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After the French "Non": Poland Reacts with Sangfroid

60% of Poles favor the constitution

02.06.2005 · Position von Kurt Klotzle

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As the European Union ponders its institutional future in the wake of the French rejection of the Constitutional Treaty, Polish politicians and pundits have naturally weighed in on the discussion. Given the near hysteria of the Polish political debate during final negotiations of the constitution last year – featuring heated arguments over voting rights and references to Europe's Christian heritage, as well as the impassioned conservative-nationalist slogan "Nice or death" – the reaction to the French referendum has been relatively mild.

Among politicians, responses to the French debacle have fallen predictably along party lines. Government representatives and members of the ruling Social Democrats (SLD), consistent supporters of the Constitution, were disappointed yet pragmatic, insisting that the constitution was not dead in its tracks. Speaking at a news conference on 30 May, Prime Minister Marek Belka stated, "We believe that Poland should continue the ratification process. We should give the Polish people the power to make the decision." Both Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld and Speaker of Parliament Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz have declared that Poland should still conduct a constitutional referendum – according to Rotfeld, "the sooner, the better."

Members of opposition parties, whose stance toward the constitution ranges from indifference to outright rejection, responded to developments with measured satisfaction. Lech Kaczynski, leader of the right-wing Law and Order (PiS) party and current leader in public opinion polls for this year’s presidential elections, stated, "The constitution that was rejected was harmful for Poland, because it went too far in undermining the sovereignty of the Polish state." Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, MEP from the center-right Civic Platform (PO), added: "There’s no reason to be sad. It’s a bad treaty – bureaucratic and far removed from the concerns of everyday citizens."

Polish commentators also avoided emotional responses to the French referendum. Krzysztof Bien, writing in the news daily Rzeczpospolita, noted with bemusement that "The French have rejected the constitutional treaty, but when one observes the reactions of the financial markets, one has to wonder whether anything important or bad actually occurred." In the daily Fakt, Grzegorz Jankowski stated, "The French rejection of the EU constitution is not a catastrophe. They did not vote against the constitution because they are against the EU, but because they rejected the constitution that was put before them (…) The European integration process will not suffer any damage." And in Gazeta Wyborcza, Batory Foundation president Aleksander Smolar suggested: "We should cut out the sections of the constitution that give it the character of a constitution – the preamble, the charter of fundamental rights, and the third section. Let’s keep what is most important – the institutional reforms, the decision-making procedures in the European Council, the new competences of the European Parliament and the Common Foreign and Security Policy. This type of treaty could be adopted without submitting it to national referenda." According to Radio Polonia, Smolar’s recommendations have met with considerable approval among Polish politicians.

The relative equanimity of Poland’s response to the French referendum reflects two – somewhat converse – developments. First, the multiple anxieties – of rampant inflation, a flood of Western goods squeezing uncompetitive Polish products from the market, hordes of Germans buying up Polish property – that accompanied Poland’s entry into the EU have simply not materialized. One year after joining the EU, Poland is reaping the benefits of EU funding, its economy is growing, and there is widespread popular satisfaction with EU membership. According to a May 2005 survey by the public opinion research institute OBOP, 58% of Poles viewed EU membership positively (up 7% from May 2004), while only 10% viewed EU membership negatively (down 5% from May 2004). Poland is now a more self-confident European player, and the constitutional process can be approached more pragmatically.

Second, until the French referendum, there was a distinct possibility that Poland might be the first EU member state to reject the constitution. This was due not to lack of popular support for the constitution but rather to the requirement – unique in Poland – that 50% of the electorate had to vote in the referendum in order for it to be valid. After adopting prickly policy positions during the past two years, particularly regarding the EU constitution and the Iraq War, Poland is greatly relieved not to be the first member state to reject the treaty, something that may well have cemented an outsider position for Poland within the Union for years to come. Civic Platform leader and presidential candidate Donald Tusk captured this sentiment most bluntly: "Poland’s position has clearly improved after the French decision. Today it is the French who are defending their selfish interests and putting the brakes on Europe."

Ironically, the prospects for a successful referendum in Poland are looking better and better. According to the latest CBOS poll (19 May 2005), 60% of Poles favor the constitution (up 4% from April), while only 14% are opposed (down 1% from April). Moreover, 61% of respondents stated that they would vote in Poland's planned constitutional referendum.

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