Poland: the lessons of history

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The European parliament is not the kind of place that usually gets pulses racing, but a speech by Jacek Rostowski, the Polish finance minister, in which he cautioned that the collapse of the eurozone could even lead to war, has set off a flurry of commentary in Poland.

In a speech on Wednesday, given in conjunction with Poland’s EU presidency, Rostowski concluded his comments about the growing Greek predicament with an anecdote he said he heard from a banker friend, who told him he was looking for a Green Card to allow his children to emigrate to the US.

“He [the banker friend] told me that after such economic and political shocks, like those which are currently affecting Europe, it is rare that after 10 years there is not also the catastrophe of war,” Rostowski told the MEPs.

Although the comments had little impact in western Europe, they made quite a stir in Poland on Thursday, where the opposition seized on Rostowski’s remark in the hope of galvanising an election campaign in which the ruling Civic Platform party (under whose banner Rostowski is running for parliament) looks set to win.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, called Rostowski’s comment, “The Mount Everest of irresponsibility” while Jerzy Wenderlich of the left-wing Democratic Left Alliance, called on Poland’s president to fire the finance minister.

Rostowski, raised in the UK, does have a love for parliamentary thrust and parry that is more at home in Britain’s House of Commons than in the more staid institutions on the continent, but his point is a serious one, especially from the perspective of Poland.

The reason that Rostowski was not brought up in Poland was that the country was destroyed in the Second World War and then spent 45 years as part of the Soviet empire. That gives some weight to his warning about the potentially catastrophic consequences of a collapse of the eurozone – however remote such a possibility may seem today.

For Poland, joining the EU was always less about economic growth and using EU funds to modernise the country, than about ensuring that, for the first time in centuries, Poland was not an endangered country on the edge of Europe, but a safe and integral part of a Europe-wide union.

Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, defended his minister’s speech. “If there are no swift decisions and swift actions, we are really heading in a very dangerous direction,” he said .

Rostowski isn’t backing down. In a radio interview on Thursday, he explained that a crisis in the EU could undermine its core function of making Europe a peaceful continent, leading to a crisis with consequences that today may seem completely unrealistic.

Related reading:
Poland: whistling past the graveyard, beyondbrics
Eastern Europe pushes back euro adoption, FT

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