Poles seek their place at the heart of Europe

From the terrace of his presidential palace, Alexander Kwasniewski peers towards the West, and raises a champagne glass to Europe. But what, exactly, is this "Europe" that the new Polish President, a suave former Communist, sees on the horizon?

Europe will have "new direction" once Poland joins, he predicts. "A Europe of nation-states with deep co-operation," he says, in terms vague enough to please John Major and, perhaps, Boris Yeltsin, too. And where would its border finally be? Might Russia one day join the European Union and Nato?

For now, that would be going a little too far, he said. But, he said: "You never know. This is the building where the Warsaw Pact treaty was signed." He paused and added: "Anything can happen in politics."

The EU and Nato plan to open their doors to up to 12 East European members early in the new millennium. For the former Communist countries of East Europe, early membership of the two organisations has been viewed as an imperative from the day they broke free of Moscow. In Poland, by far the biggest of the would-be members, "Europe" is viewed as a means to achieve stability; to guarantee Poland's statehood and freedom from Russian influence; and to win a stake in a powerful economic alliance. But what else do Poles see when they look to "Europe" and the EU? And has the country's view to the West been blurred by the rise to power of men who once had paid allegiance to the East?

Polish intellectuals who played a key role in the country's early reforms argue that it is Poland's right to be at the heart of Europe and that right was stripped from it by history. They would have been in at the start if they had had a chance.

Once Poland is back where it belongs, they suggest, it will play a central role in European affairs. To them, it is clear Europe must be a strong alliance, built on deeply integrated structures. There is talk in Warsaw of forming a new power bloc at the core of Europe linking France, Germany and Poland. This political elite appears to believe that the new European "motor", fuelled by Polish energy, might give the EU the new direction it needs.

But this vision is at odds with the EU's own uncertain view of its future and is riddled with contradictions. "Europe no longer seems clear about what its own model for the future should be," says Piotr Nowina-Konopka, a leading member of the right-wing opposition.

Progress at the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference, which is supposed to strengthen the Brussels institutions ready to take new members, has been followed with growing frustration in Warsaw. "There seems to be a slowing down of momentum in the EU. This could be disastrous. If Europe does not enlarge and deepen, it will disintegrate. Europe must not become passive; it must not lose its willingness to live and grow in power," says Mr Konopka.

In Warsaw there is also frustration about Europe's wrangling over issues which to Poles seem irrelevant. "The arguments over issues of consensus and majority voting are details. Great Britain might be worried that the EU means a loss of sovereignty but for us it can only mean a growth in sovereignty," says Jacek Saryusz Wolski, minister for European integration. Ordinary Poles say EU countries now seem too worried about "their own problems".

The failure of both the EU and Nato to give the East Europeans a firm deadline for joining is also causing anxiety.

The fear is that if the EU does not open its doors soon, the willingness of Poles to make the sacrifices needed to reform the economy may ebb away.

It is already evident in some sections of Polish society that not everything "Europe" stands for will be good. There have always been Euro-sceptic elements in Poland - in the Catholic Church, for example, and among the farming population, which fears mass unemployment when competition with the West begins to bite.

Privatisation is largely favoured, but questions are asked about the sacrifices. "Solidarity was the first to launch the liberalising programmes," says Marian Krzaklewski, president of Solidarity in Gdansk, where the shipyard faces closure. "But you will hear people ask today whether the only way to attract investment is to sell off our best companies. If they are such promising firms, why don't we keep them ourselves?"

Mr Kwasniewski's post-Communist government appears as committed to pushing Poland towards membership of Europe as its predecessor was; it is committed, too, to the required economic and political reforms. The government's future in power is only guaranteed by winning the approval of Western investors.

Adam Michnik, formerly a leading figure in Solidarity and now editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's biggest-selling daily, scoffs at the pro- European pretensions voiced in the presidential palace. "They are all old apparatchiks of the old regime. Now they are in favour of the EU because they prefer to voyage to Paris or Bonn than to Alma Ata or Moscow."

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