Poland: The EU Accession Referendum Nears. An On-the-Scene Report

The referendum on Poland’s accession to the European Union is very close now – it starts tomorrow, Saturday, and carries on through Sunday. As in most of the candidate states which have already held the referendum – particularly in Hungary and Slovakia – and as will most likely be the case in the one remaining significant state to do so after Poland, namely the Czech Republic next weekend, the crucial issue is not so much the referendum’s result, but rather the rate of voter turn-out.

As was the case in both Hungary and Slovakia, in Poland the Sejm, the national parliament, does have the authority on its own to approve EU accession even after a referendum which delivers a “Yes” result but with an insufficient level of participation. But that would be an unsatisfactory course of affairs indeed, especially in the case of this, the most populous by far of the candidate states in this wave of EU expansion and therefore really the most important. Accession certainly has very important consequences for Polish law, for the Polish economy – indeed, for Polish history and Polish sovereignty generally – so that the level of disappointment and discomfort stemming from enacting such changes in the face apparent citizen indifference to them, both in Poland and in the EU, would be considerable. (But this would not be as bad as a referendum vote which produced a “No,” whether with over 50% participation or not; apparently, the Sejm could still technically go ahead and approve Poland’s entry into the EU next year anyway, but of course it would not do so.)

So it’s the turn-out that is crucial, i.e. informing citizens of what is going on, what is at stake, and so persuading them to take the trouble to expend some of their weekend time to go stand in line and vote – presumably “Yes.” The Hungarian and Slovak governments (particularly the latter) had been faulted for somehow allowing the upcoming referendum to escape too many people’s notice, but the same charge cannot be made in Poland, if what I have seen over the past few days here in Wroclaw is any indication. Naturally, the big posters are out in force everywhere, headed here by the huge EU-blue banner draped across the top of the City Hall in the Rynek, Wroclaw’s historic central market-square: Wroclaw mowi “Tak”! – “Wroclaw says ‘Yes’!” (Sorry, Polish purists, I’m missing here the accent marks needed to recreate that Polish completely correctly – ironically, as I sit here writing at a Wroclaw Internet café.) Then there are big, auto-billboard posters alongside most main roads, which seem to come in two basic themes. First you have the “Yes, I’m a European” billboards, on each of which is the smiling head-shot of what seems to be a current Polish pop-star – a rock singer, an actor, both men and women. (I can’t identify them specifically, because the only indication of their names is their signature beneath each such portrait, which inevitably is scrawled illegibly.) Secondly, there are the “children” billboards, with the portrait of a child along some indication as to how entry into the EU will provide it with a bright future – like the girl nuzzling up against the head of a horse. (In the newspaper/magazine advertisements you can find this same picture, but then with a caption, in this case “I’m going to become a veterinarian” – although, frankly, I find it hard to deduce how her becoming a veterinarian in about 15 years depends one way or the other on Poland’s membership in the EU.) Every so often the guerrilla anti-EU forces have struck back; most often their defiance is evident in the crude EU Nie! or Nie dla EU (“No to the EU”) slogans scrawled on these billboards, but sometimes you see something more sophisticated, like the considerably-smaller counter-poster I saw pasted on a billboard showing Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski and other leading Polish politicians as bobble-head dolls, with the caption Towarzystwo prowadzi Polske do EU. “Towarzystwo” does mean “society,” but it also stems from the Polish word back in the bad old Communist days for “comrade,” towarzysz, so the idea here is that the unlistening governing cabal, the group of comrades, is trying to railroad Poland into the EU.

Elsewhere, that first-mentioned “celebrity endorsement” approach was taken up again yesterday, Thursday, to great effect, and this time not from either a direct government or indirect government (e.g. “Citizens’ Initiative for EU Accession”) source. This time it was in the Thursday magazine supplement to Poland’s best-selling nationwide daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, which featured a picture essay of more leading Poles together with their explanations of why they are for EU accession. This time it was not only about rock stars and actors – although there were some of those in these pages, too. It was also about such leading Polish cultural figures as Poland’s only living Nobel laureates for literature, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. Both, as may be expected, were brief but elegant (Szymborska: “I don’t have any children, and I don’t have any grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want the best future for Poland.”). Then, continuing to speak of celebrities, Tony Blair visited Poland last week to urge voter approval of accession – at about the same time as George W. Bush, as both were on their way to St Petersburg and then to Evian. (I don’t recall being aware of any elements in Bush’s speeches in Poland having to with encouraging accession, but I assume that they were there also.) Then, just yesterday, it was the turn of Germany’s Gerhard Schröder to visit, and these are just the tips of an iceberg which also includes lesser-known visiting EU luminaries such as Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament. I turned on the radio just yesterday – to Dwojka, the “cultural” element within Poland’s set of four government-run nationwide radio stations – and caught the beginning of an interview with Bronislaw Geremek, noted and respected dissident and right-wing Polish politician, former Polish foreign minister in the early 1990s, and Professor of History of international academic renown. He had some interesting things to say, in response to the first question, on the subject of just where “Europe’s” eastern borders can be said to lie – but there’s absolutely no doubt that, according to him, Poland lies well within them and so he also advocates accession.

Information – you want accession information? That’s no problem at all, at least when it comes to information in favor of EU accession, with pamphlets and booklets and even sophisticated CD-ROMs. These materials seem to address the leading issues in a straightforward way. “Will Poland have a big say in decisions taken within the EU?” “Will Polish law change after the accession of Poland to the EU?” etc. – although, in the pamphlet I have in front of me addressing such questions, the answer to that latter question runs along the lines of “Poland has already been adjusting its internal law to the prawa obowiazujacego (“obligatory law”) of the EU for a long time; accession will bring that process to completion, with the exception of a few ‘opt-outs’ Poland has gained.” Yes, but up to now that “adjustment” has not been “obligatory” but instead subject to full Polish choice and sovereignty; after access, it will indeed be “obligatory” under the serious treaty obligations Poland will have undertaken. In other words, to my mind there are clear indications of a downplaying of what in reality is a serious element of accession (and it continues to cause problems in the UK, where apparently many of Her Majesty’s subjects just can’t believe that it is true): namely, that EU law takes precedence over the law of any EU member state.

At least the more-substantial, 65-page booklet that I got ahold of peppers its pages with cute cartoons, ironic enough to move me a couple of times to go back and check the booklet’s title page to see who was sponsoring it, the government or some “EU No!” organization – in one, as a man is shown thrashing around offshore, in danger of drowning, and as his rescuer stands ready on the beach with a life-ring, a bureaucrat rushes up to ask “Does that conform to the EU standard?” Or: Two bureaucrats approach a chef in his kitchen, one holding a big tome labeled “EU standards,” and the other one informs the chef that “Your food is simply too tasty.” Or: A businessman stands in front of a bureaucrat – with the circle-of-stars EU symbol on the wall behind – and the bureaucrat says “I could provide you with a certificate that what you desire to do requires no certificate.” Or: A couple being married stands before the altar, and the groom recites “. . . pledge to uphold European standards until death do us part . . . ”

But anti-accession information? That’s harder to come by; the government doesn’t support that, of course, so by default that has to be attended to by private individuals and groups of private individuals who, for whatever reason, strongly believe that the price of EU accession for Poland is too high. I have seen precious little of such individuals, but I have seen something – mainly a small group of skinhead-looking youths parading around the central market square (in a disorganized manner, not a Nazi-like one, you’ll be glad to know) with Polish and anti-EU flags; and then, the next evening, a scruffy band of somewhat older and more-responsible looking citizens on the corner of the market square with their anti-EU banners. (Among which one read “Poland Yes, EU No,” which I think is very good, since there has been too much made with the specious argument that “Polishness” is identical with a desire to join the EU. In fact, it is much easier to make the opposite argument.)

So what do we have? As much information on the subject, in whatever varied format, as you’d care to absorb – but provided mostly by the government, and overwhelmingly with only one point of view. And we have billboards and banners everywhere, blaring out the government-approved line. I ask you: How is this much different from the days, not so long ago, when these things were also true but the message then was variations on the theme of “Workers of the world, unite to build real socialism together”? OK, it is different in the crucial aspect that those few anti-EU demonstrators that I have seen ran no risk of being arrested, beaten up, of having their livelihoods taken away from them, of losing university places for their children, of even being judged insane and locked up in mental institutions. But otherwise I find disturbing parallels in the form of one message, one “truth,” repeated endlessly, with the underlying sub-message that there really must be something wrong with you if you don’t share a belief in the truth of that message.

But this is Poland – as we all know, the country that was in the vanguard of holding on to its own truths (family, church, the private farm) even in the face of constant campaigns against them by an alien government, imposed from the outside, and which repeatedly (1956, 1970, etc.) rose up demonstrably against that government, which did so again in 1980 in something that lasted for more than a year until martial law was imposed, and which then simply wore out and wore down that martial law regime until everying tottered over from its own weight in 1989, starting with free elections to the Sejm. Then, as we all should know, that was what kicked off the process which soon led to similar revolutions throughout most of the rest of Eastern Europe.

This is Poland we’re talking about here, these are the Poles – and I can’t help think that there are many Polish citizens out there who know precisely what they are seeing in this gala pro-EU campaign, because they are old enough to have seen it many, many times before. And that they know how to react to such campaigns, and that there may be enough of them to surprise us and the world over the coming weekend.

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