Polish spirit

  • Mark Mardell
  • 5 Jul 07, 08:10 AM

Poland is seen as a problem. Many European leaders find it hard to swallow the Polish spirit: too harsh, too challenging, enough indeed to make them splutter and choke.

Perhaps they have forgotten too much.

The European Union is a unique blend of compromises - savage history mellowed with age - while many Poles still feel fiery about the past. To put it more crudely, they suffered more than most in World War II but when others gathered round the table to make sure it would never happen again, they were unavoidably delayed. They missed the bit where the goodies got handed out and "sorry" was said with real sorrow.

lk_afp_203.jpgAs Portugal takes on the EU presidency, its prime minister, Jose Socrates, has said he doesn't want to cast Poland as the bad guy in the European movie. But the most commonly held view among European Union diplomats is that Poland, or at least the current Polish government, isn't playing the game, is stubborn and intractable. Those who hold this view often feel that they were rather generous in allowing Poland and the other seven eastern former-communist states to join their club - and now the biggest of them wants to change the rules.

Recently a senior diplomat of one of the smaller countries told me he wished he could return to the EU of 15 states. He said something like: "We had a common history, a common attitude towards Europe, which made things simpler. Now the new countries don't share that attitude." He said it would be better if some of them would leave. I normally favour short sharp questions to politicians, but this was a conversation over dinner rather than an interview, so I rambled on a bit. I pointed out that France, Germany and Britain had very different, if often shared, histories and very different attitudes towards Europe. On the other hand, despite their different historical experiences, Estonia or the Czech Republic seemed quite similar to the Danes or Swedes in their approach to Europe. So when he said "the new countries" was that just code for Poland? "Yes," he replied with undiplomatic alacrity.

Jabbing at a taboo

The twins who run Poland are disliked even more because of the outcome of the June summit. Despite all the warnings that they didn't know how to play the game, that they had to forge alliances rather than be so pig-headed, they remained intransigent. And won. They got the voting system they want kept for at least another seven years, against the opposition of 26 other countries. Now they are claiming that an oral agreement was made to give even more concessions and want the deal unpicked. The rest of the EU is unamused.

handbag_pa_203.jpgI am tempted to write that they have done a Thatcher, waving their handbags. But perhaps that would be unwise as the twins' ultra-conservative government recently thought about banning the Teletubbies from Polish TV screens, because the apparently male Tinky Winky carries a handbag and so threatens to corrupt the morals of Poland's toddlers. But at any rate, they waved something appropriately butch and the other countries, desperate for a deal, let them have what they wanted.

But the real offence was not caused by this victory but the remarks that preceded it. The affront was the Polish claim that they deserved a different voting system, because they would have a much larger population today if the Germans hadn't killed so many of them in World War II. When I said they had broken one of the unwritten rules of the EU, "Don't mention the war!" I intended to raise a laugh, but I wasn't joking. The Fawlty Towers sketch is excruciatingly funny because Basil is so focused on not saying what is at the front of his mind, that he keeps saying it. His intention is not to talk about the one subject that, to him, defines his German guests. But the Poles are deliberately jabbing at a taboo, trying to cause offence.


Many Germans do find the British harping on about Spitfires and goosesteps rather childish and annoying, but the more thoughtful ones understand why we do it. For the British, our country's defiant and determined stand in World War II is still a source of national pride, and to tell the story properly you have to have an enemy. Of course, British people died, families suffered terribly, but there was an end and a purpose. They were heroes, not victims. It's very different in the rest of Europe.

For most other countries, World War II was a source of shame. The shame of defeat, or the shame of conquest. The shame of collaboration, the shame of turning a blind eye. Of course, there was heroism and pride too. But the war hurt too much, in too many ways. It had to be put firmly in the past, not constantly picked over. The forerunner of the European Union was designed quite specifically to build bridges, to soothe the pain, and crucially to make sure it never happened again. There are those who will argue the EU's role as the peacemaker in Europe is much overplayed and that, for instance, Nato was far more important. But I am not trying to settle modern and legitimate political debates but describe how people feel, how they see their own history.

gun_203.jpgOften the European Union's role in burying the divisions of the past is talked about in rather wishy-washy terms. But it was built on a number of practical measures. The supra-nationalisation of German steel and coal. The aggressors, Germany and Italy, coming together with the victims, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, under the umbrella of an organisation built on German money and French bureaucracy, German submission and Francophone domination.

And look at where the institutions are placed. I curse every time I have to go to the place where the European Parliament meets once a month, or where the Council of Ministers gets together for three months a year, at huge cost. But I understand why I am making the trip. Brussels. Luxembourg. Strasbourg. The institutions are built mainly along the Franco-German faultlines, the borders that were violated by war. In the EU, you don't mention the war because the settlement has been made, the grievances can be forgotten.

Long-lost brother

But Poland only joined three years ago. It has been out of the Communist deep freeze for a while now, but history takes a while to thaw. Germany has made a bit of a fuss about the recent mocked-up picture in a Polish magazine of Mrs Merkel displaying her chest, but I bet it was the one of her with a Hitler moustache last year that really rankled.

The Poles have got money and markets out of the EU. But they haven't got an apology. Some Germans feel that without their friendship and aid Poland wouldn't have been allowed in the club so soon. Maybe. But a long-lost brother has returned to the family home, still simmering about a past upset, when the rest of the family has made up and forgotten long ago.

There is no Council of Ministers meeting in Warsaw during June and July. Parliament doesn't go to Krakow once a month. Poland was at the centre of the war, but not at the centre of the peace. Some in the European Commission think there has to be a Kohl-Mitterrand moment, when the two men held hands by a World War I memorial, a statement that needed no words... I am not sure I will ever see the picture of Merkel, one arm round each twin, solemn in Silesia, but perhaps such a gesture is what it would take to make the Polish problem fade to black.

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