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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 30, 2009
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Poland in the EU-Five Years On
September 30, 2009   
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Five years after Poland's entry to the European Union, most Polish politicians and three-quarters of the public agree that EU membership has been a boon to the country. This does not mean that all the expectations of Euroenthusiasts in this country have been met or that Poland's position in the EU meets the nation's aspirations.

Lech Wałęsa, onetime president and former Solidarity leader, says that Poland's entry to the EU was a necessity and that the fall of the communist system created conditions for European integration.

"Prior to its EU entry, Poland was in a slump, with many indicators consistently going down. Thanks to EU entry, we have bottomed out and are beginning to rise steadily," Wałęsa said, adding that the main effect of Poland's EU entry was the country's healthy economic growth.

Experts at the government-run Office of the Committee for European Integration (UKIE) share this view. In a report summing up the first five years of Poland's EU membership, the office said that EU entry gave a strong boost to the economy here, which particularly benefited from the single EU market and Common Agricultural Policy.

According to the report, the benefits of membership are particularly visible in the country's economic relations with other EU members. Agriculture has seen many positive changes, the report says, with increased incomes for small farms thanks to direct payments from the EU budget. However, the income level in agriculture is still far below the average for the urban population and is insufficient for farmers to invest in the development of their farms, the report notes.

The report adds that the widespread worries that foreigners would buy out Polish land have proven groundless. Changes that have taken place in areas such as health service, culture and education are an indirect effect of EU entry and chiefly result from access to EU funds. Thanks to EU membership, Poland is now classified among the most competitive economies in Europe and is on the right track to avoid recession in 2009, the report says.

EU membership has accelerated Poland's economic growth. The economy has been driven by consumer and investment demand, with EU funds spurring the country's economic development. From May 1, 2004, the day of its entry to the EU, to the end of 2008, Poland received 26.5 billion euros from the EU budget, while contributing 12.5 billion euros. Thanks to EU structural funds, Poland has finally started to modernize its infrastructure, especially its road and freeway system. EU membership has helped Poland attract more foreign direct investment and improve its international ratings.

In 2008, Poland's GDP was 51 percent of the EU average. Most economists believe that the adoption of the euro by Poland will have a positive impact on the economy here and will make the country fully integrated with the EU.

Public opinion surveys show that support for the country's EU membership has grown over the past five years. According to respondents, the main benefits of membership include free travel and the right to work and study in other member states. Other benefits include improved trends in agriculture, economic growth, encouraging developments on the labor market, and the country's stronger position internationally.

The removal of border controls Dec. 21, 2007 between Poland and other EU countries under the Schengen Agreement made tourist traffic easier. The opening of labor markets encouraged many Poles to take up jobs abroad and many Polish communities sprang up in countries such as Britain, Ireland and Sweden.

Thanks to its EU entry, Poland has become an informal "spokesman" for other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. One example is the Eastern Partnership program initiated by this country.

Poland has also been the informal leader of several "coalitions" within the EU. One of these groups managed to push through less restrictive climate package provisions during an EU summit. The largest EU players have learned that, whether they want it or not, they have to take Poland's stance into account. Poland has also gained support from EU officials in Brussels in its trade disputes with Russia. The recent experiences of Ukraine and Belarus show just how tough a task Poland could have faced if it had been left to its own devices in this endeavor.

After an initial period when "old" EU countries criticized some of Poland's political decisions, including the country's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, EU politicians have been stressing in recent months that Poland's position in the EU is growing stronger in a process that is expected to continue in the years to come.

Günter Verheugen, vice-president of the European Commission, recently said that "of all new member states, Poland is the strongest and most important one in every respect."

"Whether it wants that or not, Poland is destined to have a leading role in the European Union," Verheugen said. "It will take some time before Poland takes up the place it deserves in this complex structure. But I am optimistic-Poland increasingly understands the role of a large and important EU member state and has started to play that role."

Verheugen added that the momentous political changes which started 20 years and which transformed the region began in Poland. "The democratic revolution in Central and Eastern Europe started in Poland-we must never forget that," Verheugen said. "Of all the countries which had the misfortune of coming under Soviet control after World War II, Poland was the first one to have a democratic government. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not mark the beginning of the big revolutionary changes. Actually, it was the outcome of the change and great effort initiated in Poland." An important factor was that Poland immediately resumed its traditional orientation toward Western Europe, Verheugen added.

Most of the public in Poland supports the country's EU membership and its strong pro-Western orientation. The number of Euroskeptics has fallen consistently over the past five years and few voters support anti-EU parties. According to the latest surveys, more than 75 percent of those polled believe that EU entry has proved a boon to their country and that European integration should be a priority for the Polish government.
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