Thursday, 5 July 2007

Pesky Poland

I had an interesting conversation with a Polish person I met last night, and it shed a bit of light into the Polish character and why the country has been such a thorn in Brussels' side over the past few weeks.

To recap, the big news in Europe over the last month has been the meetings over the new treaty being hammered out to replace the EU constitution, which died when it was voted down by referendums in France and The Netherlands two years ago. There were two member states that were the biggest obstacles to progress in the talks. The first was, predictably, the UK, which has been the most historically uncooperative member and wanted all sorts of special exemptions from the treaty for itself. But the second was Poland, a new member state that was admitted just three years ago.

Poland is currently run by a pair of eccentric, very conservative twins. They caused quite a stir at the meetings by demanding that the EU adopt a voting system in which each country gets an amount of votes proportional to the square root of the population, rather that proportional to the actual population. This would give smaller countries more voting power and bigger ones less, and would essentially give Poland (population 38 million) the same voting power as Germany (population 82 million). The twins were intractable on this, and although all the other members states warned them that this type of hard-headed obstinacy doesn’t work in the EU and they should use softer diplomacy, in the end I guess they were wrong because the twins won and got no permanent decision on the voting system for at least another seven years, even though all 26 other members were opposed to this. The twins are now claiming that there was an “oral agreement” for further concessions to Poland and they want to redo the deal that was finally worked out.

So the rest of the EU is a bit annoyed with Poland at the moment, to put it mildly. Some in Western Europe feel that the Eastern European nations that were admitted in 2004 (of which Poland is the biggest) should be grateful they were admitted at all, and it’s audacious for Poland to be demanding such concessions as a new member state. After all, Poland and the other Eastern states will be the beneficiaries of cohesion funding coming from Western Europe or some time.

Adding to the tension, one of the twins said in Brussels this week during the hammering out of the treaty that Poland should be given more voting power because the Germans killed so much of the population during World War II. This of course violated the number one rule of the EU, which is 'don’t mention the war.' But even beyond the un-PCness of the comment, it’s a rather ridiculous claim to make. Though Poland bore a large brunt of the destruction of the war, everyone suffered, including the Germans of East Prussia who the Poles themselves expelled following the war. What’s more, Poland’s low population is due more to their low birth rate over the past 60 years (their population is decreasing) than to a loss of life during the war.

So when this Polish guy told me that he hates the twins, I figured this was a green light to talk about the audacity of their behavior in Brussels. But I was surprised to find that he thinks what they did in Brussels is the only thing they’ve done right!

His argument goes something like this: For centuries Poland was the most powerful country in Eastern Europe (and for a time, the largest country in Europe as a whole outside Russia). But after its fortunes fell, it was brutally divided, conquered and humiliated by its neighbors, Germany, Russia and Austria. Though they were able to reclaim an independent country after WWI, the great powers abandoned it at Yalta, and Roosevelt and Churchill tossed it to the Soviets to appease them. Now that a new Europe is forming, the Poles don’t want to be left behind again. They must take an aggressive stance in foreign policy to make up for centuries of weakness.

But I think his argument misses a lot of points. First of all it was Hitler’s invasion of Poland that launched World War II, it was the line that the Western powers refused to let him cross. So you can’t say Western Europe abandoned them then. Second, it wasn’t just Poland but all of Eastern Europe that was given to the Soviets, and the US and UK didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. By Yalta it was clear that it would be the Soviet army that would liberate Eastern Europe, and to demand that the Soviets that precipitously withdraw and hand it over to the Western powers would have been a tough feat, and probably the only way around it was war with the Soviet Union, a prospect no one wanted right after WWII.

Just because Poland has suffered these injustices in the past (along with the rest of Eastern Europe, I’d hasten to remind them), does this now give them the right to ask for extra powers in the EU? No one else in Eastern Europe is asking for such privileges. And it is perhaps a little ironic for the twins to be bringing up the Germans’ history of far-right fascism when they themselves are bombastically nationalistic and far-right. The leaders have even asked that Teletubbies be banned in the country because Tinky Winky, the purple one, is supposedly gay. Yes, it’s as if Jerry Falwell ran a country.

BBC EU Correspondent Mark Mardell makes an interesting point about the subject in his blog today. He writes that the experience of the continent in WWII is very different from that of the British. Those countries on the Western side of the iron curtain have had time to heal, most notably symbolized by the historic moment when Kohl and Mitterrand held hands by a World War I memorial in the 70’s. But Eastern Europe has been in a deep freeze for 60 years, and these issues are just now having to be worked out. Writes Mardell:
For the British, our country's defiant and determined stand in World War II is still a source of national pride, and to tell the story properly you have to have an enemy. Of course, British people died, families suffered terribly, but there was an end and a purpose. They were heroes, not victims. It's very different in the rest of Europe. For most other countries, World War II was a source of shame. The shame of defeat, or the shame of conquest. The shame of collaboration, the shame of turning a blind eye.

The Poles have got money and markets out of the EU. But they haven't got an apology. Some Germans feel that without their friendship and aid Poland wouldn't have been allowed in the club so soon. Maybe. But a long-lost brother has returned to the family home, still simmering about a past upset, when the rest of the family has made up and forgotten long ago.
I think this last point is particularly interesting. Mardell argues that Poland and Germany still need their own Kohl-Mitterrand moment. He has omitted the fact that there was a somewhat comparable moment in 1970 when German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in silence at a memorial ceremony in Warsaw. This was a controversial act at the time and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it. I’m not sure if Mardell has left this out because he doesn’t think it rises to the level of a Kohl-Mitterrand moment, perhaps because it was done in the context of the Cold War it was a little different.

But the explanation of my Polish friend seems to be in line with Mardell’s thinking. It’s more an issue of national pride than actually needing those extra votes. Perhaps all they need is a grand, formal apology.

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