Poland backs EU membership with resounding 'yes'

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The Independent Online

Poland delivered a resounding "yes" vote in a referendum on membership of the European Union last night, securing the country's aspirations to break with its Communist past.

Exit polls showed 82 per cent of Poles had endorsed the decision to join the EU next May, and that enough people had taken part in the poll to give its result legal force. As results filtered through, President Aleksander Kwasniewski told cheering supporters outside the presidential palace: "We are coming back. We are coming back to Europe."

Across the country jubilant Poles celebrated with fireworks and concerts. Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity movement and a former president, said: "We achieved a success. Let's celebrate. Let us have some satisfaction, which is not a frequent thing here."

While opinion polls have long indicated that a clear majority of Poles were in favour of EU membership, a combination of apathy and disenchantment with the government had threatened to undermine the process through a low turnout.

Under Polish law, the referendum only has legal force if the 50 per cent threshold is passed. Anything less and Poland's accession treaty would have to be ratified by the national parliament, putting the fragile government of Leszek Miller, the Prime Minister, at the mercy of the opposition.

But exit polls last night showed turnout for the two-day referendum at 59 per cent of the registered 29.5 million voters. A relieved Mr Miller welcomed the results, declaring: "We are citizens of Poland, we are citizens of Europe."

On Saturday, only 5.2 million Poles had cast a ballot. Mr Kwasniewski conceded that the low turnout had brought "nervous moments". He said that he had not been "optimistic that the turnout would be so good" on Sunday.

The Catholic church has played a crucial role in the campaign, and supporters were given a huge boost when the Pope endorsed EU membership last month. Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the country's most senior churchman, voted early yesterday in Warsaw and called the referendum "a question of human solidarity of the whole continent".

But the religious community was split and the ultra-conservative radio station, Radio Maryja, campaigned against joining the EU. Some Catholics feared that Poland's traditional values would be sacrificed. They were also unhappy that an EU constitution being drawn up contains no reference to Christianity.

"Yes" campaigners sent text messages to millions of mobile phone users reminding them that polls were to close at 8pm. Newspapers implored the public to vote. Museums in Warsaw offered free admission, hoping to keep city-dwellers, who usually head for the country on warm weekends, in town for the poll.

With a population of 38 million, Poland is on course to be the largest of 10 mainly ex-Communist countries expected to join the EU on 1 May next year.

Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Lithuania have already approved EU membership with referendums.