Sense and Solidarity for Poland

How many of you knew that the President of Poland came to America on July 16?
Thought so. This state visit was essentially overlooked by the media. Poland has a long history of being treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of nations. As far back as the 18th century, historians referred to “The Negative Poland Policy,” the European practice of bribing noblemen to keep this besieged country no more than an agricultural backwater. When it joined the European Union in 2004, after decades of Soviet domination, the hope was that Poland was finally going to get the respect it deserved.

Indeed, the twin brothers Kaczynski who preside over the current government, President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslav respectively, have been acting up and speaking out, but Brussels seems determined to hit Poland where it hurts the most and muffle the mouse before roaring becomes a bad habit. At summits for example.

Jaws dropped in June at the European Union (EU) meeting when Poland complained that the voting rules for member nations were unfair because they were based on population size. We would have more citizens and greater voting rights if the Germans hadn’t killed so many of us during World War Two, said the Poles. Not since John Cleese goose-stepped around the lobby of Faulty Towers had such an anti-German comment been paraded out in public. One of the EU’s foremost club rules is: “Don’t Mention the War.” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who held the rotating EU Presidency and was thus hosting this event, must have been livid.

By mid-June, Russian President Vladimir Putin was none too happy with Poland either. The brothers Kaczynski had angered the Russian government by offering America some land on which to construct part of a proposed new missile defense system. The Russians didn’t buy the sales pitch that the missiles these facilities would house would not be directed at Russia, but at "rogue" states such as North Korea and Iran. Small surprise then that Russian news sources put a chilly spin on the warm reception President Bush gave his Polish counterpart in Washington last week. Poland was said to be “courting” America, trying to overcome its incredible bad luck. They could be on to something.

After his stop over in Washington, D.C., President Kaczynski toured Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara, California, looking over the kinds of equipment that the missile shield will require. His genial comments about US-Polish cooperation belied polls, conducted by a publicly funded institute in Warsaw, which indicate that 55 percent of the Polish people opposed hosting a U.S. missile defense base on their turf. The deal had also been offered without the advice and consent of the Polish parliament. This occasioned a vociferous outcry for a public referendum on the proposed project, but that may not happen if the US cannot submit to a rather significant Polish demand. Speaking to the press about security concerns, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, Wladyslaw Stasiak, stated that the proposed US base, and all its personnel, would have to agree to abide completely by Polish law versus being what is known as “extraterritorial.” There could be no immunity, no exceptions, and no negotiating on the point, thank you. This is a mighty big condition for the mouse to propose to the lion, but a peace offering was in hand. This came when President Kaczynski posthumously awarded Poland’s highest honor, The White Eagle, to the late President Ronald Reagan. The audience at the Reagan Presidential Library cheered as Nancy Reagan accepted the award.

But the cheers had barely faded away in Simi Valley, CA, when, back in Europe, Brussels made its own rather stunning demand on the Kaczynski administration. After Poland joined the EU, it continued to heavily subsidize its three main shipyards. This indisputably violated EU regulations limiting state aid, by any EU member nation, to one of its own key industrial sectors. Poland was able to strike a deal for two of its shipyards, Gyynia and Szczecin. In those cases, the EU forgave state subsidies in exchange for cutbacks in capacity. But no deal was ever put forth to resolve the situation at the third — and most important entity — the Gdansk shipyard, birthplace of the Solidarity Movement.

It was not unexpected but nonetheless unwelcome when, on July 21, the European Union Competition Commissioner gave Polish authorities 30 days to either close two of the three shipways at Gdansk or repay, to the EU, the accumulated state aid which Gdansk has received. By all accounts this amounts to 192 million zlotys or $71 million US. The initial response of the Polish deputy economics minister in charge of the shipyard sector was to wail about imminent bankruptcy and loss of jobs. Authorities in Poland then floated the idea that there had been an unwritten agreement that Poland would have two extra years to sort out the Gdansk problem — a proposition quickly denied by EU officials. Some Poles wondered if the price of EU membership was worth sacrificing sacred ground. The question is — just how sacred is this place? The Gdansk shipyard, which sits on prime Baltic Coast real estate and is surrounded by the city’s historic old town area, is the target of developers who want to build condos on or near this hallowed ground.

Roman Galezewski, a member of the board for the Gdansk yard, said that the invocation of the EU’s competition rules were a diversion. Far from being concerned with enforcing competitive policies, Galezewski asserted that EU officials were acting on behalf of a US investment fund which has already purchased the yard’s land from the Gdansk City Hall. "Ever since the massive value of the land bought by the American fund from the city has become known, everything possible has been done to shut down the yards,” Galezewski insisted.

The EU has received assurances from the Kaczynski administration that a response to their ultimatum will arrive by August 21. Will the shipyards give way to bulldozers and building cranes? Can the mouse roar loudly enough to stop the developers or is it willing to sacrifice solidarnosc for profit? Can the movement which helped end Soviet communism rise up again to block the construction of pricey condos? Is Pope John Paul II spinning in his Vatican grave?