Twelve years ago, the transformation of Poland from a post-communism to a free market-oriented capitalist economy led to its accession to the European Union. The day on which this happened, May 1st 2004, remains a symbol of genuine change. This process has completely altered the political perspective of Poland as compared to the Cold War, which is part of what is called ‘The Return to Europe’.I
The Poles were mostly full of hope with regard to EU membership, although this also raised some fears, especially about the loss of its sovereignty. Today, after a decade of membership, it is possible to analyse the impact of the accession for Poland, but also the impact on the European Union itself.
Poland’s membership proved to be below its expectations in some economic and political areas, however the overall net results definitely favor Poland.II
If we can be sure of one thing, it is that Poland has become a key player in the European UnionIII Gradually Poland has gained power among European institutions and confirmed its position in the Visegrad Group.IV The apogee of this process is surely the appointment of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.V
With the benefit of hindsight, an analysis of Poland’s EU membership allows us to draw conclusions in three areas: the expansion of Poland’s economy due to increased exports, Poland as an international education hub in Europe attracting more and more students each year, and the views of Poles on how EU membership has impacted the social situation in the country.
The Polish Economy and EU Membership
Between 2004 and 2013, Poland’s GDP increased by almost half (48.7%), placing it at the highest growth level of all the Member States of the European Union.VI Entrance of Poland has given it the opportunity of creating an attractive investment climate and financial credibility, which were key for modernising its economy. Even during the 2009 crisis, economic foundations built by Poland helped it avert the recession. By now, Poland holds the eighth place in the European Union in terms of GDP, which was 427 bn euro in 2015.VII
“I was too young to understand what happened when Poland joined the EU, but today I can see it brought a lot of positive things, especially about our economy”, said Jakub, student at AGH University, showing that although Poles often do not really know much about the European Union they do feel involved with the subject.
The economic success of Poland especially depends on export; Poland’s trade policy positions trade as the engine of economic development. In the 2004-2013 period exports also doubled, especially because trade with European Union members increased significantly.VIII Poland also became part of trade agreements with third countries in accordance with European Union trade strategy. Therefore, unlike the prediction by opponents of EU memberhip, Poland’s access to the EU market did not crash small entrepreneurship, but rather strengthened it.
However, Poland has not shown interest in moving rapidly to adopt the euro as its national currency, the next step of its European integration.IX Despite former Prime Minister Donald Tusk wanting Poland to join the Eurozone, today the eurosceptic party ‘Law and Justice’, which won the 2015 election, is opposed to adopting the Euro. Poles do not really see any benefit in joining the Eurozone. As Iwona, journalism student at the Jagiellonian University states:
“I have heard about joined Eurozone several times in Poland but it was always delayed and finally never happened.”
Krzysztof, history student at Jagiellonian University thinks joining Eurozone is not necessary: “Having our own currency proved to be useful, as revealed by the crisis in Greece. Countries that did adopt the euro did not surpass Poland because of that, so it’s not needed.”
Popularity of Erasmus programs in Poland
Poland became an important educational hub, attracting students from all over Europe and the world, especially to Warsaw, Krakow and Poznan. Erasmus program figures show that around 120,000 Polish students benefited from a study or work placement in other EU Member States while 37,000 lecturers gave classes at universities or received training in other EU Member States.X Those figures put Poland in the sixth place of European countries sending and receiving the largest numbers of students, and this trend does not seem to decline any time soon. Indeed, the numbers of Polish students who study abroad under the Erasmus program keep growing each year. However, the Erasmus program is not the only way for Polish to study abroad; the strong reputation of Polish universities helped them create many relations with other European universities, for instance through the establishment of international degrees.
While the main destinations for Polish students are Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal and the UK, Polish universities welcomed 42.500 students from all other Europe. These figures show the attractiveness of Poland as an Erasmus destination, as the number of incoming students is significantly higher than outgoing students.
Poles’ perception of the EU
From the beginning of Poland’s EU membership, Poles have shown a high level of support for the European Union. Support for the pro-accession side has increased even further when the first benefits of the membership were felt within the country. Strong support can be found among all age groups and all social classes.
In 2011, 78% of Poles, across all age categories, believed that they had benefited from the accession,XI and Poles were most positive about the EU’s future compared to people from other member states. This result might be due to the fact that 2011 marked the end of the seven years transitional period and was the turning point for Poles to enjoy the ‘four freedoms’: free movement of goods, services, capitals and, above all, persons. Finally, Poles were allowed to access to the German and Austrian labour market.
A survey conducted in spring 2016 by the Pew research centre shows that Poles remain the strongest backers of the EU with 72 % of them having a favourable opinion of the European Union, far ahead of their German (50 %) or even French (38%) neighbours.XII This survey seems to contradict the policies of the current government in place, elected by Poles, showing a deep split among the Polish population between EU supporters and EU opponents.
Krzysztof, a history student, gives us his view on how Poles see the EU: “Poles have not really a good opinion about EU. We appreciate money from (the) EU – since 2004 Poland change(d) a lot because of that and many young people are happy that they can go, work and live in other European countries. But also we see, that Poland is not so important in (the) EU (compared to Germany, France), and we don’t like that the EU imposes its political goals on us (like (the) refugee problem). Also, (the) conservative part of our society does not like (the) EU – it’s too liberal for them ». This quote emphasises again the two-speed Poland, one part conservative, and the other progressive.
The United Kingdom has been a good political partner for Poland. As Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said, Poland and the UK have a “common perception of European problems”.XIII After the Brexit, Poles presume it will be harder for them to defend their own interests.XIV Additionally, Poland blames Brussels for the Brexit and wants to generate the change within the EU after this event by endorsing radical changes.XV
The situation of Poland changed substantially since it joined the EU, in fact, it brought about numerous positive aspects helping the country to develop faster. The incredible increase in GDP itself shows how favourable the EU accession is for Poland. Thus, the EU membership gives Poland the chance to enhance its economic relation as well as its educational relation with other European countries. Nevertheless, the EU is not only supported but also criticized, as manifested through the split of views on the EU among Poles.
After a decade of membership, Poles believe that the accession to the European Union is still one of the most important acts in Polish history. Indeed, it is one of the first major decisions the population took after their independence in 1918. Even if European support becomes more difficult in tough times, Poland remains a strong member and has enormous potential to become a strategic player for the future of the European Union.
I Mazowiecki, Tadeusz: “Powrót do Europy. Przemówieniena forum RadyEuropy w Strasburgu” (A Return to Europe. A Speech Held in the Council of Europe in Strasburg), Znak, No. 416, Kraków (January 1990), pp. 3-9.
II Costs and benefits of Poland’s membership in the European Union. Retrieved from http://www.msz.gov.pl/en/foreign_policy/foreign_economic_policy/costs_and_benefits/
III Nowak, A., Wojtaszczyk, A., & Zamęcki, Ł. (2016). Poland in European Union p. 182
IV The Visegrad Group: The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia | Current grant projects. Retrieved from http://www.visegradgroup.eu/
V Polish embassy in Luxembourg, Donald Tusk Becomes New European Council President. Retrieved from https://www.msz.gov.pl/fr/p/luksemburg_lu_a_fr/c/MOBILE/evenements/donald_tusk_becomes_new_european_council_president
VI Eurostat, GDP and main components (last update 30/09/2016). Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-datasets/-/nama_gdp_c
VII Gross domestic product at market prices (current prices, million euro). Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/refreshTableAction.do?tab=table&plugin=1&pcode=tec00001&language=en
VIII Ministry of ForeignAffairs (2014): Poland’s 10 years in European Union. Report, Warsaw, p. 72. Retrieved from www.msz.gov.pl.
IX Cienski, B. J. (2016, June 28). Poland mourns Brexit. Retrieved from http://www.politico.eu/article/poland-mourns-brexit/
X Ministry of ForeignAffairs (2014): Poland’s 10 years in European Union. Report, Warsaw, p. 17. Retrieved from www.msz.gov.pl.
XI Standard Eurobarometer 74. (2011, February). fieldwork Nov.2010, p. 36. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb74/eb74_publ_en.pdf
XII Stokes, B. (2016, June 07). Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit. Retrieved from http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/06/07/euroskepticism-beyond-brexit/
XII Information of the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the Polish Government’s foreign policy in 2016. (2016, January 29). Retrieved from http://www.msz.gov.pl/en/ministry/minister/speeches/address_by_the_minister_of_foreign_affairs_on_foreign_policy_in_2016
XIV Cienski, B. J. (2016, June 28). Poland mourns Brexit. Retrieved from http://www.politico.eu/article/poland-mourns-brexit/
XV Rettman, A. (2016, June 28). Poland to push for ‘radical’ new EU treaty. Retrieved from https://euobserver.com/institutional/134070
XVI Rule of Law: Commission issues recommendation to Poland. (2016, July 27). Retrieved from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-2643_en.htm