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Fear, Hope Pervade Poland on Eve of Joining EU

Times Staff Writer

The New Europe beckons Adam Ringer, a bespectacled exporter of doctors, seller of lattes and purveyor of office plants.

Sitting in his coffee shop and staring out at a brisk Warsaw dusk, Ringer was awash in schemes and possibilities. His native Poland, torn from the continent by the Soviets after World War II, is on the brink of entering the European Union with nine other mostly Eastern nations.

“It means we will be like them,” said Ringer, noting, perhaps with a bit too much aplomb, that Poland will have a cachet equal to the likes of France and Germany as the EU expands to 25 countries Saturday. “It’s enormous. Just name it and there is opportunity. You know, cheese will be a very interesting market.”

Not all Poles and Europeans are as enthusiastic as Ringer about merging rich Western nations with their poorer brethren to the east. Although EU membership means that Poland -- with a 20% unemployment rate -- will gain freer access to European markets and that Polish citizens will face fewer border restrictions when visiting Paris and Rome, much of the chumminess is superficial. Most EU capitals are imposing immigration rules to prevent a surge of unskilled Poles, Lithuanians and Estonians from seeking jobs and living in the West.

The Western nations favor EU expansion to create an economic zone to compete with the U.S. and Asia and to instill harmony in a continent where nationalism has long led to bloodshed. But there is unease about absorbing roughly 75 million people from countries still emerging from the ruins of communism.

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Eastern nations have their own suspicions about a West that still tends to treat them as unpolished orphans. They fear that -- as happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- EU membership will offer no quick solutions to their economic and social problems, especially if the young and educated flee in search of prosperity.

“What can we do? Someone’s already decided for us,” a retired construction worker who gave his name only as Adam said as he sold batteries and razor blades from a narrow stall in Warsaw. “The EU means zero to me. Joining the EU may help our grandsons, but not me. I don’t know any languages. I’m 68, and I won’t be traveling. I have to stay here. I might be dead in two years anyway. I worked 42 years, and this is my reward. That’s life.”

Integration is also raising questions of identity for Poles. The Cold War divided Europe from its shared histories and cultures. The continent today is a gamut of expectations, and few can define what a European is. Poles, for example, are more pro-American and devout than the EU’s more secular, anti-Washington Western citizens. The vision of a New Europe -- although enshrined in treaties and headquartered in Brussels -- remains elusive and underscores the friction that may arise as the EU seeks a cohesive voice on foreign affairs and defense policies.

The new map of Europe is rattling Russia, already anxious about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s ambitions to expand farther east. Eight of the new EU members -- Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- were once under firm Communist control. The other two new members are Malta and the ethnic Greek portion of Cyprus.

The ascension of these 10 nations into what was once a “Western club” is also certain to dilute the power Paris and Berlin possess within the EU. Poland has shown early signs of defying its Western neighbors by sending troops to Iraq and bickering with Berlin over the EU’s constitution.

The union is expanding as much of the continent is in tumult over attempts to shrink the cherished welfare state. Reforms in Germany, France and Italy are angering trade unions and redefining the role of government. In many ways, Western Europeans are questioning the Enlightenment precepts upon which their societies are based. It is uncertain how the EU’s new members will solve their own problems while fitting into an often troubled family, one in which the largest economy -- Germany -- has a 10.4% unemployment rate and last year briefly tumbled into a recession.

Tilting west makes some Poles happy, though. They feel their nation’s spirit finds more resonance in the Alps than the Caucasus; they prefer Greek mythology to fables from the Caspian Sea.

“Eastern Europe was a historical insult to us,” said Krzysztof Zanussi, one of Poland’s most prominent film directors. “We are coming back to normality. But Europe needs to be revived. It’s very much in despair. It has no great projects for the future. We need a new generation, some new air. Poland has nothing to lose and all to gain.”

Other Poles sense that the EU -- which will increase to a population of 450 million when the new members join -- is a modern-day Trojan horse.

“Poles are being shown a false image of the EU,” said Przemyslaw Mazur, a history major at Warsaw University. “The EU doesn’t present any values for us. Poles are Christians, but the EU wants to create a society that rejects the values and religious history that are important to us.”

With a population of nearly 39 million, Poland is by far the largest of the new EU members. It is also representative of the economic crisis facing much of the former East Bloc. Poland’s unemployment rate is 2 1/2 times the EU average. The country’s average industrial wage is about 500 euros a month, or one-quarter of what is earned in neighboring Germany. Poland’s projected growth is an encouraging 4.6%, but Poles’ purchasing power is only 43% of the EU average.

“This is a great opportunity for Polish young people, especially in computer sciences,” said Witold Wybranski, a Japanese studies major at the university. “There is a job market in EU countries like Ireland. However, some countries are not likely to invite Polish people. It’s the Polish peril. Countries are afraid of cheap Polish labor.”

About 450,000 Poles, including 300,000 in Germany, currently work in EU countries in jobs ranging from farming to construction. As they seek to strengthen their information technology and service sectors, nations such as Germany and Britain are becoming more selective about the quality of economic migrants they allow across their borders. Polish economist Maciej Duszczyk estimated that by 2006, only 100,000 Poles would possess the resumes sought by EU employers.

“Young Poles can go and look for jobs, but they simply won’t be there,” Duszczyk said. “The barriers these EU countries are putting up will give someone from the East a small chance of finding a job.”

Janeczka Ostrowska is more concerned that Poland’s joining the EU will force her Warsaw butcher shop out of business. Standing amid hanging cuts of marbled beef and chickens on ice, Ostrowska said, “We’re afraid of joining the EU. We’re afraid prices will go up. We’re a small shop and we’re worried more European supermarket chains will come here. That kind of competition would kill us.”

Less worried and miles away, Irena Eris, the grande dame of Polish cosmetics, discussed plans to export her astringents and toning creams to millions of Western European women. A pharmacist, Eris began selling a facial cream out of a small house in 1983. Her business grew through Poland’s martial law and the early, unsteady days of capitalism. Eris Cosmetics today exports 300 skin-care products to countries around the world, including the U.S.

“After we join the EU, our product will be accepted into the wider European market,” said Eris, sitting beneath a picture of her and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Poles were historically powerful, but we disappeared from the map of Europe. Europe didn’t know about us for so long, and now we’re perceived like a Third World country. Why does this image exist? We have to change that.”

A cappuccino in one hand, a Marlboro in the other, Adam Ringer is a man who straddles borders. A Jew whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, he fled a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland in 1968 and ended up in Sweden teaching political science. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ringer, with a Swedish wife and children born abroad, began his journey back to his native land. Today, he is a political scientist turned happy capitalist.

He owns a coffee shop he wants to make into a chain. His other ventures include heating ventilation, children’s clothing, truck accessories (“stuff you don’t really need but want”), an office plant rental service and his most promising concern, a company that exports Polish doctors to European countries. He’s arranged for 210 physicians to work in Sweden, and “I’m looking at the British market right now. Do you know Britain needs 5,000 doctors? This is a dream business.”

Why will the EU be good for Poland?

“It’s like this,” he said. “My office rental plants are trucked in from Denmark. Now, they’re held up at borders. There’s too much bureaucracy. But once Poland is in the EU, there will be less bureaucracy and truck traffic will move more quickly. Before, I wanted to get into food. But there are high taxes on sweets and ice creams. But in the EU, import taxes will go down.”

He glanced out the window, past women talking on cellphones and a man sipping tea from South Africa.

“There are 14 European retailers fighting in this virgin market,” he said. “In banking, everyone is already here.”

Asked how Poland, with so many unskilled workers and Communist holdover farmers, can succeed in the EU, Ringer said, “There will be losers and winners. The losers are the ones who are already losers. The small shops. The small businessman. This is another step in globalization. The big guys take over.... You can’t make an information technology specialist out of a 50-year-old peasant.”

Fleishman was recently on assignment in Warsaw. Special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka contributed to this report.


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