Consensus and Division over Poland's Entry into the European Union

Article excerpt

On June 8 and 9, 2003 Poland's citizens voted in a national referendum to decide on their country's entry into the European Union. In all, 58.8 percent of those eligible to vote took part in the referendum, with 13,512,612 (77.5 percent) supporting accession and 3,936,012 (22.5 percent) opposed. (1) The vote was seen by some as ending an extraordinary chapter in Poland's modern history. The first words of that chapter had been set down in June 1989 when the Solidarity movement won an extraordinary victory over the ruling communist party in special parliamentary elections. That vote led to the collapse of the Leninist, Soviet imposed regime that had run Poland since the end of World War II. Solidarity's incredible triumph was then quickly followed by the end of communist rule throughout Eastern Europe, and most spectacularly, in 1991, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. (2)

Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, declared on learning of the results of the referendum, that "We are returning to the place which Poles and Poland have deserved to have in our 1,000 years of history." Affirming that he had been deeply moved by the vote, the president offered special words of thanks to Pope John Paul II for his strong support of Poland's entry into the European Union, which the Polish-born pontiff had described as nothing less than "an act of historic justice." (3)

The referendum was a crucial element in the process by which Poland, the largest of the ten states that have been granted membership in the expanded European Union, became a member of the hitherto fifteen state body. (4) This process has had a long history of its own, one worth noting here.

Ever since the formation of a system of democratic government in 1989, Poland's leaders have in fact pursued a set of policies aimed at integrating the country and its people with the pluralist, democratic, and free market-based societies of Western Europe and its transatlantic neighbors, headed by the United States and Canada. Internally, Poland has undergone a thoroughgoing process of democracy-building and been committed to restructuring its economy on the basis of competitive, market-based principles. Externally, Poland has sought full integration into the western democratic community of nations by seeking membership in its key transnational institutions. And, despite all the many and serious travails that Poland's citizens have had to endure, first under the failed regime of communism, and afterward, in their very difficult transition to a free market economy, Poland's elected leaders and the great majority of its citizens have remained resolutely committed to keeping faith with these broad policy goals.

Thus, in the years since 1989, Poland has developed a genuine and robust democratic political system of government. Elections in the country, for the national parliament and the presidency, and at the local government level as well, have been frequent and regular, free and unfettered; most important, their results have always been respected by those who lost their campaigns. And, in spite of the country's roller-coaster-like economic experience during these same years--down into the early 1990s, up high until the late 1990's and then again very far down in the years since--Poland has continued to make genuine strides forward in privatizing its economy, seeking to maintain the system's internal competitiveness, and opening its borders to foreign trade and investment.

On the integration side of its policies since 1989, Poland moved successfully to gain entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO Alliance, achieving full membership status in NATO in 1999. At the same time, each successive Polish government in office since 1989 has worked hard to win admission into the European Union.

There have been differences between Poland's experience in becoming integrated into NATO and the EU and these merit a brief mention. …