Thursday, June 02, 2005

Polish plumber puts a spanner in the works

A new spectre is haunting Europe. He’s called the Polish plumber. He’s not necessarily Polish, and he isn’t even necessarily a plumber. But, if some commentators are to be believed, he has been endowed with almost supernatural powers.

If you thought that a plumber was just someone who, at enormous cost, comes to your home and bleeds your radiator and fiddles with your ball-cock, then think again. The Polish plumber will fix your tap, for sure, but then he charges you less than the normal price!

“What’s his phone number”, I hear you cry. But that’s not all the Polish plumber can do. He can also affect the result of referendums on the EU constitutional treaty. He can persuade French people in particular to throw a bucket cold water over the EU political elite. He can make voters say “non” when the Eurocrats want them to say “Oui”.

A remarkable chap is the Polish plumber. But he is not actually a person at all. He is more a symbol of a European Union that has, for some, got out of control.

The Polish plumber is what many in the suddenly eurosceptic French media call the influx of goods, services and labour that have entered western Europe from the east since the expansion of the EU last May.

With 10% unemployment and almost zero percent growth the Polish plumber has come to be a figure to be feared in France. He is working harder, for longer and cheaper than many of his western European counterparts.

When the French voted ‘no’ on Sunday few were directly reacting to something that is in the 250 pages or so of legalistic and technical language that makes up the proposed – and now terminally ill – EU constitution. What the French were saying no to was not the constitution itself. They were saying no to what they are calling the ‘anglo-saxon model’ of what the EU has become.

And that’s a model that Poland has been moving towards – albeit slowly and painfully at times – ever since the fall of communism sixteen years ago.

The model that the Polish economy is working towards is the one they have in Britain. During the general election there a few weeks ago the New Labour government loved to trumpet the talents of their finance minister, Gordon Brown, as the reason for the UK’s uninterrupted and healthy level of economic growth and low level of unemployment.

But the real reason why the British economy is out performing the German and French is that these are structurally different economies, and have been since the reforms forced through by the Margaret Thatcher governments of the 1980’s.

Britain, unlike France, has comparatively low levels of tax; it has a comparatively flexible and mobile work force; it has comparatively high levels of home ownership. It also helps that the UK, many argue, has not adopted the Euro as its currency.

But the French do not like this model. They wave a derisive baguette in the direction of the UK and point to the fact that British employees work longer hours than anyone in Europe. They snigger at Britain’s second class and under invested public services. The French like their 35-hour week and they like their joy de vivre and that’s the way they want to keep things. They do not want the anglo-saxon model that most in the ex-communist countries, including Poland, are trying to adopt.

And they do have something to fear. The change is painful. I have experienced the transformation from a regulated economy to a freer one twice now. Once in the 1980’s in Britain – and it wasn’t pretty – and now again in Poland. And it is still pretty ugly.

You get mass unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, rising crime, homelessness, and public services, such as the health system, that are starved of funds and in need of intensive care.

Reforming Poles, on the other hand, point to the fact that the British economy is thriving at the moment and the French and the German economies have all but stagnated. And this leaves them vulnerable to the influx of cheaper labour and services epitomised by the Polish plumber.

It’s no coincidence that the British and the Irish are the only countries to have opened their arms without restrictions to Polish and other workers from the accession nations. Those two countries have the strength of economy to take the new competition from the Polish plumber. The French economy, like much of the Euro-zone, is weak and can’t react flexibly to the new circumstances that EU expansion has brought about.

Hence the no vote on Sunday.

Many Polish politicians here are quite pleased with the French voters. They didn’t want to have a referendum on the constitution anyway. One of things that the treaty is trying to change is the relative voting rights of each country. The way things are at the moment gives Poland more clout than if the constitution was voted through by all 25 members.

But it doesn’t seem now that this will be the case. The EU constitution as written at the moment is like a burst water pipe, with EU politicians desperately trying to stop the water from ruining their best carpet. What will happen in the future is uncertain.

But what is certain is that the Polish plumber has apparently put a spanner well and truly in the works.


Read on:
Polish plumber, Tony Blair and job fears unite to spell ‘Non’ The Herald, UK May 30

Polish plumber symbolic of all French fear about constitution Financial Times, UK May 27
‘Plumber’ image takes both sides in EU constitution debate
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, IN - May 24,

This article originally was published on the Radio Polonia web site

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