High turnout in Poland key to 'yes' vote on Europe

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Before voting ends in this weekend's referendum on EU membership, the mobile phones of as many as 18 million Poles will bleep with a brief, neutral text message from "yes" campaigners: "participate".

Rarely can so much effort have gone into a plebiscite, the crude result of which has never really been in doubt. Opinion polls show that about 74 per cent of Poles believe in EU entry. But, with a 50 per cent turnout needed to make the referendum binding, the country's politicians are on edge.

If less than half the voters go to the polling booths, Leszek Miller, the Prime Minister, will have to ask parliament to ratify Poland's EU entry, putting his fragile government at the mercy of the opposition and provoking a political crisis.

As the pro-EU campaigners are urging supporters to vote, so are the antis. Last week, the Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, was broadcasting a daily diet of EU horror stories to its 2 million listeners. "Eighty dairies will have to close because of the EU," intoned the announcer before a phone-in, adding: "We used to report to Moscow; now a group of influential leaders has decided that we have to report to Brussels."

In Poland's rural heartlands, where the farming population is at best sceptical on EU membership, such rhetoric strikes a chord. Poland is the biggest of the 10 countries due to join the EU next May, and up to one in four of its population gains some income from the land.

Grzegorz Janicki farms 39 hectares and leads the equivalent of the local parish council in Skarbienice, near Bydgoszcz.

In the summer sunshine of his back garden overlooking a lake, Mr Janicki, 36, complains that he may receive just 25 per cent of the direct subsidies given to farmers in the EU's existing countries, with whom he must compete. "There is a huge difference," Mr Janicki said. "How am I able to stand up to a German, French or Danish farmer?" EU production quotas would also hit local agriculture hard, he said. "We have enough dairy cows to meet local demand but, due to the quotas, we will be forced to import milk."

In this part of Poland, to the west of Warsaw, the anti-EU sentiment is so strong that supporters of EU accession are loath to own up in public.

Down the road lies the wealthier farm of Jozef Goc, who has 200 hectares. Mr Goc's neighbours believe him to be a "no" supporter, although he says he plans to support the "yes" side. In this part of the Polish countryside, "the social pressure is to say 'no' to entry", he said.

Even in the urban areas, the "yes" side is finding it difficult to motivate supporters. After years of fast growth, the Polish economy is in the doldrums, with unemployment at 18 per cent and job opportunities scarce even for well-qualified graduates. Inward investment is down at US$6bn (about £3.6bn), compared with $10bn five years ago, and the budget deficit is 4 per cent.

Mr Miller's government has been embroiled in a domestic corruption scandal and his popularity ratings only just creep into double figures. For many voters, the opportunity to vent frustration on the Government will be irresistible; others are simply too disenchanted to turn out.

Enthusiasm for membership of the EU has dissipated. Poland has had to wait more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its hopes of joining around the millennium dashed. Meanwhile, many Poles see the EU as a villain because of the economic restructuring that has taken place in the country during the transformation from Communism, which has often been presented as a precondition of meeting European standards.

Opponents of membership, such as the right-wing League of Polish Families, have successfully exploited such feelings. As Bronislaw Geremek, a former Polish foreign minister, puts it, they argue that "Moscow imposed a planned economy, Brussels is going to impose a reduction of farming, steel-making and mining. The sentiment is that modernisation is imposed by Brussels whereas, in fact, Brussels helps deal with the costs." Pro-EU politicians admit they are struggling to put their message across. Yarsoslaw Pietras, a minister for European affairs, says the "major difficulty is that what I am discussing at meetings involves responding to clichés with counter-clichés".

Some Poles now see the liberty they gained in 1989 as including "the freedom not to vote" at elections which, in Communist times, commanded a turnout of 90 per cent.

But the pro-EU campaign has some vital allies, including the world's most influential Pole, the Pope. His declaration in favour of EU entry on 18 May could prove decisive because of the strong hold of the Roman Catholic Church.

Big business is calling for EU entry as well. Paolo Fiorentino, chief operating officer for the Bank Pekao, says that, in the unlikely event of a "no" vote, there would be "a horrible impact on the currency and a collapse of the stock exchange".

Deep down, even many farmers know there is little alternative to EU membership, particularly since the neighbouring Czech Republic and Slovakia are planning to join.

Ministers point out that a "no" would leave Polish agriculture excluded from this newly expanded single market. "I have no doubt that, if we were outside the EU, the situation of farmers would be more difficult," Jerzy Plewa, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, said.

Back in Skarbienice that fact has dawned on Stanislaw Siadak, whose 40-hectare plot also offers lakeside holidays to tourists and farm visits for school children. Mr Siadak does not expect any boost in tourism from entry, because Europe's borders have already come down, but is resigned to life in the EU. "Really there is no other option," he said. "We are already in Europe and there is no other way to go. Personally, I will not benefit but I think my children may benefit, and Poland deserves this chance."