Look West.And East

By Cviic, Chrisopher | The World Today, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Look West.And East


Cviic, Chrisopher, The World Today


Time was, back in the 1970s and 1980s,when only one country in Europe, the Federal Republic of Germany, had an Ostpolitik - a policy aimed at getting on better with its eastern neighbours, notably Poland. It was in pursuit of a political opening in the frozen, then still Moscow-dominated east, that Chancellor Willy Brandt made his historic trip to Warsaw in December 1970. Since then, Germany has been re-united and the Soviet Union is no more. Now it is the independent, noncommunist Poland that has fashioned, and actively pursues, its own Ostpolitik towards neighbours further east: the three Baltic Republics - Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

UNDERSTANDABLY, IN VIEW OF POLAND'S geographical position and post- 1945 history, its Westpolitik towards NATO and the European Union (EU) still commands priority. It is gratifying to the Poles that their country will join NATO this month as part of the first wave that also includes the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Poland is also in the first wave of candidates for EU membership this time with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus. According to a March 1998 survey, sixty-four percent of Poles would vote for Poland's membership in a referendum, with only nine percent against. 1 Poland's influential Roman Catholic church strong backs the country joining the EU: eighty-four percent of priests say they would vote for joining in a referendum. 2 Poland is doing well economically, confounding sceptics in the EU - not least in Germany. The European Commission in Brussels gives Poland consistently good marks in its annual reports to the European Parliament on aspirant members.

Poland's falling inflation and unemployment, accompanied by a high level of growth despite the Russian crisis, were noted approvingly in last November's report from the 'headmaster' in Brussels. So was the reduction of the number of Polish counties (wojewodztwa) from 49 to 16 as part of a broad programme of root-and-branch reform pursued by the centre-right coalition since coming to power in 1997.

A cloud on the horizon, however, is the prospect of a considerable delay in EU accession. In his address to the European Parliament on 18 November, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said his country would be ready for accession by the end of 2002, but the worry in Warsaw is that it may be delayed until 2004 or even 2005 and take place after that of Hungary and Estonia.

The Poles claim to detect - probably correctly - a distinct coolness in the attitude of the recently elected SPD government in Germany towards their membership. When calling for a `realistic attitude' on this question, as he did during his visit to Warsaw in November, Chancellor Schroder appears to the Poles to be reflecting widespread fears among German workers of a large labour influx from new members, Poland especially.

Those fears as well as references to Poland's backward agriculture are dismissed as stereotypes in Warsaw, but there is an almost palpable nostalgia for Schroder's predecessor, Helmut Kohl. Kohl saw Poland's EU membership as essential for his European vision, as well as a guarantee that Germany would find itself further from the political and economic instability in the east.

It is precisely Poland's role as an important stabilising force on the European Union's eastern borders that policymakers in Warsaw see as one of their country's strongest cards. This is in striking contrast to the situation between the two world wars.

Poland, which had been partitioned by Austria, Germany and Russia at the end of the eighteenth century, regained independent statehood in 1918 when those three empires broke up. But Poland's resurrection was not welcomed in most European capitals. And when, under its leader, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), the country made a bid for Great Power status in the new Europe, David Lloyd George, Britain's then Prime Minister, said that Poland was `drunk with the new wine of liberty supplied to her by the Allies' and `fancied herself as the restless mistress of Central Europe'. …

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