Another Polish paradox?

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Slysz, G. (2000), "Another Polish paradox?", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Another Polish paradox?

Gregory SlyszDr Gregory Slysz is Teacher and Lecturer in History and Politics

Keywords Poland, European Union

Poland has been frequently referred to as the land of paradoxes and imponderables[1]. It is a land which, in 1794, yielded an army of peasants armed with little more than scythes which, against seemingly insurmountable odds, defeated the might of the Russian imperial army at the battle of Raclawice. It was a land in which the Catholic Church coexisted with an autocratic and atheistic regime, yet it was a land that was more Catholic than Spain, Portugal and Italy, whose constitutions tied their national Churches to the state[2]. It was a land in which by the 1970s over half of its people were under the age of 30[3], yet which possessed an affinity with tradition and history which was unsurpassed in most Western societies. It was a land which, to cite Stalin's memorable aphorism, was as suitable for communist construction as a cow was for a saddle. The list of paradoxes is in fact endless: great creativity coexisting with great inefficiency, great political apathy with abundant courage and resolute political action.

It may be appropriate to ask at this juncture about the relevance of paradoxes, whose roots lay deep in Polish history, to a discussion about Poland's pursuit of membership of the European Union (EU). A moment's thought will conclude that one recurrent theme governs all the above paradoxes - that of national survival: the peasants' struggle for liberation from tsarist oppression; the Church's lone but relentless engagement of Soviet imperial authorities and the nation's refusal, against great adversity, to relinquish its national culture and identity. It is therefore extremely perplexing that a country like Poland, which boasts an unrivalled commitment to the principle of national self-determination, would seek membership of a political state entity, whose overriding objective is to submerge the national identities of its Member States within a supranational European super-state, devoid of scope for independent national initiatives. Poland's aspirations towards membership of the EU become even more puzzling in the light of its very recent liberation from oppressive Soviet patriarchy. All evidence suggests that the EU will be just as deleterious to Poland's national identity and state integrity than the Soviet Union was. For instance, a single currency, a central bank, a single government, common citizenship, a unified military structure, a single foreign policy, a common flag and other supranational symbols, were all absent among Eastern European countries during the Soviet period. Yet the Treaty of European Union, more commonly referred to as the Maastricht Treaty, and its superseding treaty concluded in Amsterdam in June 1997, subscribe to all the above, within the framework of an "... ever closer union ..."[4].

When in 1990 polls first started recording public opinion in Poland on the issue of EU membership, support for Poland's integration with the EU stood as a staggering 80-90 percent[5]. By 1999, this support had fallen drastically to around 50 percent[6]. What has been responsible for such a swift change of opinion? Whether it is among dairy owners, who have had their produce shunned by EU countries on "health" grounds, or the farming community which has been, in preparation for its annihilation as an economic sector, undercut by highly subsidised EU imports, or among the growing numbers of ordinary Poles, who have fallen foul of Poland's economic preparations for EU membership, the euphoria which once accompanied Poland's courtship of the EU, over time has been displaced by anxiety and anger and in many respects by a popular backlash against Poland's EU policy[7]. The drastic fall in support for EU membership has alarmed Poland's integrationists. Jan Kulakowski, for instance, the head of Poland's negotiating team with the EU, has declared that a further decline could "... threaten a positive result in (any future) referendum"[8]. This is an amazing turnaround, in view of the pro-EU propaganda to which Poles have been subjected ever since the fall of Soviet socialism. Many causes of this "epidemic of euroscepticism"[9], can be identified, all of which strike at the heart of the EU's integrationist strategy. Careful analysis of opinion poll data, however, reveals that the decline in support among Poles for EU membership was predictable. Apart from recording considerable falls in support for EU membership, the other striking feature of opinion poll data has been its recording of a poor level of understanding among respondents about the significance of membership of the EU. As late as September 1998, a poll, which although recorded an 85 percent level of support for EU membership, qualified its data with admissions by half of those surveyed that their knowledge about the EU was negligible.

Kulakowski himself, when he was Poland's ambassador to the EU, conceded: "Long live Europe!', as we declare today. But our support for a united Europe is very superficial, associated with a lack of full consciousness"[10]. It is a view echoed abroad. "As far as the European issue goes, the discussion taking place in Poland", noted the Swedish diplomat, H. Amberg, "is not focusing on the economic and social consequences of membership, and ultimately, European security..."[11]. The widespread ignorance among Poles about the EU was betrayed in particular by respondents to the EU's own annual pan-European surveys, The Central and Eastern Eurobarometer (CEEB). Indeed, contrary to the EU's hailing of its surveys as yielding evidence of a developing supra-national consciousness[12], the CEEB data revealed some disturbing trends for integrationists. Despite recording majorities, albeit diminishing ones, in favour of membership, the polls revealed that respondents were motivated primarily by an assortment of national-centric and personal hopes and aspirations, based on anticipated benefits for private business, education system, health and social security, state enterprises, manual workers, and the Church. In CEEB6, recorded in 1995, for instance, 35 percent of respondents perceived membership as a positive development for economic growth, citing a combination of reasons[13], with only 3 percent perceiving the contrary to be true. Furthermore, around half of respondents perceived membership to be positive for the armed forces, social services and education. A similar picture was painted by CEEB8, recorded three years later, with Poles in particular expressing a belief that the EU would usher in higher living standards[14]. Hardly any of the respondents in either of the surveys cited the quest for peace, democracy, human rights or a desire for open borders as his prime motives for supporting EU membership and crucially, no-one cited the ideal of European statehood as a cause to champion[15]. Highlighting the respondents' ignorance on EU matters was a virtual absence of awareness of the link between EU membership and the loss of national sovereignty, with merely 2 percent of respondents in CEEB6 and 9 percent in CEEB8 perceiving accession to the EU as being incompatible with national sovereignty/independence. In short, what opinion poll data reveals is the prevalence of high expectations among Poles with regard to EU association and eventual membership. Consequently, the perception among people that the accession process has failed to meet any of these expectations in any substantive way appears to harbour the main responsibility for the plummeting support for EU membership.

Further scrutiny of opinion poll data reveals that further trouble lies ahead for integrationists. Deducible from the data is that supporters of EU membership are mainly to be found among the urban, educated, young, with above average incomes and who harbour high expectations from the EU while opponents are mostly to be found among the poorly educated, low incomed, older generations, particularly the farmers[16]. The significance behind this demographic breakdown is that support for the EU is largely based on perception while opposition on personal experience of the government's integrationist policy. The experiences of Poland's farmers is a case in point. The hopes of existing EU supporters and of potential converts have been raised by the myth that the Polish government will be in a position to "negotiate" a favourable deal for Poland and thereafter realise the array of expectations as cited in the CEEBs. Little do people know that membership of the EU is subject to the full acceptance of the acquis communautaire, which, as noted, accommodates no scope for the pursuit of national interest. The level of support for EU membership, therefore, can only plunge further, once more people begin to realise that their ambitious expectations, fostered by the government and the pro-EU lobby, are inevitably to fall victim to the EU's uncompetitive socialist-corporatist economic policies. Whatever strategy integrationists adopt to promote the EU, their options are limited, each harbouring a heavy burden of risk.

Hitherto, the state's main strategy has been to keep political debate on the EU on a superficial level. This, however, carries with it many political risks. For one, it is inhibiting the maturation of Poland's political system. The uniformity of Poland's party politics provides ample evidence of this, as each mainstream party, in its enthusiasm to ape its Western counterparts, has slavishly locked itself into the Maastricht agenda, leaving limited scope for original initiative[17]. Limiting political debate to an exchange of simplistic slogans, and pertinent soundbites may, in the short-term succeed in capturing the imagination of some people, but in the long-term uncritically promoting the EU as an all-embracing panacea inevitably will backfire. Indication of a popular backlash is already amply in evidence, as noted above. Unequivocally acclaimed for a number of years as harbouring all the answers to Poland's woes, the government's EU adventure has suddenly turned sour, blighted by the negative impact that Polish-EU relations has had on Polish society. After years of unquestionable support for EU membership, Poles have started to question the utopian scenarios which their politicians have painted. "Hitherto", writes Lena Kolarska Bobinska, the director of the Institute of Public Affairs, "integration has been perceived in terms of 'receive' and 'take', rather than 'give' and 'costs'. The latter aspects could dampen the initial high support for integration"[18]. Integrationists are indeed bracing themselves for a further decline in support for EU membership[19]. How to combat the incessant rise in Euroscepticism has become a problematical question. Some believe that the answer lies in engaging society in an "objective debate coupled with an informative campaign"[20]. This approach, however, exposes an acute dilemma: to remain evasive about the pitfalls of European integration risks arousing suspicions among an already sceptical population about the EU's aims, yet to engage society in an informative debate, reveals the folly of EU programmes. In other words, the more Poles acquaint themselves with the EU, the less they like what it offers. It appears that the longer the accession negotiations are drawn out, the less support for EU membership there is. Wary of growing public suspicions of the EU, Poland's government has been keen to accelerate membership negotiations. By April 2000, however, Buzek's worst fears were realised as the EU's numerous warnings to Poland's government about its slow progress at implementing the EU's acquis communitaire[21] were finally acted on by EU negotiators, compelling Buzek formally to announce the abandonment of all hopes of Poland's joining the EU in 2000-1 and to declare 2003 as the earliest date on which Poland could join[22]. Even this date has been dismissed as unrealistic, notably by Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Poland's former prime minister and keen integrationist. He asserts 2006-10 as a more likely date of accession[23], if accession is to occur at all. One matter which is certain is that early accession for Poland, even according to Bielecki's timetable, will be on terms which do not even begin to satisfy the needs of her economy. The assimilation of Poland's huge and cumbersome agricultural sector within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will provide the greatest test of Poland's loyalty towards the integrationist idea. Currently only between 20 percent and 30 percent of Polish farms could compete with their counterparts in Western Europe[24]. The 26 million zlotys which has been invested in Poland's agriculture since 1996, has made little impact on infrastructural modernisation. There remains over one million farmsteads which do not fulfil any of the criteria set out by the CAP. "These are", as Marek Maszek notes, "... a social not an economical problem. And this 'baggage' the EU will never accept from us ..."[25]. Although social problems associated with the mass liquidation of Poland farmsteads will be alleviated, to a certain extent, by the fact that a large number of Poland's peasant farmers are approaching retirement age and have little prospect of enticing their educated and urbanised off-spring to return to the countryside to carry on with the family tradition, the proportion of people earning a living from agriculture is still set to be inordinately high for the foreseeable future[26]. Realising the EU's demands of rendering Poland's agriculture compatible with the CAP's structures by 2003, can only be achieved through massive liquidation of farmsteads[27], the consequence of which would be rural unemployment and social calamity on an unprecedented scale.

The above discussion has merely scratched the surface with regard to the incompatibility between Poland and the EU, which extends way beyond economics. Indeed, underlying Poland's outward West European appearance, lies a culture that is fundamentally different from anything to be found in the EU. Poland's overtly Christian culture jars with the EU's secularist, often anti-Christian beliefs, most vividly illustrated by the EU's so-called non-discrimination legislation that, for example, insists on homosexuals having the same rights as heterosexuals in areas such as adoption[28]. Poland's historical development as a jus sanguinis (the right of blood) nation sits uneasy with Western Europe's jus soli nations. Poland's lack of historical common cause with Western Europe has nurtured a casual indifference among Western leaders towards Poland's national plight which in turn has been witness to successive Western betrayals of Poland's national cause. The Congress of Vienna, Versailles, and Yalta, all highlight how Poland's quest for national independence was readily sacrificed for, what Viscount Castlereagh termed, "... the peace of that important portion of Europe".

Key to understanding Poland's initial love affair with the EU is to understand the political and social climate which existed after the fall of the ancien regime. Poles were exhausted and relieved that their long and nationally deleterious association with Russia may at last have come to an end. Hypnotised by the sense of freedom, they harboured a concoction of emotions that rendered them vulnerable to the vulturous designs of Western forces, which had perceived Poland for a very long time as nothing more than colonial prey. Bombarded by mythical images of Western and EU rectitude, on the one hand, and exaggerated tales of a resurgent Russian threat, on the other, Poles came to perceive salvation only within the EU's fold. Fed by their leadership a diet of tendentious propaganda, they painted pictures in their minds of how the EU would restore Poland's long-lost greatness, how it would secure its independence, and how it would welcome Poland back into the Western "family of European nations" to which Poles were being repeatedly told that their nation once belonged. And so such cruel deception, founded on lies and myths, provided Poles with powerful incentives to turn Westwards. Their enthusiasm for things Western was readily reflected in the initial high opinion poll approval of EU membership. Several years on, however, matters have drastically altered in the way Poles look upon the EU. Many of the hopes and expectations which they had built up in their minds have turned out to be hollow, dissolved in a cauldron of EU-inspired austerity and "shock therapy", the destruction of the Polish farming sector, the public funding crisis brought on by adherence to the Maastricht convergence criteria, the rising unemployment, the decline in moral values, and the growing realisation that the preservation of Poland's nationhood and independence is incompatible with the EU's statist project.

Maybe Poland's unique ability to generate curious paradoxes is beginning to wane.


  1. 1.

    For a discussion of many of the paradoxes associated with Poland's national and cultural development see, Polish Paradoxes, Stanislaw Gomulka and Antony Polonsky (Eds), London 1991.

  2. 2.

    Until 1978, the Spanish Constitution proclaimed the Catholic faith as the official religion of the Spanish state. After this date, however, the Roman Catholic Church continued to enjoy a leading role in society. Portugal remained formally Catholic until 1974, and Italy until 1984.

  3. 3.

    M.K. Dziewanowski, Poland in the Twentieth Century, New York, 1977, p. 289.

  4. 4.

    Treaty of European Union (TEU) henceforth referred to as Maastricht, Title I Article A. Treaty of Article 1, para. 4 of the Amsterdam Treaty.

  5. 5.

    For 1990 level of support see poll conducted in August 1990 by OBOP (Organizacja Badania Opinii Polskiej - The Organisation for Public Opinion Research) in August 1999. As recently as mid-1997, a poll conducted by the ISP (Instytut Spraw Publicznych - Institute of Public Affairs) cited a 72 percent level of support for membership.

  6. 6.

    An opinion poll conducted in October 1999, for the German newspaper, Die Welt (20 October 1999), found that only 46 percent of Poles were in favour of EU membership. It also found an increase of the number of undecided people to a record 27 percent. These figures, while slightly wayward, are fairly consistent with the trends recorded by other opinion polls. A poll conducted in June 1998 by the ISP recorded a mere 58 percent support for EU membership. In February, the figure, as recorded by another ISP poll, stood at 63 percent. The EU's own opinion polls, The Central and East Eurobarometers (CEEB), have also recorded consistent falls in the level of support for membership. In CEEB6 (1995) 68 percent of respondents said that they would vote affirmatively in a referendum on EU membership, while in CEEB8 (1998) the figure fell to 63 perecent. In a poll conducted in November 1998 by the PBS (Pracownia Badan Spolecznych - Social Research Institute) specifically on the issue of the single currency, 40 percent categorically rejected the replacement of the Polish zloty with the Euro, while the remainder were divided between those who desired the Euro as soon as possible (15 percent) and those who preferred a more cautious introduction.

  7. 7.

    Neil Bowdler, "Angry Poles prepare to confront EU", The Guardian, 24 March 1998.

  8. 8.

    Reguly klubu, "An interview with Jan Kulakowski", Wprost, supplement, 22 November 1998.

  9. 9.

    Krzysztof Golata and Andrzej Szoszkiewicz, "Epidemia eurosceptyzmu", Wprost, 9 August 1998.

  10. 10.

    Juliusz Urbanowicz, "Liga AntyEuropejska: Komu Zagraza Zjednoczona Europa", Wprost, 13 April 1997.

  11. 11.


  12. 12.

    Frontier Free Europe, May 1997, p. 4.

  13. 13.

    In CEEB6. 14 percent cited that the EU would usher in economic improvements, 10 percent, general progress; 7 percent, better prospects; 4 percent, considerable financial aid.

  14. 14.

    26 percent of Poles associated the EU with higher living standards. The average on this issue among the other countries participating in the CEEB was 17 percent.

  15. 15.


  16. 16.

    Krzysztof Golata and Andzej Szoszkiewicz, "Unia ze strachem", Wprost, 22 October 1998.

  17. 17.

    For a discussion of this subject see interview with Leszek Balcerowicz: Szybciej, Madrzej, Skutecznej in Gazeta Wyborcza, 23 June 1997.

  18. 18.

    Krzysztof Golata and Andzej Szoszkiewicz, "Epidemia euroscetyzmu", Wprost 9 August 1998. See also Golata, Szoszkiewicz and Malgorzata Remisiewicz - Kady Europy, Wprost 22 November 1998.

  19. 19.


  20. 20.


  21. 21.

    In 1997, Rolf Timans, the Commission's representative in Warsaw, issued a stark early warning to Poland that unless it honours its obligations under the Associate Agreement, it risked triggering in Brussels retaliatory action. In May 1998, Timans' threat was realised when the EU cut its assistance to Poland by 15 percent in response to Poland's slow progress in complying with EU diktat. By April 2000, as declared by the EU, Poland had been outpaced by all of the other leading candidate countries with regard to assimilating EU law into its statutes and fulfilling the convergence criteria. See, "A most exclusive club", Financial Times, 26 August, 1998, Jedrzej Bielecki - Przyspiesienia nie bedzie, Rzeczpospolita, 7 April 2000. See also Jedrzej Bielcki - Polsce i Wegrom idzie naj wolniej - Rzeczpospolita, 7 April, 2000.

  22. 22.

    Bielecki, Przyspiesienia nie bedzie, Rzeczpospolita, 7 April 2000. See also Bielecki - Polsce I Wegrom idzie naj wolniej - Rzeczpospolita, 7 April, 2000.

  23. 23.

    Pawel Tomczyk, "Banany Mistrow: rozmowa z Janem Krzysztofem Bieleckim", Odra, 12 December 1997.

  24. 24.

    Piotr Andzejewski, "Unia z Jakoscia", Wprost, 14 December 1997.

  25. 25.

    Dwie Strony rolniczego medalu, "Marek Maszek, BOSS", Export Import, 20 November 1999.

  26. 26.

    Miroslaw Cielemecki, Bartlomiej Lesniewski and Krzysztof Trébski, "Rachunek za taryfé: Czy stac¨ nas na wojné z Uniá Europejská", Wprost, 26 December 1999.

  27. 27.

    See Jédrzej Bielecki, "Na co pomoc z Brukseli", Rzeczpospolita, 1 April 2000.

  28. 28.

    Articles 2, 3 and 6a, of the Amsterdam Treaty, seek, among other matters, "... to combat discrimination based on ... sexual orientation". For a discussion on the incompatibility between Christianity and the EU see Gregory Slysz - Is the EU anti-Christian? - The Catholic Herald, 10 December, 1999.

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