As Poles get ready to vote in the European Parliament elections this month, it seems a good time to ask how the country has benefited from membership in the European Union
by Remi Adekoya
Most of the memorable dates in Polish history have been tragic ones. Whether we are talking about September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War, August 1, 1944, when inhabitants of the country’s capital initiated the Warsaw Uprising leading to the death of some 200,000 civilians, or December 13, 1981, when the communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland – Poles rarely have much to cheer about on anniversaries.
But with the country gearing up for the European Parliament elections at the end of this month, one date at least was definitely worth celebrating. Poland has now been a member of the European Union for a full decade, having joined the economic and political bloc on May 1, 2004.
That decade has ushered in breath-taking development in Central and Eastern Europe’s biggest economy. In the year before Poland acceded to the EU, its economy generated a GDP of $217 billion. By 2013, that figure had rocketed to $513 billion. GDP per capita has risen from about 50 percent of the EU average to more than 65 percent.
During the past decade Poland has received roughly €70 billion in EU funds, one of the largest wealth transfers between nations in recent history. By the time you add the roughly €73 billion earmarked in cohesion funds for Poland in the budget years 2014-2020, the country will have received a windfall significantly larger than the value of the Marshall Plan calculated in today’s prices. And this does not take into account the tens of billions of euros that Polish farmers continue to receive in agricultural subsidies from the EU.
Poland has also emerged as a stabilizing factor in Europe, being the only EU member state to avoid recession in 2009. In fact, in the crisis years of 2008-2011, the country saw cumulative GDP growth of nearly 16 percent – twice as much as its nearest EU competitor – while the EU economy as a whole shrank by half a percent.
But apart from the headline macro-economic figures, Poland and Poles themselves have changed as a result of EU membership. Young Poles today travel and study all over Europe, taking part in exchange programs or just simply packing up their bags and heading for the nearest airport. This of course has changed the country’s demographics significantly.
Poland’s central statistics office estimates that 2.1 million Poles now live abroad, mostly within Europe. That figure
peaked at 2.3 million in 2007, after which some people started to move back, albeit not in large numbers. The country’s population has thus shrunk from over 38 million to just over 36 million people.
Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometers of highways, expressways, bicycle and tourist paths have all been built with EU money. So have sports facilities for youth as well as kindergartens and pre-schools. It is difficult to find a large new construction project without a notice board in front of it highlighting the role of EU funds.
Today, a trip through Warsaw, the country’s capital is like a journey in fast motion, full of people who have some catching up to do and are not willing to be deterred in their race to the top. Poland is no longer the eternal victim consumed by self-pity, as its citizens often used to view it in the past. A collective inferiority complex, shaped historically by the loss of independence and foreign oppression, has been transformed into a new sense of self-worth and burning, sometimes ruthless, ambition.
Poland has strengthened its diplomatic position in the world mainly by strengthening its position within the EU since it joined. The country has likewise enjoyed political stability in the past decade. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been in office for seven years now, making him one of the longest-serving European leaders around.
The EU accession of Poland and seven other CEE countries in 2004 also made the EU a more credible pan-European bloc rather than merely a gathering of Western European countries with a smattering of their southern neighbors.
So what next?
This is not to say that Poland has overnight become a land of milk and honey for everyone. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at almost 14 percent. And this despite the fact that so many young Poles have emigrated.
In a recent interview, WBJ Observer asked Leszek Balcerowicz, who as a former finance minister, deputy PM and president of Poland’s central bank is widely regarded as the architect of Poland’s economic transformation from communism to a free-market economy, what eventual dangers still lie ahead for Poland.
“Without additional reforms, demographic changes will lead us to a situation where by 2020, we will lose a million people from our workforce. Secondly, we have the lowest private investment rate in the region,” said Balcerowicz.
“And lastly, the biggest engine of Poland’s development, namely the quick tempo at which our productivity improves, is increasing more slowly now. We must employ tools to counter each of these dangers,” he added. Balcerowicz said there were still serious barriers to doing business in Poland and that deregulation had to pick up at a faster pace.
Join the euro zone
Poland needs to integrate even further with the European Union. It should join the euro zone for that is the absolute core of Europe. The only reason Greece is not bankrupt today is because it adopted the common currency. Should – knock on wood – any more historical catastrophes be lying in wait for Poland, it would serve it well to face them while a member of the world’s richest club.
Poland’s EU accession would not have been possible without broad public consensus. Both political elites and Polish society supported the idea of reintegration with Europe. The determination to fulfill the criteria necessary to join the EU translated into a steadfast pursuit of EU-membership-oriented policies which ultimately helped modernize the country and its institutions.
This same broad consensus will be needed in order to convince the public, who want Western European standards of living but not Western European prices, that joining the euro zone is in Poland’s strategic interest, both politically and economically. Without that, Poland will not be able to claim to be in Europe’s inner circle.
Regarding policy at home, as Leszek Balcerowicz said, “There is still space for a lot of reform in Poland. If we can force those through, then Poland will continue to catch up to the West at a good pace.” This newspaper certainly agrees with that. Here’s to the next decade of Poland’s EU membership being as successful as the first.