Pro-EU Poles pin hopes on church backing

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The Independent Online

Campaigners for Polish entry to the European Union are today putting their faith in the Catholic Church to deliver a "yes" vote, as the country's crucial referendum enters its second and final day.

Following the intervention of the Pope, who has endorsed EU entry, opinion polls show that three-quarters of voters back membership. But the result of today's vote will only be valid if there is a 50 per cent turnout: anything less will send the issue to the Polish parliament, precipitating a political crisis.

With a desperate need to get the vote out, this morning could prove crucial, and "yes" campaigners are hoping that people in rural areas will be urged by local priests to go to polling stations after church.

Few doubt the influence of the Catholic Church in this deeply religious country. The Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who describes himself as an agnostic, last week made a point of finishing his campaigning with a rally in the birthplace of Polish Christianity, Gniezno, near Poznan, preceded by a seminar with Henryk Muszynski, archbishop of the city.

Mr Kwasniewski predicted victory for the pro-EU side and said that the turning point of the campaign "was the statement of the Pope on 18 May when he finally said that Europe needs Poland and Poland needs Europe".

Poland is by far the biggest of the 10 nations due to join the EU on 1 May 2004, and stands to become the most influential new member state. But with the economy in the doldrums and the government deeply unpopular following a domestic scandal, backers of EU entry fear that some voters will use the referendum to register a protest vote.

Opposition to membership is strong in the countryside, especially among older voters. Ryszard Buczek, editor in chief of the regional newspaper Gazeta Pomorska, says that "older people are afraid that prices will go up if we join the EU and that their pensions will stay the same".

Meanwhile the controversial Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, run by the Redemptorist order, remains opposed to EU membership, despite a wobble by its founder and moving spirit, Fr Tadeusz Rydzyk. He temporarily softened his line, describing EU membership as being like purgatory, rather than hell. But under pressure from its two million listeners, the station then reverted to its familiar diet of EU scare stories.

Nor is the Pope's blessing enough for others. Grzegorz Janicki, a farmer in the western Polish village of Skarbienice, was last week uncon- vinced by the church's intervention. "I would like to ask the Pope if he is familiar with all the economic problems Poland has, because if he was he would change his mind."