Tempus fugit! Tomorrow will mark the tenth anniversary of Poland’s accession to the European Union. And, on any analysis, these have probably been the best ten years in the Polish history characterized by peace, rising prosperity and, recent events to the east notwithstanding, and a growing optimism.
Certainly, in the words of Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, while presenting during a joint press conference with Poland’s foreign minister, a report on Poland’s ten years in the EU published to coincide with the tenth anniversary, Poland’s accession to the EU was one of the most important events in Polish history. He described EU membership as a great political success. For Poland this has been a return to Western civilization and while he acknowledged that mistakes had been made, the overall result of EU membership has been unquestionably positive.
Foreign Minister Sikorski said that as a result of membership of the EU Poland had learned to exert a political influence on the rest of Europe. “Poland and the Polish people have taken very good advantage of the opportunity we were given by history and by the decisions of our predecessors,” he said. Good recent examples have been the attempt, with the French and German foreign ministers, to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, the solution thwarted by Yanukovych’s untimely fleeing the country, something which, ironically, both the EU and the Russia’s can agree was not helpful.
Similarly Donald Tusk’s initiative for a joint EU energy union the details of which the EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger will come to Warsaw on May 2 to discuss. Poland’s concept of an energy union envisages the EU buying gas as a single unit, primarily from Russia, as well as proposing greater investment in EU energy infrastructure (which could be 75 per cent financed by the EU, surprise, surprise) such as pipelines and interconnectors between countries. The President of France has expressed support for the idea, although the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s has been less enthusiastic, thinking of German commercial interests (one of her predecessors, Gerhard Schroeder, having accepted the Russian shilling, to coin a phrase, and even having a 70th birthday in St. Petersburg this week at which brother Putin was a guest).
Be that as it may, Poland has indeed enjoyed golden decade and the trick will be to build secure foundations for the future. As Sikorski himself said, Poland pays much less into EU coffers than it receives: “For every zloty we pay into the EU budget, we receive three,” he said. This will not last forever and proper advantage needs to taken of this opportunity to create the conditions which ensure lasting prosperity across the population, and that too many do not feel left behind.
As ever with Poland, there a few clouds on the horizon (without which no Pole would be truly “happy”). Poland’s corporate sector has yet to develop truly world class companies (which hardly surprising given the limited time in which the modern economy has been established) and while basic educational standards are good, Poland’s universities do not score well in world rankings. Unemployment still remains at 13.5 percent. Many Poles have chosen to emigrate and to establish their businesses outside Poland which, coupled with a falling birth rate and population decline, represents another challenge for the future. The state bureaucracy still has too many dead hands that need amputating and the legal system still leaves something to be desired.
Nevertheless, there is genuine cause for celebration. If the same direction and speed of travel is maintained the next ten years should be very good for Poland. Happy anniversary!