By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 15/05/08):
In Krakow, Poland’s Oxford, the Brits don’t have a good reputation. They pile in with easyJet for drunken hen, stag and thug weekends, carousing loudly, half-naked, through the cobbled streets of this conservative, Catholic city. And they call it “kraking”. In some bars, I was told, there are signs saying No Brits Allowed. Even the Germans are more welcome.
So much has changed since I first came to Krakow, nearly 30 years ago, just after the newly elected Polish pope, John Paul II, had spoken straight to the hearts of two million people in his beloved city – “in which every stone and every brick is dear to me” – and left a country and, soon enough, a Europe transformed.
Then, Leonid Brezhnev was still the Soviet leader in the Kremlin, the so-called People’s Republic of Poland was still supposedly a communist state, and Britain and Poland were in different worlds: west and east, Nato and Warsaw Pact, market as opposed to command economy, free and unfree. Now, as my wife and I wander down the narrow streets of the old town, I notice a sign advertising the following local tours: Castle, Old Town, Auschwitz, Polish Folk Art, Communism. A great Polish movement called Solidarity has made a country safe for capitalism, and in capitalism even tragedy is reduced to tourism.
On that first historic visit to his native land, Pope John Paul II scooped up a little girl and asked her: “Where is Poland?” She looked bewildered. Then he placed his hand over her heart and said: “Poland is here.” She must be in her 30s now, a citizen of a country that is as free as Britain. Poland and Britain are in the same geopolitical boat: both in Nato, both in the European Union, both part of “the west” of which Poles could then only dream, but which is now itself challenged by the rise of the new east – of China, India and other Asian powers. If the woman who was once that little girl has the money, she can travel wherever in the world she likes. Perhaps she has just seen her teenage son off, at what is now called John Paul II airport, to go and live in Britain, along with an estimated one million other Poles. For today we, the British, can also say: “Poland is here.”
In Oxford, England’s Krakow, the Poles have a good reputation. They are students in the city’s universities and language schools, managers, waiters and waitresses in its bars and cafes, plumbers and carpenters. They don’t go drunkenly “oxing” down its cobbled streets. Through their presence, and that of so many of their compatriots, as well as through the countries’ new partnership in the key institutions of the west, Britain and Poland have become more intertwined than ever before. Yet they take relatively little notice of each other, compared with the attention each separately pays to France and Germany, let alone to the United States. The relationship between the two peoples has traditionally been and generally remains a friendly one – but it’s a neglected friendship. (That’s one reason I came to Krakow, as co-organiser of a Polish-British Round Table, to try to cultivate the friendship a little more.)
Our historical experiences, and our perspectives on contemporary Europe, are still very different. Go to the extraordinary Czartoryski Museum and you will find, close to Leonardo’s exquisite Lady with an Ermine, a large empty picture frame containing a photograph of a missing Raphael. Why is it missing? Because the Nazi governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, took it with him when he fled before the advancing Red Army. When his American captors finally opened the box it was meant to be in, they found it was empty. To this day, no one knows where it is. It’s probably the most valuable missing picture from a private collection in the world. You don’t get that kind of story at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Any Pole over the age of 30 remembers what it was like to be cut off from the west, queueing for hours to get a visa, treated like a second-class citizen, possessed only of a few hoarded dollars or deutschmarks: the poor cousins, shivering on the doorstep.
Memories like these help explain why Poland, unlike Britain, is so enthusiastic about its membership of the European Union. We were there for Europe Day, May 9, and the media were full of it. There was a by now traditional Robert Schuman parade in Warsaw, with 10,000 people singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in Polish. (If you said the name Robert Schuman to the Brits “kraking” in the bars of Krakow, they would probably ask if he plays for Chelsea or Manchester United.) Polish euro-enthusiasm is also explained by the fact that Poland, unlike Britain, is a net recipient of significant EU funds: around €10bn a year over a seven-year period. Polish farmers, for instance, changed their tune about Europe when the cheques started coming. In polls, more than 80% of the population approve of the country’s EU membership, and more than 40% say they have personally benefited from it.
Under its terrible twins, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the country recently went through a paroxysm of conservative Euroscepticism – “Europe” being equated with atheism, hedonism, abortion, homosexuality and loss of national sovereignty. But, while Lech Kaczynski remains president, the liberal government of Donald Tusk has it firmly back on a pro-European course. Although Poland has only been a member of the EU for four years, whereas Britain has been in for 35, it is in some respects already more integrated than Britain. When French and German visitors land at Krakow’s John Paul II airport, they mingle with returning Poles striding through the entrance marked Schengen, while Brits queue up at the non-Schengen door.
Moreover, we were assured by well-informed Polish participants at the Polish-British round table that Poland is now ready, financially and economically, to join the eurozone – “more ready than Italy”, said one. Politically, it does not need a referendum, since the euro is mentioned in the accession treaty on which Poles have already voted. There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, but Poland’s target date for joining the euro is 2012.
By then, Britain’s prime minister will probably be David Cameron, who is currently even less inclined than Gordon Brown to steer Britain towards the euro. But we are in turbulent financial times, and they may get even more so. The euro is strengthening, while the dollar and the pound are weakening. What if, a few years from now, Britain is back to the bad old days of sterling crises? What if belonging to a strong currency bloc looks increasingly attractive in a world of big players and big storms? I have thought for some time that if Britain ever does join the euro, it will be under a Conservative government – on the well-known “Nixon to China” principle. That looks almost impossible now, but Poland’s transformation over the past three decades reminds us that sometimes the impossible happens. So will Poland help Britain join the eurozone in 2018?