Poland Comes Home

The European Commission calls it "a turning point in history." That's no exaggeration. Poland's overwhelming "Yes" vote in last weekend's referendum on joining the European Union will have a profound impact on both.

One of 10 countries approved to join the EU in 2004, Poland was the most ambivalent. Small farmers worried about having to compete with the French and Germans. Roman Catholic parish priests wanted to preserve the country's stances against abortion and divorce.

But 58 percent of Poland's mainly Catholic voters turned out, urged to do so by Polish Pope John Paul II and others, and voted 78 percent to 22 percent for the EU. That will make Poland, with its 39 million people, the EU's sixth-largest member.

It will also help create the most united Europe since the Roman Empire - economically, at least. The 10th- century Holy Roman Empire of Saxon King Otto I pales by comparison. The new common market will stretch from the Atlantic to Russia's border.

Poland's EU entry will be the crowning moment in the nation's rebirth. Once a European power, Poland vanished in the late 1700s, gobbled up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. Poland's brief independence after World War I ended when Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union devoured it again in 1939. After World War II, the country quickly fell under Soviet communist domination that lasted until 1989.

Now a free Poland is confident enough both to join the US in eliminating Saddam Hussein's murderous regime in Iraq and to resume its proper place among the states of a united Europe.

That said, EU membership will be no picnic. Poland's average income is less than half that of the West. Unemployment stands above 18 percent, and growth is sluggish. Integration with the larger European economy will mean a difficult transition for workers at outmoded factories, surplus farmers, and pensioners whose income is likely to shrink. That will have political consequences as these groups and their allies fight needed economic reforms.

Still, Poland's economic prosperity depends on merging with the larger European market. It's good news that both Europeans and Poles recognize that.

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