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Europe

"The Most-Powerful Voice in the East"

This weekend, Polish voters are hitting their local polling stations to cast their ballots on membership in the European Union. DW-WORLD spoke to respected historian Norman Davies about Poland's future role in Europe.

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EU accession has come dizzyingly fast after the fall of communism for many Poles.

On Saturday and Sunday, Polish voters are heading out to schools, government offices and other polling stations to vote in a referendum that will determine whether the country joins the European Union in 2004. The latest public opinion polls show that close to 70 percent of the population supports EU accession.

Still, many Poles view the EU warily -- as a supranational organization managed out of Brussels. In an effort rally the skeptical, European leaders including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder traveled to the country to get out the pro-EU vote in Poland.

Independence-loving Poles

According to English historian Norman Davies, who has written numerous tomes on Polish history, the referendum is a huge step for Poland that comes relatively quickly after the fall of communism in the country -- and for that reason there's considerable hesitance.

"The Poles fought for 200 years to create an independent and sovereign democratic state," Davies said. "They first accomplished that 13 years ago and now the citizens are being asked very early on to at least give up part of that sovereignty." Davies described the vote as the first significant referendum an independent and free Poland has had to decide on. Still, Davies said he believed that Poland would still vote in favor of EU membership.

Since the end of communism, entry into international alliances like NATO and the European Union have been the dominant political issue in the former Eastern bloc giant. Once these diplomatic goals have been achieved, Davies said, the political landscape of Poland, which has a population of 40 million, will undergo dramatic changes.

Davies believes the new democratic movement will lead to the creation of a democratic left that does not have its roots in Poland's former communist party. Without such historical baggage, that movement will grow even stronger -- a development that will also be encouraged by neighboring Germany. "After entry in the EU, the post-communist phase (in Poland) will fade away," he said.

New challenges

Those changes will also have an impact on the rest of Europe, including Germany -- and it could come as a shock for some. Davies said he thinks Europeans will be astounded by the energy and purposefulness of Poles when they get their mind fixed on an issue. And that could pose a challenge for the older EU member states -- like Germany and France -- which have long hammered out issues amongst themselves. With nation as powerful as Poland as a partner, the original EU countries will have no choice but to take its considerations seriously.

Davies believes Poland will ultimately become one of the six or seven larger EU member states that dominate the majority decisions in the EU and hold the greatest sway in decision-making. That will put it in a elite club that includes Germany, Britain, France, Spain and Italy -- all countries that have a much stronger say than smaller countries like Luxembourg or Slovenia. "Poland will be the most-powerful voice in the east -- and as such also a strong partner in the European Union," he said.

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