Rocking the Boat from Warsaw
Rocking the Boat from Warsaw
If the European Union has never seen anything like the big-bang enlargement due to detonate on Mayday, nor has it seen anything like the accession of Poland.
Even before joining the union, the Poles have signalled strongly how cantankerous they intend to be. And they will mark their membership, the climax to 15 years of revolution and modernisation, with the fall of their government.
The day after the intoxicating speeches, resonating with rhetoric about watersheds, historic moments and Europe's unification, Poland's hangover will set in with a vengeance.
The leftwing government of the prime minister, Leszek Miller, will stand down and a weak caretaker administration led by a technocrat, Marek Belka, will try to bargain its way to a parliamentary majority.
It is an attempt that may fail, producing a stalemate and triggering early elections by the autumn. Even if Mr Belka succeeds in obtaining the support of 230 MPs in the Polish Sejmk, or lower house, his government will be hamstrung and probably not last long.
Even before the Mayday watershed and despite domestic government weakness, the Poles have been earning themselves a deserved reputation for being the most awkward of the newcomers.
Throughout the lengthy negotiations over the terms of membership, the Poles were the toughest customer for Brussels, leading to the crisis in December, when they faced down mighty Germany and France and blocked adoption of a new EU constitution.
Their argument is that they were joining on a false prospectus: that Brussels, Berlin and Paris moved the goalposts after concluding with Warsaw negotiations whose results were put to a referendum on membership.
Spain, about the same size as Poland and enjoying the same voting rights under the deal agreed at Nice in 2000, was the other opponent of the constitutional revamp, which was intended to reconfigure how power is wielded and voting conducted in an EU expanding from 15 to 25 member states.
But the defeat of the Aznar government has brought a Spanish u-turn, leaving Poland isolated in its opposition to the constitution.
There is now optimism that the Irish can fashion a new constitutional compromise while they occupy the rotating EU presidency, with the Poles backing down. But senior politicians and western diplomats in Warsaw caution that no deal is yet in sight.
Besides, even if a weak government reaches agreement with the Germans, the deal could come unstuck in the Sejm.
Jan Rokita, the influential leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Civic Platform, insists Poland should continue to block a deal, since that is the only way to be taken seriously by the EU's traditional heavyweights.
Mr Rokita, sceptically pro-European, was responsible for the slogan Nice Or Death, meaning the Poles should insist on the arrangements agreed at Nice four years ago.
But EU enthusiasts such as Roza Thun, the head of the pro-EU think-tank the Schumann Foundation, also agree that the Poles are taken more seriously in Brussels and in western capitals when they prove to be difficult partners.
If the newcomers bow to plans hatched in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, the reasoning goes, they are taken for granted and ignored. If they do not, they gain respect.
The difficulties look set to multiply. Even Guenther Verheugen, the German EU commissioner in charge of expansion, an official whose reputation depends on the enlargement succeeding, has repeatedly voiced his exasperation with Polish negotiating tactics.
And the most popular party politician in Poland currently is Andrzej Lepper, a fiercely anti-EU, hard-left populist who is committed to starting withdrawal proceedings should he get in to power.
"I'm not against the EU," he told Guardian Unlimited. "We're not against membership. We're against the conditions for Polish membership. We're demanding a renegotiation of the terms."
That is the same argument made by Brussels-bashers almost everywhere in Europe - the same argument, for example, fielded by the Austrian extreme-right populist Joerg Haider when Austria joined the union, in 1995.
The hullabaloo being raised by Mr Lepper might end up representing no more than teething problems, and things will no doubt settle down once Poland is inside the union.
But the scepticism heard across the spectrum of politics in Poland is a result of the resentment generated by the EU's curmudgeonly approach to expansion; the perception of being grudgingly admitted on disadvantaged terms; and the time it has taken to get to Mayday 2004.
It is now effectively seven years, for example, since Poland was admitted to the other key western alliance, Nato.
An economic, social, and political union is inarguably much more complex than a military alliance and takes longer to work out, but still Warsaw is bristling with grievances while remaining fully conscious that the national interest requires EU membership.
"Of course I voted to join," says Malgorzeta, a Warsaw psychology student. "What's the alternative? There is none. What else can we do?"
That pragmatic assessment, sober rather than enthusiastic or idealistic, is typical.
"There's no romance any more, no candlelit dinners," says the commentator Konstanty Gebert of Poland's ambivalent approach to the EU. "It's more like an old marriage, with the partners complaining about who's cleaning the toilet. And anyway, they don't treat us as family."
Polish grievances are real and substantive. On the eve of joining, the Poles are subject to a wave of lurid west European claims about their labour markets being swamped by illegal, cheap Polish immigrants.
While the EU has traditionally rested on three freedoms - of labour, goods and capital - the first and crucial freedom is to be denied to the newcomers for seven years by Germany and Austria while most of the other 15 existing members have slapped restrictions on Poles' rights to live and work.
For the ordinary EU citizen, freedom of movement is the most concrete and visible merit of being in the union. Being denied that right cannot but foster resentment and the feeling that the EU is for business and bankers - freedom of goods and capital - but neglectful of ordinary folk.
And despite the pro-EU urban elites of Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Wroclaw or Poznan, Poland is a large country of small towns and villages where a whopping one in five still work on the land and are dependent on farming for their subsistence.
That is a farming constituency unlike any other in western or eastern Europe, and more than four times the average in size.
But the farmers, who will be hammered by exposure to heavily subsidised west European agriculture, are to get, for the next 10 years, but a quarter of the Brussels subsidies doled out to their counterparts in France, for example.
Mr Lepper has made his career by being the champion of the sullen, downtrodden Polish farmer and can be expected to make hay because of the inevitable erosion of the farmers' situation.
But if Poland is the main problem, it is also the big prize among the intake of 10 newcomers.
Every other newcomer is dwarfed by Poland, which in an EU of 25 instantly takes its place among the big six, with all that implies in terms of voting clout and the ability to defending its interests and shape EU policy.
On foreign and defence policy, for example, Poland will fight strongly, despite governmental weakness at home.
This is not least because the key foreign policy priorities - support for America, for Nato, and for an EU foreign policy based on pooled sovereignty of nations rather than Brussels-based federalist positions - enjoy support across the political spectrum, with the exception of Mr Lepper's Self Defence party, which is pro-Russian, anti-US, anti-EU and anti-German.
The EU expansion adds 75 million people to the EU population. With 38 million, Poland is just slightly bigger than the other nine put together.
In terms of territory and markets, Poland, of course, is by far the biggest and most important.
It is, however, also one of the poorest of the fresh intake, with only the three post-Soviet Baltic republics behind the Poles in terms of spending power and per capita gross domestic product. And of the three Baltic republics, Estonia is likely to leap ahead of the Poles.
In the long term and in the big picture, Poland's integration in Europe, symbolised by EU membership, is indeed a watershed and a national imperative, given the country's wretched history of being fought over, partitioned, and occupied by its predatory neighbours, Germany and Russia.
In the short term, the sense of unfairness rankles with Poland. A big, proud nation, it only recovered its independence and sovereignty 15 years ago by leading the east European revolutions against Moscow.
It is not inclined to surrender too much too soon, and will be a difficult and feisty partner in the new Europe.