Robert Soltyk: When you look to the future of Europe, don't forget us in the east

'This is politics on a grand scale, quite different from the opening up of the club to already affluent nations'
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The Independent Online

It seemed a good joke when President George Bush this week got the name wrong of his host, the Spanish Prime Minister. But let me tell you another joke. A leading French publishing house recently sent me a book I had asked for. The parcel was addressed to me in "Warsaw, Russia." Funny, isn't it?

To understand the cruelty of the joke, you have to live in a country that for most of the past 200 years was occupied by hundreds of thousands of Russian troops, with just a short interval between two world wars. Only in the past 12 years has Poland enjoyed real freedom.

Perhaps the person in Paris who sent me the parcel did not notice that the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 (in Poland, we like to think Solidarity and its fight for freedom played its part in bringing this about). Remarkable though it may sometimes seem, eastern Europe is no longer under the all-embracing influence of Moscow. People here have similar problems to people in Britain or France. They care about jobs, education, and the state of the health service. Sound familiar?

Along with France and Britain, my country has for the past two years ­ along with the Czech Republic and Hungary ­ been a member of Nato. And in the near future ­ probably in three years' time ­ it looks set to become a partner in the complicated political and economic organisation that binds our continent ­ the European Union. We want a stronger EU to have better tools to survive in the globalised world.

President Bush may not have been attentive during his geography lessons. But he has good advisers, including his father's team (let us not forget that George Bush Snr played a crucial role in the events of 1989, and that he was one of the few to believe from the first days of Poland's round-table talks between the Communists and the democratic opposition that the Iron Curtain would disappear). Mr Bush's advisers have chosen tomorrow, a day when EU leaders will gather for a summit in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, as the perfect occasion for George Bush Jnr to make a crucial speech about the necessity for European unity. The unity of all Europe ­ including those parts which some in the West still seem eager to forget. The enlargement of the EU into eastern Europe will be high on the agenda of the Gothenburg summit.

For much of the time, however, Western leaders seem eager to look the other way.

The borders of Europe go well beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, as we have been forced to acknowledge in recent years with the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo. If central-eastern Europe has avoided the tragic fate of its southern neighbours in the former Yugoslavia it was partly thanks to the wisdom of its democratic élites ­ the Czech dissident-turned-president, Vaclav Havel, the Nobel-prizewinning Lech Walesa, the Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and others ­ and their adopted model of peaceful transformation. Historians rightly began to speak of the velvet revolutions in eastern Europe.

Not everything was achievable within the first days of our newly reborn freedom. Not everything was abandoned from our past (social security, for example, was important for post-Communist societies during their transformation to market capitalism). But if we succeeded, it was partly because we adopted Western models, and the European Union in particular, as our example.

Now is the time for the settling of bills. Poland, the Czech republic, Hungary, and other former Communist countries are on the way to becoming members of the EU ­ some faster, some slower.

Our negotiations with Brussels, meanwhile, become bogged down in a mass of bureaucratic details concerning the 80,000 pages of the so-called acquis communautaire ­ the bible of Euro rules ­ which no country has accepted in its entirety. We have to, because that it what is expected of us. We must accept all the agreements of the Schengen area ­ free movement within the Schengen zone and tight controls at external borders. We have done this in order to protect the rest of western Europe from the influx of even poorer east Europeans, from Ukraine and Belarus, against whom we must now lock the doors. We must brace ourselves for the shock of introducing the euro ­ the subject which Britain sometimes seems obsessed with to the exclusion of all other European matters. In addition, we are between the hammer and the anvil of France and Germany when it comes to the arguments of the reform of agriculture, or about the structural funds which are intended to help the poorest regions of the EU.

Poles especially ­ whose borders were picked up and moved from east to west after 1945 under a deal done between Stalin and the Western Allies ­ are frightened of complete liberalisation on selling property.

These are not just technical questions. This is politics on a grand scale, quite different from the previous opening up of the club for other, already affluent Western countries. It is not a matter of whether to enlarge the Union, but how, so that the arrival of 120 million citizens who are poorer ­ but often blessed with entrepreneurial talent ­ should not make the institution collapse under its own weight. At the same time, the people from the other side of the Berlin Wall should be able to feel at home in the European Union, and not just like the impoverished relatives.

The rejection of the Nice treaty in the Irish referendum is an important warning signal. Not because Nice was a great political achievement (it wasn't), but because it was a triumph of Western egotism. Jörg Haider, the far-right leader whose party is in the Austrian government, immediately demanded a referendum on enlargement. There is little doubt that the result of such a referendum would be a resounding no. Opinion polls suggest that the same might be true in Germany, France ­ and probably Britain, too. The countries of eastern Europe have achieved much by themselves. Now, west European leaders seem happy to argue: "Sort out your own problems ­ we have too many problems of our own."

The revolutions were romantic. Enlargement, it seems, is not. For millions of us out there, enlargement is as important as the revolutions.

Robert Soltyk writes for the Polish daily, "Gazeta Wyborcza"