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Analysis
Polish euro threat if Brits say No

Polish euro threat if Brits say No

European unity and the spirit of David Bowie

by a special correspondent in Warsaw

Wed 13 Apr 2016

Poles have ambivalent feelings towards the UK. And the same goes for views about a possible British European Union exit after the 23 June referendum.

British eurosceptics need to consider that, if the UK leaves, then the group of other member countries like Poland that wish (for good reasons) to stay outside the euro may be reduced to a meaningless rump. The government of the conservative Law and Justice party – whatever its current hostility on the issue – might come under irresistible pressure to join monetary union, even though that would be in neither Poland’s nor the EU’s interest.

To safeguard Poland from such an ill-fated choice, British critics of monetary union might be advised to temper their antagonism and ensure that Britain continues to fight for reforms from within rather than outside the EU.

The Poles are grateful to the UK for letting so many Polish citizens come to Britain to find a better place to live since EU accession in 2004. There are other areas of fellow feeling. We Poles have much affection for the late David Bowie and his brief experience in the Polish capital that led to composition of the bleak and unforgettable Warszawa in the 1970s.

On the other hand, many Poles have been offended by populist remarks by David Cameron, the British prime minster, about foreigners allegedly abusing British social benefits. And some in Warsaw doubt Britain’s ability to support Poland’s geopolitical interests if European turmoil broke out again, for example in relations with Russia.

Historical experience is not encouraging. Although Britain went to war against Germany over Poland in 1939, many still remember the UK’s indifference to the Poles during the so-called phoney war between September 1939 and April 1940. For the occupied Poles, this was anything but phoney.

The Warsaw government wants to be more assertive towards Brussels. The UK’s European policies suit its vision. Many in Warsaw have the impression that the Polish government would like to replace Berlin with London as Poland’s strategic ally in Europe. This may be a risky strategy. Some adversaries of the Warsaw government point out that flirting with Berlin ended with two Poles getting top jobs in Europe – Donald Tusk as president of the European council and earlier Jerzy Buzek as president of the European parliament – while liaisons with Cameron have brought nothing.

The strength and durability of the relationship with London will depend on the June vote. Fostering links with an EU member renowned for its scepticism is one thing; strengthening ties with an EU secessionist is another.

Warsaw would have no option but to put distance between itself and London if a UK exit paves the way for closer European integration. A continental hard-core of member states would see British departure as a golden opportunity to press on with ‘ever closer union’. The dilemma for Poland would be excruciating. But, at a time of tension with Russia over Ukraine and other issues, the Poles would find it very hard not to go with the European mainstream.

The EU is not flawless. But these deficiencies should not make us overlook its advantages. There was a loud sigh of relief in Britain when Scotland opted to remain in the UK in September 2014. This sigh will be echoed across Europe if the British stay in after June.

In a globalised world, unity matters. Europe needs Britain to remain flexible, versatile and strong. David Bowie was not the only Brit to find salvation at the very heart of the old continent. The Brits can rebel, as Bowie would have done, against excessive federalism. But we should not forget that, these days, you can travel from one Berlin district to another without getting shot by border guards. The EU deserves some credit for that.

The author works for an official institution in Warsaw. This is No.32 in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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