowship. The Poles and the Spaniards politely refused, all in the spirit of European good fellowship.

There is a new political alignment coming in Europe.

The Germans and the French decided not to join the Americans in their invasion of Iraq. They did so in a fashion which was most embarrassing to the Americans. The French and Germans assumed the Poles and Spaniards and Italians would follow the lead of the European big boys. They were wrong. The Poles sent a brigade to Iraq in support of the Americans. The Spaniards and Italians also joined the "Coalition of the Willing." There was little doubt that Kwasniewski was no more enthusiastic about the Iraqi adventure than Polish public opinion polls indicate the average Pole is. And it is also true that Kwasniewski was painfully aware of how little aid Poland had received from America in the post-Communist age. Kwasniewski has no illusions about George Bush. He simply took pages out of Machiavelli and acted rationally.

Before Poland was taken into the EU, the Germans had a phrase for some of the other members, the PIGS. This was an acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain, countries regarded as a kind of EU Third World. These are Poland's natural allies in the power game within the EU. Historically, these countries have been defenders of European civilization against invasions from the East, whether Persians, Saracens, Turks, or Muscovites. The putative leader of this periphery group is Italy. Already Berlusconi has moved in the direction of setting up a coalition within the EU to counter the power of France and Germany. Like the Spaniards and Poles, the Italians have pointedly joined with the Americans and British in their Iraqi adventure.

There is a new alignment coming in Europe. The situation of the Poles is going to be tough for years to come. Their hand of cards is not the strongest. And the game dominated by the Germans and the French is hardly a fair one. But the game is exciting, and for the first time in 200 years Poland is a player. Perhaps most importantly, Poland seems to have abandoned its traditional strategy of the glorious failure and adopted that of the achievable though gritty success.

* ISO standards are international quality control standards which determine whether a product is allowed to be imported to the EU.

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Last updated 4/29/04