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We Poles know about shifting borders

We Poles know about shifting borders

Aligning European footballing and political maps

by Pawel Kowalewski in Warsaw

Thu 9 Jun 2016

Exposing political decisions to the will of the people can be risky. A British decision to leave the European Union on 23 June would probably lead to the UK’s disintegration. Keeping pro-EU Scotland inside the UK will be difficult if the English vote for ‘Brexit’. Contagion could spread to other parts of the EU.

The detachment of the continent’s largest financial centre from the world’s largest economic area sounds frightening. But far more dangerous would be to ignore the people. The EU has been somewhat impervious to electorates’ needs. So it’s no bad thing for the oldest modern democracy to remind us that politicians have to heed the citizens.

No one can predict the result. Football matches can affect polls. In 1970, England’s World Cup quarter-final loss against West Germany on 14 June contributed to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s surprise election defeat to Edward Heath four days later. How will the English react if a controversial continental refereeing decision ends England’s European championship campaign in the game against Slovakia in St Etienne on 20 June? London’s tabloids will not be kind to Europe the next day.

Perhaps the slicing up of the UK into its constituent parts reflects the march of history. As a boy growing up in Poland, I was surprised to learn from my parents that England was not a separate country, even though it had its own soccer team like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. My father drew me a copy of the Union Jack to explain.

We Poles are a bit blasé about changing borders. The Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth lasted four centuries, then disintegrated. Poland disappeared from the map for 123 years. After the second world war, my country moved westwards, but somehow became part of eastern Europe.

Up to 1990, Poland had three neighbours: the so-called German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Within 27 months, every single neighbour had disappeared, replaced by seven new ones: Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad). No wonder many of my friends have problems answering their children’s geography tests.

European integration has brought benefits, but the continent’s mood seems to have a reached a blurred line beyond which European values yield to national ones. The Brits complain about migrating Poles abusing their social system. Poles reply that the UK is benefiting from the influx of an educated workforce without paying a penny for it. Only a decade ago, the mood was different, with the two countries focusing on the mutual advantages, not the drawbacks, of this large labour transfer.

European disintegration has often been painful if not explosive in recent decades; only the ‘velvet revolution’ separating the Czechs and Slovaks has been comparatively tension-free. If there is a post-Brexit risk of a more general break-up, Europe should adopt a British approach. Coolness and pragmatism will be required. However, I fear animosity and disruption are more likely.

Some continental capitals have shown a somewhat overemotional reaction to Poland’s latest swing towards nationalism. Britain by contrast has been a great deal more relaxed. The overall European response to Polish events sets a poor precedent to how the EU would react to Brexit.

Knowing how frequently they change, we Poles like to collect historical maps. What happens if England wins the European championship final in Paris on 10 July, 17 days after their fans voted for Brexit? Parents will have to explain to their offspring a new kind of European champion, one that’s moving out of the EU. Yet there will be some comfort for schoolchildren. The political and footballing maps of Europe will at last be moving into alignment.

Pawel Kowalewski, a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, is an Adviser at the National Bank of Poland. He writes in a personal capacity. This is No.86 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

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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