Poland's EU membership: seized opportunities: Zbigniew Gniatkowski outlines the benefits Poland has enjoyed since joining the European Union in 2014.

AuthorGniatkowski, Zbigniew

This year marks the 450th anniversary of an early precursor of the European Union. In 1569, at a general Sejm (Parliament) in Lublin, in the eastern part of today's Poland, deputies representing the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin, creating a single state called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was the first union of nations in Europe to share part of their sovereignty within a wider community without losing their influence on the workings of that commonwealth. The commonwealth had a common ruler, common security and foreign policies and a single currency. What remained distinct were official languages, judicial systems and armed forces.

This union provided strength, stability and prosperity, with a distinctive political system based on monarchic traditions but with an attachment to republican values. The king was elected by the szlachta (nobles) as part of so-called free elections, with the rule of law prevailing over the will of the rulers. Personal freedom and equality of citizens of that time (the quite numerous nobility) were respected and religious freedom was guaranteed in an official document, the Act of the Warsaw Confederation (1573).

During this time, later regarded as a golden age, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom, with science and arts flourishing. Refugees from across Europe sought the protection of Polish kings, as they fled from political chaos, absolutist rule, wars and religious persecution. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's success was based on voluntary integration processes.

New union

Almost two centuries after the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, other European nations created a different union --the European Union--but based on similar principles.

The integration processes that led to its creation began shortly after the Second World War, which took 60 million lives. The unprecedented crimes committed during that war by totalitarian regimes persuaded European elites to seek wholly new solutions. It was a time of great visionaries. Like the Poles and Lithuanians in the 16th century, the fathers of European integration, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi, invoked the timeless vision of man and society prominent in Christian thought. They believed that only co-operation based on these timeless values, shared by countries which had recently been warring nations, would preserve lasting peace and economic development. Time has shown that they were right. Those countries that joined the integration experiment have experienced sustained peace and economic growth.

For almost half a century, Poland, which remained on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain after the Second World War and was stripped of political sovereignty by the Soviet Union, had no opportunity to partake in the European project. These were, however, external obstacles. Internally, Poles always felt themselves inheritors of Latin culture and regarded their country and culture as an integral part of democratic Europe. The idea of a united Europe was supported by the Polish government-in-exile and a group co-operating with General Wladyslaw Sikorski, including his advisor Jozef Retinger. He was considered one of the co-founders of the European Community, closely co-operating with the four fathers of European integration. Retinger was an initiator of the Hague Congress in 1948, which contributed to the birth of the Council of Europe.

It was not until the election of Karol Wojtyla as pope in 1978, the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) revolution in 1980-81 and the collapse of the communist bloc, which began in Poland in 1989, that Poland could begin to join the process of European integration, a dream of several generations of Poles.

Transition period

The Solidarity movement was born in 1980. It championed European ideals--human rights, democracy and the free market. Besides the Church, this was the first organisation to be independent of the Polish communist regime and to express the aspirations of a free nation. The support by millions of Poles of the ideals embraced by Solidarity not only was a strong reminder of the European nature of our strivings but also initiated the journey to overcome the divisions blighting the Old Continent.

In February 1989, the so-called Round Table negotiations began in Poland between the decaying communist regime and representatives of the democratic opposition drawn mostly from the Solidarity movement. The ensuing partially free parliamentary elections in June 1989 started the process of removing communists from power.

Talk about Poland's 'symbolic return' to Europe became louder and bolder. Pope John Paul II expressed it very tellingly, stressing the need for unity in Europe, which should breathe with two lungs--the east lung and the west lung.

For the new government and their pluralistic political base, Poland's participation in European integration and Euro-Atlantic co-operation became important strategic goals, alongside building democracy and a free market. All public polls at that time unequivocally showed that most Poles supported Poland's accession to an integrating Europe and to the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO).

This striving to participate in European integration was a natural expression of the desire of a nation living for centuries in the geographical and cultural centre of Europe--a region where many roads crossed, not only in the literal sense of the word, linking the east with the west and the south with the north of the continent.

Accession question

In the initial period after communist rule, differences in the political system and level of development between Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe seemed too great to warrant Poland's quick integration with the developed countries in the West. The nascent democratic mechanisms and budding market economy in Poland had to be strengthened. For this reason, at its summit meeting in Copenhagen in 1993, the European Council set clear criteria for Poland's future membership of the European...

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