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Poland - Referendum on UE membership

Referendum on the European Union in Poland 7th-8th June 2003

Referendum on the European Union in Poland 7th-8th June 2003

08/06/2003 - Analysis

"Dear Sir/Madam, do you agree with the Polish Republic's membership of the European Union? " This is the question Polish voters will have to answer on 7th and 8th June during a referendum on their country's integration into Europe. As an exception in Polish history the election will be organised over two days so that a majority of Poles might go and vote; the referendum cannot be declared valid unless more than half of the electorate fulfil their electoral duty. Since opinion polls give the majority to the "yes" to joining the Union, the main worry lies in the participation level. Just three weeks before the referendum 64% of the Poles say they are sure to vote on 7th and 8th June.

Poland's candidature

Poland is often thought of as the key country in the future enlargement where all the challenges set by this unprecedented step in the history of European construction converge. This Central European republic's integration will bring to the European Union a country of 38.7 million inhabitants whose real GDP is only equal to a quarter of the average amongst the Fifteen and whose transfer over to community law in terms of its administrative structures is still incomplete. Poland's institutional influence will not be without effect since it will be equal to that of Spain. This country's history along with its demographic and economic importance just as its future position as the eastern border of the European Union make Poland a central player in the enlargement to come.

Poland's triumph comprises the greatest economic success amongst the states of Eastern and Central Europe. Poland was the first in this group of countries to meet the production levels it had before transition and this as early as 1995. From 1995 to 2000 the country also experienced the greatest growth rate in the region i.e. 5.5% per year on average. Foreign investments represent 6.7% of the GDP versus 3.1% only in 1998. The EU comprises two thirds of Poland's foreign trade. However these impressive economic results are not synonymous to a rise in the population's standard of life. The GDP per inhabitant is equal to 9,210 euros, placing Poland sixth in the candidate countries and far behind the Fifteen (23, 180 euros).

On the eve of the country's integration into Europe the economic situation is worrying. Growth has clearly slowed down (1.1% in 2001 and 1.3% in 2002) and above all unemployment is very high, effecting 18.7% of the working population (30% in some of the most stricken regions in the North and East of the country), a level that had never been reached before transition. The budgetary situation is badly damaged, the level of public debt is low (35% of the GDP) but the budgetary deficit has reached 6%, i.e. well above the 3% defined by the Maastricht Treaty. Likewise the restructuring and privatisation processes are incomplete. The value of State assets in the GDP represent around 33% i.e. a high percentage. But the Polish government will only reap 916 euros of the 2 billion that were planned this year (in 2002, privatisation revenues were only a third of the sums expected); the sectors that still have to be privatised are, amongst others, highly sensitive areas. The European Commission has also pointed to the gap that exists in Poland between the legal underpinning of the "acquis communautaire" and the strengthening of administrative capabilities that will enable the efficient application of community law. The country has received strong encouragement to take urgent action in this area by the recruitment and training of civil servants as well as the undertaking of the co-ordination of its administrative structures. Finally corruption continues to be high in 2003: 70% of the Poles think that it is a major problem, versus 46% in 2000 and 33% at the beginning of the 1990's.

Poland obtained from the Fifteen 36 transition periods that enabled it to delay the application of some measures included in the "acquis communautaire"; these were mainly areas involving major investments, such as in the environment where the cost of bringing Polish installations up to standard that was estimated at 40 billions euros. The Poles also gained a 12 year transition period for the purchase of agricultural and forestry land by non-nationals. This request that came from the authorities as well as the population can be explained by the country's history. In a country that was deprived of its sovereignty on many occasions, the possession of land constitutes a powerful national symbol amongst a population a part of which still fears the return of the Germans (around 3 million) who were thrown out of Poland after the redefinition of the borders after the Second World War. We should point out that between 1997 and 2001 the EU provided 75 million euros in aid to Poland in order to modernise its eastern borders. Since 2002 the Fifteen have taken on 15% of the surveillance budget dedicated to Polish borders.

Public Opinion and European Integration

The majority of Poles say they are in favour of their country joining the European Union. In March 64% said they were in favour of saying 'yes' in the referendum versus 24% who said they were going to vote 'no' and 12% were undecided. In April support for European integration had reached 68% of the population according to an opinion poll by the CBOS institute. The real worry lies in the participation level, since it has to be higher than half of those registered for the vote in order to be declared valid. In April 64% of the Poles said they had "definitely decided" to go and vote, with 10% maintaining they were 'certain not to vote'. Nevertheless opinion polls estimate that the participation rate should not rise very much over 50%. In spite of the operation's high cost and the difficulty in monitoring ballot boxes against any possible fraud, the Diet, the lower Chamber in Parliament and the Senate, finally accepted for the referendum to be held over two days, thus following Lithuania's example (the two day referendum is an electoral tradition in both Czechia and Slovakia). We should indicate that the two preceding referenda organised in Poland since 1990 failed to attract more than 50% of the electorate. If the abstention rate is the choice of more than 50% of those registered Poland's membership of the EU will have to confirmed by Parliament. Nevertheless the lack of popular support will comprise a failure both for the Leszek Miller's government (Democratic Left Alliance, SLD), one of whose first priorities it is to integrate into Europe, and for President Aleksander Kwasniewski (SLD) who has turned this referendum in the "third great battle" of his life (the Polish president, who is in his second term of office, cannot stand for a third one). What is more the popular referendum's failure would provide a substantial argument to the Eurosceptics.

Opposition to Poland's integration into the EU finds its recruits mainly amongst those in favour of the Polish Family League (LPR), the ultra-nationalist Catholic movement led by Roman Giertych, bringing together the National Party, the National Catholic Movement, Polish Alliance, the Alliance for Poland and other extreme rightwing movements. Militants are leading a vigorous campaign against European integration promoting the loss of sovereignty that membership would force upon a country that has only just freed itself from the USSR. The LPR is brandishing the threat of the country's invasion by the Germans that were thrown out after the war, the danger that Brussels poses in terms of Polish Christian values, and finally the rise in unemployment and prices that would necessarily accompany European integration. On April 11th, in an attempt to reassure the population, that is receptive to these lines of thought, the Diet voted in a text that said "Polish legislation life could not be limited to international measures in the areas of moral order over social life, the dignity of the family, marriage and education as well as the protection of." Not that Brussels ever threatened intervention in these areas, but it is better that things are said. The Prime Minister reconfirmed that the anti-abortion law would not be modified. Polish law on abortion, that has been applied since 1997, is, along with Irish law the strictest in Europe. It permits an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy in the event of rape, incest or if the mother's health is in danger or if there is an irreversible deformation of the foetus. Anyone practising an abortion runs the risk of incurring a 2 year prison sentence - the woman is not punished. The President of the Republic, Aleksander Kwasniewski, has said that he is against any modification of this law.

Apart from the nationalist Catholics, opposition to Poland's membership of the EU includes many of those in favour of the former radical agricultural union that was transformed into a political party, Samoobrona (Self-Defence). Its leader Andrzej Lepper officially supports European integration but does not miss an opportunity to play the anti-European card by defending national interests that have been "sold off" in negotiations with Brussels by successive governments, both on the Left and the Right, who have been in power since 1990. "I have nothing against the German nation," he says, but I do not want anything to do with its economic expansionism. However the 12 year transition period granted by Brussels before which time foreigners cannot buy our land is meaningless. The Germans have already waited 60 years they can wait a while longer before recovering what was Eastern Prussia before the war. I personally cannot forget History, not like our leaders.".

Although the population of the capital Warsaw like in many other major cities says that it is mainly in favour of the country's membership of the EU the situation is different amongst the rural population that comprises a third of the electorate. Even though agriculture represents 3.8% of the GDP the sector still employs 19% of the working population who are mostly against the EU. Rural Poland is particularly worried about the consequences that go with integration into the Union, fearing they will not be able to compete with European farmers who receive high subsidies. According to estimates undertaken by the Service for Economic Expansion in Warsaw, of the 858,000 farming concerns in Poland (69% of which own less than 7 hectares of land) between 50,000 and 150, 000 would not survive the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The leader of one of the oldest and most powerful Polish agricultural unions (1.2 million members), the National Union of Agricultural Circles and Organisations, Wladyslaw Serafin, did however sign an agreement in December with the European Agricultural Associations, the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations (COPA) and the General for Agricultural Co-operation, (COGECA). For many years both of these associations have been familiar with the EU's successive enlargements and are working hard with the agricultural organisations in the candidate countries and in particular with the Polish unions. Wladyslaw Serafin has been asked by the government to explain to the Polish agricultural community the advantages of the CAP.

The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, is trying very hard to reassure the Polish agricultural community about their country's membership of the Union. "Entering the Union is not like going to Hell, as some harbingers of doom are announcing," he said at the beginning of April, adding "Polish agriculture well be much healthier and Warsaw will be able to take advantage of both just and balanced measures." He believes that Polish farmers will benefit from the EU by the introduction of stable prices and community financial aid, but also from specific aid in order to diversify activities in rural areas. He also emphasised that Poland's membership would mean the entry by Polish farm products onto a market of 450 million consumers and that finally, in the face of the competition, Polish rural areas would have undeniable advantages such as for example low labour costs.

As far as the political movements are concerned the Polish Agricultural Workers' Party (PSL) set down in March three conditions for its support to Poland's entry into the European Union: the adoption of laws guaranteeing farmers State financial aid, restrictions on speculation on agricultural land and its sale to foreigners and finally the imposition of a minimum level of biofuel in marketed petrol. "If these laws are not voted in by June, we will not be able to say "yes" to the European Union," warned Jaroslaw Kalinowski, the party's chairman (Polish Agricultural Workers' Party, PSL), and former Agricultural Minister, who was dismissed on 1st March.

The electoral campaign

Just three weeks from the referendum, Leszek Miller's government (Democratic Left Alliance, SLD) is experiencing some turbulence. On 1st March the government coalition, that unites three parties, the Democratic Left Alliance, the Labour Union (UP) and the Polish Agricultural Workers' Party (PSL), collapsed. The two PSL ministers, Jaroslaw Kalinowski, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Stanislaw Zelichowski, Environment Mnister, were dismissed after Parliament's rejection of a draft law on the introduction of car road tax; this rejection was enabled by the PSL's negative vote thus leaving the government coalition in the minority. The introduction of this tax was designed to finance, with EU subsidies the construction of motorways in Poland. The opposition had qualified this taxation project as superfluous and unjust since part of the taxes on fuel is directed towards building roads. The government coalition therefore became a minority in Poland since the two parties that comprise it (Democratic Left Alliance and the Labour Union) only have 212 MP's out of the 460 sitting at the Diet.

As Leszek Miller's mandate only ends in September 2005 he announced at the beginning of April early general elections on 13th June 2004, the same day as the first European elections that Poles will be called upon to vote in. He justified his project with the "new order created by Poland's membership of the European Union", which does not seem to have convinced the population or the politicians. President Kwasniewski (SLD) even reacted quite energetically to this suggestion. The present government finds itself in an awkward position due to the terrible economic situation, corruption scandals surrounding the Prime Minister himself as well as the consequences of his support for the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq that went against the majority of the Polish population. On 2nd April Leszek Miller dismissed two other ministers (Health and Treasury), bringing the number of ministers who have been replaced since the government's creation in September 2001 to 10 out of 17. Finally on 26th April the Prime Minister appeared before a parliamentary commission, that is enquiring into the greatest corruption scandal in post-Communist Poland's history: the Rywin Affair. Lew Rywin, former chairman of Canal+ Poland's Monitoring Council is said to have asked the director of the Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper headed by Adam Michnik, for an enormous bribe in exchange for which he is said to have promised to prepare, in league with the Democratic Left Alliance, the Prime Minister's party, an amendment to the audio-visual law that would have enabled the newspaper's editor, the Agora Group to purchase the commercial TV channel Polsat. Although Leszek Miller is not directly involved he is accused however of having known about the affair and of not having informed the courts. All of these problems explain why, according to the opinion polls, 75% of the Poles say they are dissatisfied with the government and 62% unhappy with the Prime Minister. More than half believe incidentally that the Leszek Miller should resign.

Lech Nikolski, former head of Leszek Miller's cabinet and present director of European information has repeated to anyone who lends an ear that "it is not a referendum for or against the government but about the European Union, our campaign lies outside of the national political arena." For its part the Civic Platform (PO), a liberal opposition movement has declared "Yes to Europe, no to Leszek Miller" thereby running the risk of confusing the election's stakes on 7th and 8th June. Just three weeks before the referendum the Poles seem above all to be suffering from a lack of information about how their lives will be changed by their country's entry into the EU. The electoral campaign, that is supposed to be being driven by a government that is manifestly unpopular, has been impeded by this and is experiencing some difficulty in taking off. A national competition entitled 'The Europe of my Dreams" organised by the Prime Minister and the European Commission's Ambassador in Warsaw, Bruno Dethomas, was launched amongst young people aged 16 to 20. Six thousand schools are taking part; high school students have to create posters, stamps and Internet sites about the European Union and also write an essay on their vision of Europe. "This is a chance for young Poles to take the floor in the debate about their own future," declared Leszek Miller, adding, "this competition will also make it possible to improve the population's knowledge about Europe and help the electorate take their decision during the referendum. Some of those taking part are too young to vote but they might be able to convince their friends and family to go and do so."

Although a majority of Poles say they are in favour of their country integrating Europe, nothing has been settled yet such are the rural and agricultural population's fears about membership and such is the obvious lack of information on the part of most citizens. The political leaders will have their work cut out over the next few weeks of the campaign in order to convey what is at stake in this election and to mobilise the electorate in order to turn the referendum on 7th and 8th June into a real popular success.
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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