Don’t let the lull in gloomy economic stories about the European Union fool you into believing all is well in the Kingdom of Brussels.
Greece, the modern definition or economic mismanagement, remains buoyed by German largesse as its Government tries to quell a domestic political crisis that has seen the far-right Golden Dawn party – complete with its make–shift swastika – prosper among voters looking for someone to blame.
It’s a crisis of confidence that goes far beyond the travails of the Eurozone. In the United Kingdom, domestic political pressure will force a referendum in the next Parliament on whether Britain actually wants to stay in the EU. The questions at the heart of Europe remain that fundamental.
Against this bleak backdrop it is easy to forget that for millions, European integration remains their ultimate goal. These are the peoples of Eastern European nations that have lived under the yoke of Communism and unsurprisingly, didn’t like what they experienced.
For them, the European Union holds in store economic sweeteners and no small measure of red tape, meaning it will never be beloved of small government Conservatives. But it also holds new, freer markets with fewer tariffs and duties; and opportunities for entrepreneurs to realize their vision before 500 million potential customers. For any businessmen born into a centralized economy with closed markets, this is beyond their wildest dreams.
Small wonder then that one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the EU remains Poland. It joined as part of the largest single EU enlargement in 2004 when ten nations acceded. All had conducted referenda in the years before to gauge support for the EU and Poland recorded the highest with a stunning 94 percent support.
Since then, EU membership has been kind to this nation of 38 million people. It recorded 3.5 percent growth in 2012 which, by Eurozone standards, is a bonanza. In just the past month, the World Bank has released a paper entitled Poland’s New Golden Age – Shifting from Europe’s Periphery to Its Center.
“Since 1989, when the Solidarity-led social movement spearheaded the collapse of communism, Poland’s economy has grown by more than any other country in Europe,” writes senior World Bank economist Marcin Piatowski.
“Poland was the only European economy to avoid a recession during the ongoing global crisis, continuously growing since 1992,” he notes.
Now Poland is becoming the number one supporter of further European expansion. Most of all it wants its neighbor Ukraine to take the first tentative step towards EU membership in the form of an Association Agreement, an event which will immediately trigger a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade deal with the EU.
This is in part personal. Despite their bloody history there is genuine mutual fondness between these two peoples. But the other driving factor behind Poland’s noisy campaigning on behalf of Kiev is healthy self-interest.
Poland can see 46 million consumers across the border and knows that at a time of zero growth in traditional European markets to the west, this is the opportunity of the decade. Bi-lateral trade is already growing by 3-4 percent per year but it could double once the free trade deal comes into force.
At the Eastern enlargement conference in Vilnius at the end of November, Georgia and Moldova are expected to initial their Association Agreements but there is no guarantee Ukraine will sign its deal.
Poland is nevertheless pressing hard on bringing the EU closer to Ukraine. That’s because waiting in the wings is Russia and its rival Customs Union; and in this Ukraine and Poland have yet another thing in common.
Having witnessed Russia’s ham-fisted efforts throughout summer 2013 to bully Kiev into joining that pact they, more than western European nations, are able to recall what it’s like to have their destinies controlled by Moscow.
It is something they wouldn’t wish upon any nation.
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