Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Poles refuse to define a European future that could ever be in opposition to the Americans

Back before the war in Iraq, French and German voices expressed some fairly prescient nervousness
writes John Vinocur in the IHT.
Enlarging the European Union to 25 members, they said, meant a surge of new American influence in Europe because the newcomers' allegiance, in terms of security and national independence, belonged to the United States.

Poland, by far the biggest and most influential entrant from the old Soviet bloc, and the region's potential power center, was privately singled out as the heart of the problem.

In the run-up to the fighting, this French-German concern about losing authority in Central and Eastern Europe became a significant element in formulating a joint policy against the war. The idea was to press the newcomers hard to line up with Paris and Berlin, the subtext being big trouble in the EU later if they did not. Explaining his position to German Social Democratic officials, Gerhard Schröder said then that Iraq, beyond the conflict itself, was crucial in insuring Europe's "independence" over the next decades.

In the event, the Poles made what Jacques Chirac leapt to call the existentially wrong decision of siding with the Americans and British. Almost all the Poles' former Warsaw Pact allies joined them.

As it turned out, Geza Jeszenszky, a former Hungarian foreign minister, talking at a conference here, said, "The Poles made up their minds, and you know, it hasn't hurt them in the least in the EU."

Forward to the present through both French and German talk of "strategic partnerships" with Russia, considerable American and Polish misery in Iraq, and little in the way of new unity inside the EU. Whatever, the Polish view of reality hasn't changed.

This year, as if to expressly confirm the Poles' always nervous reading of history and geography, the Russians of Vladimir Putin and the Germans of Schröder, without consultation, completed a gas pipeline deal that will let Russia supply Germany while bypassing Poland. France, in the meantime, after anchoring the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis of the Iraq war, created "the Polish plumber" as a notional free-trade bogeyman, and blocked an attempt to open the EU to more competition in the service sector.

The result: The Poles have wrapped themselves deeper into an approach to the world and Europe that Schröder and Chirac so wanted to discourage - tightening binds to the United States, reconfirming their priorities in terms of national independence and national identity, and refusing to define a European future that could ever be in opposition to the Americans.

Last month, the country elected a new center-right Parliament that will hold to what is pretty much both conviction and emotion here: that you stick to the Americans for security, support for your still great notions of freedom, emphasis on the place of religion in society, and Polish independence. You back neighboring Ukraine's break from dictatorship to democracy to the hilt, and you wish insistently and out loud for democratic change in Belarus, another neighbor still under authoritarian rule.

The EU, rather more coolly, is associated mostly here with both caution and aspirations for prosperity - specifically the cash subsidies that are needed to sustain the Polish voyage to higher living standards. As for freedom, the Polish mind-set on Western Europe had been indelibly marked by considerable hesitation there to openly support the Solidarity trade union's rebellion against Communist rule in 1981. No joke, an Austrian speaker recalled, but his country's labor officials didn't recognize Solidarity until 1989! …

Jeszenszky, who likes the Poles, sounded forlorn - but mostly about Hungary. He said, "Our thinking stops with trying to be clever and not taking a stand."

Meanwhile, the country of the twins has only ordered 17,000 copies of the latest Astérix album — the one with unflattering allusions to President Bush, which has been savaged (for entirely different reasons) throughout Europe.

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