TCS Daily

Poland's Free-Market Dilemma

By Tomasz Teluk - May 1, 2003 12:00 AM

The prospect of a united Europe divides Poles. In June, they will vote for or against their country's accession to the European Union. The attitudes of liberals, conservatives and free-market enthusiasts have proven unpredictable.

Everyone on the right side of the political spectrum agrees that the EU is not the proper solution to the Poland's economic problems. Opponents describe the EU as a monster, similar to the totalitarian USSR regime. Such rhetoric is common in all Central European countries, especially ex-Soviet republics. But this populist argument is just as primitive as the viewpoint of the pro-EU lobby, which assures voters that integration will solve all the problems of the post-Cold War transformation. On the other hand, neither the liberals nor the conservatives are able to put forward any long-term political alternative to EU membership.

The EU is not the USSR

On the Polish political scene, for the first time in the history of the Third Republic, an issue has unified the national-socialist Polish Families League (LPR), the People's Self-Defense (Samoobrona) and the liberal-conservative Union of Real Politics (UPR). All oppose EU membership.

The two first parties are extremely populist. LPR is a nationalist, fundamentalist Catholic movement with an anti-market economic program. The only successes of Samoobrona are motorways and Parliament blockades under the charismatic leadership of Andrzej Lepper. The UPR is somewhat different. Many of its members are fascinated by Austrian School of Economics, even though they are conservatives (some have declared they are libertarians).
Each of these parties compares the EU to the USSR. But their arguments against Poland's EU accession are off-base. Populists frighten people by telling them they will lose their land and faith. The UPR has many economic arguments against Brussels, disliking the bureaucracy, interventionism, unfavorable balance of payments to Poland's budget, etc. These are largely true. The EU does not promote classical free-market values. However, in comparison to the current Polish business environment, the Common Market is a freer and fairer system for local entrepreneurs. Businessmen are looking forward to the opportunity to do business in the region. For them the EU is not ideal, but it is certainly not a totalitarian, compulsory system based on Marxist values.

Access as a Political Good

Liberal conservatives do not offer any political alternatives for the country. The idea of economic integration with the United States (or NAFTA) is a political fiction. Economists agree that Poland is too poor and weak to remain autonomous, as do Norway or Switzerland. Some experts believe that isolation could rather result in an Argentinian scenario under social-democratic leadership.

Poland's admittance to the EU is the strategic goal of the ruling social-democratic SLD party. But people are frustrated with the government of Prime Minister Leszek Miller. According to recent polls, almost three-quarters of the population disagree with his politics. Euro-enthusiasts worry that, when it comes time to vote on the EU referendum, many people will say "no" as a vote against Miller.

The pro-European campaign is inefficient and incompetent. But there are also no alternatives to the EU. There is no chance (no leaders, no competent programs, no legislative projects) for a deep free-market revolution in the Estonian style. And Polish society, without any fundamental free-market education, is not prepared for it.

Better EU than Nothing

Both an understanding of the current problems of the Polish economy and "classical liberal ignorance" have prompted many citizens to become Euro-enthusiasts. Most of the middle class, along with professionals and free-market oriented commentators, have declared their strong support for integration. They had enough of international isolationism during the long Cold War. They are asking, "If not the EU, then what?" And they find no answer - only the sad examples of such badly-managed countries as Moldova or Albania.

For many people, European integration is not just an economic process. Poles are happy that they are back in the European family after 50 years of slavery and humiliation. Their vote for integration is not a yes to European bureaucracy but to a presence on the international scene. "We want just to compete on the same conditions," said Marek Kulczewski, a student at Technical University in Krakow. "I await more choice and economic freedom."

Some liberals also see challenges at the macro level that will not be possible to face alone. Who else will rebuild our infrastructure and motorways? In their opinion regional EU projects give local governments more opportunities for autonomy than the other option: strengthening the central administration in Warsaw.

Individual Choice Against Public Choice

The first Central European country to hold an EU accession referendum was Hungary (almost 84 % of those who voted said 'yes', but the turnout was low); the next votes will be Lithuania (11 May) and then Poland (7-8 June). According to recent polls only 23 percent of Poles have declared they will vote against the EU. But Poles do not like to vote, and a poor referendum turnout is the only chance for populists and conservatives to prevail. If turnout is less than 50 percent, the decision belongs to the Parliament.

But many liberals and libertarians will shoot themselves in the foot. How so? They expect long-term personal benefits, such as freedom to choose their workplace, a better future for their children and higher salaries. Most of them are ambitious and well-educated. They will vote for Poland's admittance to EU out of personal interests. They also do not believe their leaders any more. People say they do not participate in elections because they have no political representation. But conservative parties and libertarians in Poland do not try hard enough to get elected to parliament. Voters are forced to create their own success stories.

Tomasz Teluk is a journalist publishing in the Polish press on politics, freedom and technology. His articles have appeared in Rzeczpospolita, Parkiet, Tygodnik Powszechny and Civitas, among other publications. He has run the interactive agency ( since 2001.

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