Poles step up dual strategy with Bush visit and EU poll

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The Independent Online

Poland is hosting George Bush and Tony Blair today for visits that mark the start of a crucial 10 days for a country divided between its loyalty to America and its desire to take its place in Europe.

Mr Bush will tour Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and deliver an address near Krakow before travelling to Russia for talks with its President, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Blair, who is styling himself as a prominent ally of the EU's new east European entrants, is making a speech in Warsaw as part of a postwar victory lap of six countries. He told reporters on his plane last night that Europe and America needed to mend their fences. "I hope very much we can construct a common agenda, but there's no point in disguising the differences," he said.

The arrival of both leaders in Poland comes only eight days before Poles begin voting in a referendum on membership of the European Union, with "yes" campaigners concerned about achieving the 50 per cent turn-out needed to give the vote legal force.

Poland not only supported the American-led war on Iraq by sending special forces, such as its elite "grom" commando unit, but is now assembling a multinational military force to take over peace-keeping in a sector of central and southern Iraq. Its strong support for Washington provoked anger in Germany and France, which was compounded by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, describing eastern Europeans such as the Poles as part of "new Europe".

Recent opinion polls suggest support for European Union membership has increased to more than 65 per cent. But a turn-out of at least 50 per cent is needed to make the vote valid and the government has sought to boost participation by organising the vote over two days ­ the weekend of 7 and 8 June. Without the required popular support, parliament would have to ratify entry by a majority of two thirds.

Supporters of membership fear that the publication of a preamble to the new draft EU constitution that makes no mention of God will provoke a dispute with the Catholic Church, whose influence could be critical to the outcome.

Poland's path to membership has not been easy. Conscious of its role as the only large country scheduled to join the European Union next year, Warsaw fought hard over its terms of entry, prompting some diplomats in Brussels to note that the Poles combined the Euroscepticism of the British with the truculence of the Spanish.

With the war in Iraq now over, Poland has begun a concerted effort to rebuild its ties with France and Germany by reinvigorating the so-called "Weimar triangle", the forum in which the three countries meet. Co-operation with the Netherlands is also strong.

A recent gathering of the countries' presidents was followed by a meeting of their European affairs ministers. Danuta Hubner, Poland's minister for Europe, said the presidential meeting had "produced positive ideas", adding that Poland wanted to "continue with concrete initiatives" with France and Germany.

Diplomats say Poland "knows that our place is in Europe" and that it is "not Canada". But, like Britain, Poland firmly believes that it can navigate a diplomatic course without having to choose between the United States and Europe.

There are about three million Polish émigrés in the US and most Poles feel indebted to Washington for helping to end the Cold War. Some have been flattered by the coverage of Poland in the American press, which has praised Warsaw for taking a role on the global stage by agreeing to perform peace-keeping duties in Iraq.

Ms Hubner said Warsaw was determined to maintain its transatlantic ties, particularly on defence. "We would be very hesitant about creating in Europe any structure that could undermine or undercut Nato," she said. "We think that could have very bad global consequences".

Poland is already using Nato military planning and specialist help to prepare for its Iraqi mission although its efforts illustrate the postwar sensitivities.

A suggestion that German soldiers might be prepared to serve in the Polish sector received short shrift in Berlin, and Warsaw has had to look much further afield for troops, including to Fiji.

But Germany and France agreed to allow Nato specialists to assist the Poles, a move that helped smooth over the bitter rift in the organisationover the war in Iraq.

Domestically, the legacy of the conflict remained on show yesterday as Krakow prepared to welcome President Bush. The city's mayor said he had been excluded from the celebrations because of his opposition to the war on Iraq.

"It is customary that the mayor, as the host of this city, should take part in the welcoming ceremony. But the Americans have said they will not have it," Jacek Majchrowski told the private radio station RMF.

"It is strange that guests dictate where the host should or should not be," he added.