I met Marlena Golombek, a twenty-something clutching an overnight bag, in the waiting lounge of Brussels' Charleroi airport as we prepared to board a low-cost flight home to Warsaw. Marlena works as a housecleaner in the Belgian capital and flies back to Poland once a month to catch up on her university courses in Bialystok, in the eastern part of the country. We chatted during the journey, and she reflected enthusiastically on how Polish membership in the European Union has made it possible for someone like her to work in Brussels while studying in Poland.
This sort of arrangement was unheard of for a Pole only 15 years ago. Freedom to travel was unthinkable under communist rule, which ended in 1989; but even after that, it wasn't until the cost of travel was brought down by the E.U.'s forced liberalization of air routes that legions of Poles were able to take wing. Now they go abroad eagerly, young people most of all, heading off to Paris or Rome at the drop of a knapsack. Under communism, when people wanted to leave the country, they had to ask the police for a passport and many, if not most, were refused. But when Pope John Paul II died earlier this year, tens of thousands of Poles just got up and went to the funeral in Rome.
This is a freedom that Poles don't want to lose. Yet now the Union is in crisis over last month's rejection of the proposed E.U. constitution by France and Holland and the more recent failure to agree on a budget for the seven years starting in 2007. And that has Poland worrying about the stability of the organization it sought so eagerly to join for nearly a decade -- and what that means for its own prosperity and security.
Indeed, Poland's adventure with the European Union gives a new twist to Groucho Marx's famous quip that he wouldn't want to join any club that would have him as a member: We Poles are thrilled to have signed on to the European club, but it seems that some of the earlier members are regretting their decision to let us in. The French and Dutch defeat of the E.U. constitution seems to have been powered in large part by those countries' fear of the economic and political consequences of having admitted several former Soviet bloc countries, of which Poland is the largest, to the Union last year.
The Airbus plane Marlena and I flew on was a microcosmic sample of what the worry may stem from -- and of what integration is doing for Poles. The plane was full, and most of the passengers were young. Some were students; others were tourists. Many others were manual laborers working wherever they could find jobs, legal or not. Though Poland's economy is improving, a Pole can still make far more money abroad than at home, and the lure of better paydays draws many to the West. The United Kingdom has opened its labor market to workers from the 10 new member states that joined the E.U. on May 1, 2004. In France, however, any work done by Poles without permits is still illegal. But Poland's E.U. membership has now made it easier to get work on the black market. This is what gave rise to the specter of the "Polish plumber," that mythical figure that during the E.U. constitutional referendum in France became the archetype of the low-cost worker who would take jobs away from local laborers.
Warsaw's chattering classes were aghast at the anti-Polish plumber campaign. "Why can't the French admit that every time a Pole does an odd job in their home, that makes a desperate French housewife all the happier?" quipped Tessa Kapon, a writer for a women's magazine here. Most Poles don't see the cause for French concern, believing that Polish workers are doing jobs that local people won't -- or don't -- do, from heavy unskilled labor to semi-skilled and skilled work for which there aren't enough qualified natives.
And they've been doing them for years. Pawel Kuchta and his brother, sons of a farmer from Kruczy Borek, a small hamlet about 30 miles north of Warsaw, have been going to France for more than 10 years to work at any odd jobs they can find. "We think nothing of just up and going," Kuchta told me. "In the summer we help our father on the farm. Then we leave wife and child with our parents and we go off."
What Poles really hope is that their E.U. membership will eventually make this sort of migrant work unnecessary. "I didn't do it for myself, I did it for my children and their children," was something I heard many say after they cast their vote to join the Union in the 2003 referendum. Poland is poorer than our Western European partners, but the hope is that membership will allow us to catch up and modernize. We're proud of the entrepreneurial spirit that has allowed us to make more economic progress since 1989 than eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, even though it was absorbed into wealthy West Germany more than a decade ago.
The Poles were expecting to join an E.U. where the principle of solidarity meant that richer members like Germany and Holland helped poorer countries like Spain, Ireland or Portugal to develop. And that growth meant that democracy would be secured against a return of the totalitarian demons of the past. "The present crisis risks a return of the old nationalisms, a nightmare scenario for Poland," says Slawomir Popowski, a leading journalist.
Indeed, I'm convinced that the main reason why Polish support for the European Union remains high -- opinion polls show it at just under 80 percent, as high as it was in the mid-'90s, when membership was no more than a mirage -- is that belonging to it separates Poland from its Soviet-bloc past and places it firmly in the West. Given the country's long history of partition, and the tragic experience of having been the victim of two totalitarianisms -- fascism and Stalinism -- in the last century, being the poor cousins in the E.U. is a price Poles are willing to pay for the feeling of basic security we now have.
That feeling of security is being threatened not only by other E.U. members, but also from inside Poland itself. Though ordinary people have jumped at the chance to escape from a no-hope situation of high unemployment in small towns and rural areas, many Polish politicians remain less enthusiastic about the E.U. This is especially true on the center-right. Parties like the pro-market Civic Platform (PO) and the nationalist Law and Justice movement (PiS), which appear set to govern in tandem after parliamentary elections in September, continue to look askance at the Union. Both fiercely opposed changes to voting rules in the moribund constitution that they say weakened Poland's position in the E.U., and they are happy that the French and Dutch have put paid to the treaty.
The current center-left government, meanwhile, which won a major parliamentary victory four years ago, is now facing the prospect of political oblivion in a welter of accusations of corruption and mismanagement. But it is trying to tap into the popular support for the E.U. that the opinion polls are showing. Knowing that the provinces are looking to the E.U. for local development funds, the present government, led by Prime Minister Marek Belka, is seeking to turn the E.U. budget crisis to its advantage. Recently, it undertook to help repair the rift over the budget between President Jacques Chirac of France and British Prime Minister Tony Blair by arranging meetings between the French, German and British foreign ministers in Warsaw. The attempt didn't come to much; the row is too fresh, and Warsaw doesn't have the political clout to actually bang heads together and force the French and British to come to any agreement soon.
But it underlined how much Poland needs an integrated E.U. moving ahead rather than one paralyzed by internal strife. And this is not least because we need the E.U. to have a common policy toward Poland's eastern neighbors -- such as Ukraine, Belarus and Russia -- that would secure democracy and stability in this part of the world. Poles saw entry into the E.U. as entry into a safe harbor, but now the harbor walls are in danger of being dismantled and the sea has become decidedly choppy. This means that Poland will have to hone new diplomatic skills for the effort to help keep the E.U. together.
In the 1950s, when the two Frenchmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman crafted their vision of a European Union -- a community that would help former enemies become friends and allies -- the memory of wars in Europe was still fresh. The wartime memories that inspired Monnet and Schuman's sense of urgency have now faded in Western Europe. But in Poland and the other Eastern European member states, the memory of Soviet occupation and of the more recent strife in the Balkans is very much alive.
Which means, it seems to me, that the new member states of the Union are now closer to the E.U.'s roots than their partners in the West -- in "old" Europe. And it may well be that the future of the E.U. depends on the ability of the new members to remind the old of what the original, essential mission of the European Union was.
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Krzysztof Bobinski, former Warsaw correspondent for the London Financial Times, now works with the Warsaw-based think tank Unia & Polska (The Union & Poland).