In Poland, embracing Europe but not the euro


A National Bank of Poland employee presents a new Polish banknote worth 20 Polish zlotys, equivalent to 4.85 euros or US $6.39, dedicated to Polish-born composer Frederic Chopin, in Warsaw. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

Here in Poland, where dreary communist-style apartment blocks still dominate the landscape, the euro was once hailed as a fast-track ticket to the economic big league.

Now, after years of problems in the euro zone, Poles have realized that the big league ticket was in their pockets all along. Their own currency, the zloty, has buffered Poland from the turbulence surrounding it, and few here are in any rush to adopt the euro, even though Poland agreed to do so when it joined the European Union in 2004.

The euro, currently shared by 17 of the 27 E.U. countries, used to be a status symbol of economic success, endowing those who gave up their pesetas and lire with cheap borrowing and quick growth. Today it’s a burden, and Europe’s debt crisis has turned upside down old assumptions about the benefits of wider integration.

In Greece, whose weakness is at the heart of Europe’s troubles, policymakers privately say they never should have adopted the euro but are now trapped, with the economic consequences of leaving the currency more perilous than the pain of staying on. Other euro members rue having to contribute to the bailouts that are propping up Portugal and Ireland as well as Greece, and resent that giant Germany is calling many of the shots.

Newer E.U. members that have not yet adopted the euro, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, are no longer lining up to do so. In 2008, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk trumpeted that his country would join the euro zone in 2011; now the diminishing enthusiasm for the idea makes the prospect so remote that few policymakers will hazard a guess about when it might happen.

“It’s not a simple decision, and for the time being in Poland, it’s not under discussion,” said Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, the prime minister’s top economic adviser. “We Poles are now maybe a little more pragmatic than before. We were historically very romantic.”

With 38 million people, Poland is the largest E.U. country besides Britain not to use the euro. Boosted by the strength of the zloty, its economy is the fastest-growing among the E.U.’s 27 countries, with robust exports and a burgeoning consumer sector. It is on track to continue on that path, with growth forecast at 2.5 percent this year, even as its peers on the euro sink into yet another recession.

‘Poland will wait and watch’

Poles who are wary about joining the euro see lessons in others’ misfortune. They say that Greece’s economic struggles are compounded by being locked into the euro zone, because it can’t devalue its currency in a way that would draw investors and tourists. They look especially cautiously at Slovakia and Estonia, two other former communist countries that did adopt the euro — and now have to chip in for the bailouts of richer countries.since Greece, despite its troubles, is more than a third richer than most of its ex-Communist peers

And some Poles say they just prefer their pastel-hued zloty bank notes, which are reminiscent of Poland’s finely engraved Easter eggs, to the bland, generic feel of euros, whose designers slapped fictional bridges and buildings on them to avoid favoring any one country.

In Warsaw’s hardscrabble Praga neighborhood, Artur and Elzbieta Zawadzki have run a clothing store and gallery for 33 years. From their stoop they watched Poland’s debt crisis in 1981, the hyperinflation that came with the market economy at the end of communism and the gyrations of the zloty since. They prefer what they have now to what the euro might bring.

“The euro would make prices go up,” said Artur Zawadzki, 58. “And it would hurt little firms” such as his, he said, where three small storefronts are packed full of ceramics, quirky sculptures and clothing, all made in Poland. Staying on the zloty keeps the products cheap for tourists and brings in money for the artisans who make them. If Poland went on the euro and prices rose, business wouldn’t be as good, Zawadzki said.

“The Czech Republic doesn’t have the euro, but Slovakia does,” he said. “And it has problems. It’s a poor country. Poland will wait and watch.”

Economists say the zloty has helped Poland’s economy grow through the crisis by about 2 percent more each year than it would have with the euro — the difference between recession and moderate growth. When the zloty slumped by almost a third against the euro during the initial months of the crisis in 2008 and 2009, Polish products became a third cheaper for euro-zone buyers.

Polls by the CBOS research firm found that opposition among Poles to the euro grew from 22 percent in 2002 to 60 percent in January.

“The attraction is somewhat less; the risks are somewhat more,” said Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who added that he supports joining in the long run. “Today we simply don’t have the votes in Parliament” to make the constitutional changes necessary to switch the currencies.

At Poland’s central bank, the thirst for the common currency has diminished in the years since workers screwed handles in the shape of the euro sign onto doors in the main entrance hall, in anticipation of joining the euro. The central bank governor, Marek Belka, was prime minister at the height of European jubilation, immediately after the country joined the E.U. in 2004.

Now he prefaces talk about Poland’s joining the euro-zone with words like “if,” even though he acknowledges that the nation is obliged to join under the terms of its E.U. accession.

“In the first years, everybody was enthusiastic about embracing the euro as early as possible,” he said. Now, “we have many reasons not to rush,” he added. “The euro is in a state of repair, and we don’t know what it’ll look like when the necessary changes take place.”

In line with Germany

In recent months, Germany and other euro-zone countries that have better weathered the debt crisis have pushed for strict rules on borrowing and spending that they say will help fend off future problems. In January, 25 of the E.U.’s 27 countries adopted a fiscal pact swearing themselves to austerity if they used the euro. Poland’s leaders like to brag about the debt cap they wrote into their constitution in 1997, long before it became popular among their neighbors. If they were making decisions about the future of the euro, they would probably prove reliable German allies, analysts say.

Despite the fact that it has not adopted the euro, Poland tried to get a spot at the table last year in discussions about bailing out euro members. Euro-zone leaders said at the time that only those who use the currency should decide its future. But Belka, the central banker, said Poland can’t start down the road to joining the euro before it knows the rules it will have to follow.

A sense that the future of the European Union lies within the euro zone keeps some Polish policymakers interested in joining, as they try to wire the country into Western Europe as much as possible. They also say that putting an end to transaction costs and exchange-rate uncertainty would help drive more investment to Poland during good times.

“We are not able to afford the British approach” of spurning the euro and embracing isolation, said Ryszard Petru, the president of the Society of Polish Economists. “We are not an island.”

Still, many Poles remain comfortable with the zlotys they have in their pocketbooks.

“The euro created a big crisis,” said Agata Bielecka, 26, a graduate student at the University of Warsaw. “We should think twice.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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