Poland is treading water at home and abroad
Sitting in the sun in the Rynek Glowny (Main Square) in Krakow a couple of weeks ago, large cheese pretzel in one hand and newspaper in the other, I revelled in the Polish summer. The young workers I spoke to, however, presented me with a slightly gloomier view. Their excitement for politics (if it ever existed) is waning. Donald Tusk, the current Polish prime minister, is also the present leader of the EU, after taking over the rotating six-month chair last month. It should be a chance for Warsaw to press home significant continental plans, especially in the security and regional development sectors. But the country is at a crossroads and unsure which road to take.
It is hard to manage being both national leader and head of the EU successfully and Mr Tusk has at least one eye on the general elections due in October. The EU is meant to be a discursive meeting-point for cross-border agreements and joint directives. Overly competitive states are often sidelined. The UK is a prime example with one foot in (membership) and one foot out (eurozone). Poland is doing the same dance at the moment: happily striding forth in the presidency but with the zloty still the only tender in its tills.
Raising the issue of the single currency brings shakes of the head and frowns among the twenty-somethings, though these negative opinions may be a snap reaction to the current financial crisis. The zloty itself is putting young Polish workers at a fork in the road of their own. Many have headed over to the UK to earn more for their work than the rates at home will offer. However, the global downturn, the following recession and subsequent US debt arguments, slow growth and eurozone crisis have led to many Poles returning home. One Polak I spoke to in London told me that public works projects and general urban construction plans in Poland are suffering – all the architects, surveyors and builders have gone to the UK. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, “immigration was highest in 2007 at 96,000 Polish citizens, but this declined to 39,000 in 2009”.
Mr Tusk has reassured Brussels his country will join the single currency despite that move probably being several years away. He has high European ambitions but must not neglect the opportunity to use domestic development to make Poland a regional leader. Young Poles seem bored by their politics: opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was scoffed at; Tusk himself dismissed as a lightweight; the sudden death of Andrzej Lepper came as a shock but he was seen as an outcast. Mr Tusk has the chance to be a progressive reformer driving business and education reforms at home and his energy, security and development policies in Europe but it seems that, with concern in Brussels and apathy at home, he needs to decide which side of the fence to come down on first.