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One Down, Many to Go: Poland’s first ten years in the EU is just a beginning

A lot of ink has been spilled recently to sum up Poland’s ten years in the European Union. It would be almost impossible to add anything original to this discussion without being redundant or obvious. However two points should be made here that put things in perspective, delivering my take of the last decade of the Polish EU adventure.

May 19, 2014 - Wojciech Michnik - Articles and Commentary

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The middle power

Firstly, if the late Hans Morgenthau was right in his claim that power is relative, a similar thing can be said about a position of a given state in international affairs. In other words, there is no point in citing benefits and losses of Poland in the EU without actually comparing Poland to other states. In this regard, Poland’s role within the EU is not even slightly comparable to that of Germany or France, and the same can be said about standards of living. Yet, there were very few who would argue that this was a goal for Poland in 2004. Although catching-up to the West was, and still is, quite high on the Polish agenda, even the opponents of the EU wouldn’t realistically expect that it can be done so quickly.

On the other hand, Poland seems to be (economically) better off than most of the countries that acceded to EU in 2004 and later on, i.e. Hungary, Slovakia, Romania or Bulgaria. Not to mention states in Eastern Europe, with Ukraine being the latest reminder of why being part of EU and NATO makes such a big difference. Moreover, Poland, with its sound (though by no means flawless) economic situation, has been able to go through the recent economic crisis almost unscathed. It would be hard to believe in this ten years ago, but today we in Poland are in quite a comfortable situation if compared to Spain, Portugal or Greece.

Does it mean that Poland got the winning lottery ticket by entering EU. No, though some of our friends in Western Europe would beg to differ. Winning a lottery is pure luck, the Polish situation both in the region and in Europe, is a combination of many factors such as skillful diplomacy and negotiations (in Brussels); smart use of EU structural funds and optimistic, rather than pessimistic, attitudes in Polish society.

Glass half-full?

Secondly, let’s put Poland’s record in the EU in perspective simply by reflecting on what actually hasn’t happened to Poland during these last ten years.

Poland did not stumble into serious economic recession. But at the same time Polish youth did not wait until their country would become the “next Ireland” and emigrated to find better conditions of life in other member states (over two million people left Poland during the last decade, and only 300,000 made it back so far according to statistical data). Poland did not surrender its independent foreign policy and did not sell its territory to foreign powers as some of the Eurosceptic politicians had predicted before 2004.

Although Poland co-authored the Eastern Partnership programme that has been focused on the Eastern aspect of the European Neighborhood Policy, it did not find one coherent strategy that would guide its foreign policy after entering EU – which one should be quick to add – is perfectly understandable given the complex nature of threats and challenges both in the region and in the international system.

Perhaps counterfactual thinking might not be a perfect tool of assessing political, economic and social changes, and naysayers or Eurosceptics would be right to point it out. However, these all alternative events that didn’t take place help us to remember what were the common fears in Poland a decade ago, and how they relate to the current Polish situation.

Does this all mean that the last ten years were all about gains and successes for Poles in the EU? Of course not. There are a number of unsolved issues both on the macro and micro level of the socio-economic sphere of Polish society. But the average attitude in Poland about its membership in EU has largely been positive (recently over 75 per cent of Poles favors Poland’s EU membership). Considering the European Commission’s Eurobarometer 2014 survey, there are no surprises in what Poles like about EU membership (the standard of living of EU citizens; the economic, industrial and trading power of the EU) and what they see as the biggest challenges (unemployment; social inequality).

The boring decade?

Finally, from strictly a personal perspective, the first ten years of Polish membership in the EU seemed to be a fairly unexciting time – and this is meant to be a compliment. This was another logical and needed step on Poland’s long road to economic and political development after the economic transformation of the 1990s. The good thing is that this “EU road”, although bumpy at times, has not produced any major setbacks or disasters. In that sense, this might be viewed as a boring, but also welcomed decade.

Do we – as a society – know really what the EU is, how it works and what kind of EU we would wish to have in the next decade, and what Poland’s role this organisation should look like? No! And these issues we ought to address, if we really want to celebrate Poland’s second decade in the EU in May of 2024.

Wojciech Michnik is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Security Studies at Tischner European University.

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