Volume 16 Number 6
Young Poles Face EU Membership
01 December 2003

Poland’s decision to join the European Union has been a subject of hot debate in schools and universities,writes Joanna Margueritte.

I was born and raised in Poland. But as my father is French, I’ve often questioned my true allegiance. Which of the two countries should I put first? What if they were at war with each other?

Since December 1997, when Poland became an official candidate for accession to the European Union, my fears have gradually evaporated. When Poland becomes a member of a great and powerful economic union of developed countries, I thought, I won’t have to juggle passports anymore. Polish nationality will have all the rights that my other nationality has had for as long as I can remember. My friends will be able to travel as freely as I can on my French passport and to study in any Western country, like I have always known I could. Thoughts of justice and balance appeased my soul.

In March 1998, when the run-up to last June’s referendum began, Polish government officials started going wild with pro-EU campaigns. At first, the campaigns only touched citizens of big cities, then those with TV sets and then those with newspapers until, some time in 2001, the campaign reached everyone who had a valid postal address.

The last two years have been completely dominated by the EU. Parliament’s sole occupation, it seemed, was figuring out how many mandates Polish deputies would have in the reformed European Parliament, and how many seats on the Council would be open to Poles. The chief negotiator, Jan Truszczynski, kept appearing on TV in between soap operas and news, to tell us how wonderful the European Union was. Pamphlets, flyers, stickers and yellow star-shaped lollipops were distributed in schools, on the streets, in the subway.

By March 2003 the EU was all we ever talked about. Our parents and teachers came to a point where they didn’t want to hear the word spoken out loud. The amount of allegedly unbiased information being thrown at us, young and old, rich and poor, from every corner and at all angles, was overwhelming. After the referendum was over, it all suddenly floated away.

Over the months Poland’s youth gradually became aware that the issue was important to us, because it is we, not our parents, who are going to spend most of our lives in the enlarged EU. Through referenda and debates in our high schools and universities, we demanded that our voice be heard by those who were longer in the tooth-even though our opinions had no legal value.

suspicions and dreams
Four main lines of reasoning developed among young people. First, there are those who had been taught to see any new supranational ideology that comes from the West as something suspicious and potentially dangerous. They believe that Poland will lose its identity and independence by joining the EU. I would say that we are losing more of our identity by watching Brazilian soap operas and buying hamburgers.

Then there are those who call themselves ‘Euro-enthusiasts’ and can’t wait for Poland to gain all the benefits of accession. They aren’t worried about the possible drawbacks, because they don’t know of their existence. These are dreamers, whose minds have been possessed by prospects of unlimited freedom and some kind of miraculous abundance of wealth. Nobody will explain to them, in a couple of years, when Poland is going through the difficult adjustment period, what went wrong. Why it isn’t that easy. Why, after three years, there will still be passport controls and currency exchange rates, and not every member country will want Polish employees in their companies.

The third group, the ‘Euro-sceptics’, would call the enthusiasts naive. They don’t trust anything our government says. Their reaction to all the hype was to figure out what joining the EU would really entail: they knew that if there were advantages, there must be disadvantages. It’s sad to see how much more complex and logical their arguments are than those of the Euro-enthusiasts.

The sceptics are afraid that foreign corporations will suppress smaller domestic businesses, resulting in unemployment. They are also worried that Polish agriculture will become industrialized, impersonal and driven by big business. Another of their concerns-and it is hard to argue with-is that Poland simply isn’t ready for accession. The country’s judicial system, its economy and social policies are still a mess.

Also, sceptics ask, why is the EU suddenly making room for ten new members all at once, at a time when it is trying to reshape its institutions and cut bureaucracy? They say that the fact that we are ten, and not two or three, will mean that each candidate country will have less influence on the accession process-and that this will disadvantage Poland in particular. The sceptics also point out that some of the regulations the EU imposes on its members are ridiculous. The curve of a banana, the pasteurization of cheese, everything seems to be regulated, measured, limited. The principle of subsidiarity (making decisions at the lowest possible level) would be a good thing, they say, if it actually worked.

no alternative
The fourth group-which I tend towards-knows that the government is not being entirely honest with ‘the masses’. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that Poland has nowhere else to go to. Let’s face it: we are nothing like Switzerland. We simply can’t afford to be isolated from the EU, which by 2004 will surround us on almost every side. We are in, because there is no other alternative.

As for fears of bureaucracy and limited independence, I believe that these will be solved by the new EU constitution, which will affirm principles of equality, democracy and freedom, and also simplify and specify the roles of EU institutions.

When it came to it, 77.45 per cent of those who voted in the referendum (only 58 per cent of the population) voted for accession. The ‘youth referendum’ in schools had a higher turn-out, with over 70 per cent of the 887,938 students eligible to vote taking part. Of these, 67.13 per cent voted for accession.

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