Thursday, June 30, 2005

Tony Blair: new EU superman!!!

The Polish foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld, said today: “If Churchill were alive, he would be proud of Mr. Blair’s speech to the EU parliament.” Er...shurley shome mishtake?

The Polish government is keen on getting a resolution to the EU budget crisis, and they think that TB – who will be president of the EU for the next six months, starting July 1 – could just be their man.

But only a few days ago, the Polish government – desperate to get the EU budget negotiations done and dusted, so they can continue to plan new investments – were grumbling about how unfair the UK budget rebate was. Why should Poles have to cough up 200 million euros year, just so a rich country like Britain can retain their damn rebate?

And then, suddenly, Tony Blair emerges from the smoke of battle with one of those grins on his faces, looking like the EU super hero.

The Polish foreign minister had talks this week with the French, German and British sides in an attempt to mend fences and get things moving again.

But the problem, from the Polish perspective, now appears to be coming from the the other side of the English channel.

"From what I saw at the meeting in Warsaw, I would have to lie to say that these countries (France and Germany) want dialogue," Rotfeld told reporters.

"Britain showed readiness to talk, but for France and Germany it is too early after what happened at the Brussels summit," he said. "It makes a deal much more difficult to reach."

So Poland is now suddenly in love with the British PM.

How things have changed for our Tony. The day after he won the UK General Election, only a couple of months ago, he looked a broken man.

But Blair is a canny political operator, albeit a pretty vacuous one. Devoid of much respect at home, New Labour is now presenting itself as the champion of the poor and dispossessed in Africa, and a friend of the new member states in the EU, like Poland.

While at home he looks resolute in his stance on not giving back any money to those damn foreigners (shades here of Thatcher's 'No, no, no') while at the same time he looks good to poor old countries like Poland, that just want everybody to get so along they can get more subsidies.

Even Clark Kent couldn’t get out of his suit and glasses as quick as Tony Superman Blair

Read on:
Polish FM: chance of EU budget compromise looks bleak

Friday, June 24, 2005

The spy who loved it

A new biopic of a beautiful Polish spy working for British intelligence during WWII, and based on a biography written 30 years ago by an English grandmother, tells the story of a life full of courage, intrigue, love and murder.

Krystyna Skarbek was born 30 miles from Warsaw in 1915, the daughter of Count Jerzy Skarbek. She spied for the allies behind enemy lines, broke many hearts in the process - including author of the 007 novels, Ian Fleming - only to meet a grizzly end after the war at the hands of a jealous admirer.

The film – which will star Polish actress, Liliana Komorowska - is based on a relatively obscure biography written in 1975, by the English author, Madeline Masson. When I telephoned her at her home in a small village in West Sussex, England, I asked her how she felt last year when a Canadian film company rang up and told her that they were going to be paying well over 100,000 dollars for the film rights. The 92-year-old grandmother just laughed: “I was quite surprised, dear.”

“After that,” she went on, “a kind of bun fight ensued between publishers who wanted to reissue the biography.” She finally settled on the British publisher, Virago, who will be releasing a new, up-to-date version of the biography this October.

And it’s a life perfect for film. After finishing school in the 1930’s, Krystyna Skarbek decided to enter the Miss Poland beauty contest, which she won. She then met a Polish diplomat, fell in love and promptly married. When the Nazis invaded Poland the couple were living in Ethiopia. They fled to London, where Krystyna, forever looking for adventure, hooked up with the British Secret Services.

Originally posted in Budapest, she slipped into Poland to monitor Nazi troop movements. Caught by the Gestapo not once, but twice, she managed to get away both times. Her Jewish mother, though, still trapped in Poland, was caught by the Nazis and executed.

When not in Poland, Hungary, or in Egypt, Krystyna worked in France, where her fluent French enabled her to pass off as a local. Finally, in 1945, she was awarded the converted George Cross, nominated by an obviously smitten Winston Churchill.

But the pressures of being a spy during wartime affected her marriage, and, then known under the alias, Christine Grandville, she divorced in 1941. She went on to have many affairs, mostly with fellow agents.

Biographer, Madeline Masson – who has now written thirty books, and is currently writing her thirty-first - is angry at the way she thinks Krystyna has been treated by her homeland in print. “There is a scurrilous book about her in Polish, written in 1998, (Miloscnica) which dwells on her love life, but almost ignores her bravery.”

One of the lovers was always rumored to have been Ian Fleming, who at one time worked alongside her at British intelligence headquarters in England. Since the biography was written in the 1970’s, many secret wartime documents have been released, and they confirm the stories. “I am absolutely certain she had an affair with Ian, “says Madeline, who also worked for a short while in France for MI6 as a currier. “But Fleming had a wife who was pregnant, so he, quite understandably, didn’t want that talked about very much.”

In fact, he was so enraptured by Krystyna, that she became the inspiration for the double agent character in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd.

But after the war, Krystyna found herself bored, out of a job, and her inheritance taken away by the Polish communists. Staying in England, she drifted into a number of dead-end jobs. One of these was on a cruise liner, where she met steward, George Muldowney. Krystyna liked George as a friend, but George, captivated by the vivaciousness of the Polish ex-spy, fell madly into an obsessive and jealous love.

One day, in 1952, he could stand it no longer and stabbed her to death.

I suggested to Madeline Masson that there were parallels between her and the subject of her biography. “Oh no, dear, I did get sucked into the secret service, but I always tried my best get out of it. I am not as brave as she was. And I have always been quite old fashioned, you know!”

The biography of Christine Granville will be published by Virago Press in October 2005

This article was originally published in the New Warsaw Express

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

1968 and all that

A new book by award winning American journalist, Mark Kurlansky, 1968: the year that rocked the world, unravels the connections between the revolutionary events of that year in Paris, Prague, America and Poland.

Like 1945 or 1989, 1968 is one of those years that are seen as pivotal to the history of the 20th century.

We were only one year away from the first human being walking on the moon. It was a time of civil rights and anti-war protests, of new and inventive music and sub-cultures, of scientific and social experiment. A very different time, then, from the one we live in today, characterized as it is by aversion to risk and a fear of the new.

The motor of this movement for social change were young, mostly middle class sons and daughters of the old ruling elites. It was a time when students were concentrating more of sit-ins and love-ins than they were on their studies. It was a time of hallucinogenic drugs, which my granny used to tell me made one want to jump from the top of multi-story car parks in the mistaken impression that one was an albatross.

Most people, except perhaps for the most historically challenged, will have heard of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Abie Hoffman in the US; or in France, Henri Comte and Jean Paul Satire; or in the Czechoslovak capital, the students and Alexander Dubcek. All over the world, ruling elites had lost their legitimacy and were under pressure.

But few in the West have heard of the names associated with events in Poland of that year: Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik…

Radical theatre
In Warsaw, it all started in March with an evening at the theatre. The Polish National Theatre decided to stage a new radical interpretation of Dziady. – which is sometimes translated in English as Forefathers’ Eve – by Poland’s most celebrated poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The play, written in the early nineteenth century, tells the story of Polish political prisoners under czarist Russia. As well as a being a political play it is also interpreted by theatre and literary critics as being a mystical, religious piece of work.

The communists had no problem with the political content, but they weren’t too keen on all the religious stuff. They saw this version of the play as being subtly subversive, and with a stupidity characteristic of the regime, decided that they were going to ban it.

On the last night of the performance, about 300 students from Warsaw University picketed outside the theatre and then marched through the center of town in protest. They were met by police and so-called workers-militia (who were basically a bunch of thugs) who beat them up and the police arrested anyone trying to get away from them.

The next day thousands of students joined in the demonstrations on the university campus, refused to go to classes, called for more freedom of expression and held sit-ins outside the Dean’s office, just as they had seen American students do on television. Before long, students from other universities had joined the struggle. All were met by the workers militias, and were beaten and arrested.

These protests had a similar character to those in Paris, or New York; mostly middle class kids from good homes, connected to parents who were part of the establishment. Another thing that the leaders of these protests had in common was that many of them were Jewish.

But in Poland, as ever, there was an extra twist.

The communist party in the late sixties was divided into two factions: those who had fled Poland as the Nazis invaded, or lived in areas in the east of the country grabbed by Stalin in 1939. Many of these people were taken to the gulags, only to team up with the Soviet army as a way of freeing themselves from Stalin’s grip. Many of these, not surprisingly, were Jews. The other group, more nationalist in their outlook – the self-styled Patriots – came from communist cells within the underground movement, who fought the Nazis from within Poland.

Many of the ‘Patriots’ were anti-Semites and wanted to get rid of Jews from the party, who they accused of being ‘Zionists’. Remember, 1968 came just a year after the Israeli-Arab conflict, in which Moscow sided with the Arab states.

Jews in Poland had become communism’s scapegoats. And with many sons and daughters of Jewish members of the party taking part in the student protests, the opportunity for an anti-Jewish purge was just too tempting to be turned down.

The ‘Patriots’ organized counter-demonstrations, leading chants such as: “Zionists go back to Zion.” Unfortunately, the mob that the party had assembled were simple folk who had never even heard of Zionism. In fact, they thought that the militias were shouting, “Siamists go back to Siam”, and chanted along with gusto.

Yul Brynner would have been proud of them.

Meanwhile, the communist regime had given most of Poland’s remaining Jews one-way tickets to the West, stripping them of their passports.

Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik and many of the other protest leaders were arrested again and thrown in jail. The demonstrations gradually ran our of steam, and a potentially dangerous ‘counter-revolutionary’ movement was snuffed out.

One of the failures of the demos in Poland, as elsewhere, was that the intellectuals failed to make connections with the workers. It was only when, in the late 1970’s, intellectuals such as Kuron connected up with workers such as Lech Welasa that the opposition movement really gained steam. And that is why the name of Solidarity was chosen for the first independent trade union in the communist bloc: it was a solidarity between workers and intellectuals – two parts of Polish society that were finally, and mutually, dependant on each other.

In the book, 1968, the year that rocked the world, American journalist, Mark Kurlansky tells this story well, and captures the spirit of adventure that was so characteristic among university students all over the world back in 1968.

Fast forward to today and look at the university students. Do you see that same idealistic, adventurist spirit? If you do, then maybe you have been ingesting some of those chemicals that make you want to jump off the roof of multi-story car parks.

Read on:

See review of 1968: the year that rocked the world

This article originally was published on the Radio Polonia web site

Monday, June 20, 2005

Polish government gets cold feet on referendum

In the initial few days after the French Non and Dutch Nee, the Polish government insisted that it was the Poles right to vote on whether they wanted the Constitutional Treaty to go ahead, or not. But now, as opinion polls show support for a yes vote is hemorrhaging, the government’s democratic impulse is fading fast.

The left-wing SLD, in a minority position in parliament and deeply unpopular in the country after four years of corruption scandals and an inability to solve Poland’s 20% unemployment problem, faces a general election in three months time that it is sure to loose.

The SLD has indicated that it may choose to go for a quick vote in parliament to see if it can get a Yes for the Constitutional Treaty that way.

Recent opinion polls say that only around 40% support the treaty position at the moment. Just before the French and Dutch votes, around 60% said they would vote positively for the constitution.

Up until May’s constitution debacle, support for the EU was growing in Poland. This shift mainly came from the 25% of the population that relies on agriculture for its living. Poland has two million farms. Initially skeptic, this community has liked the subsidies coming its way, and has also noted that agricultural exports to the EU have risen by 40%.

But since they have seen the way that the French and Dutch reengaged with EU politics – by not answering the question that the increasingly out-of-touch Euro elites actually asked them – Poles have discovered that you can say No to these people and the world will not end.

But shouldn’t the people of the EU – all of them – have the right to vote on this and many other issues? That way, politics might re-emerge as the way to solve collective problems, and take power back from Eurocrats who have not been elected by anyone.

Read on:,
EU newcomers angry with Blair over budget Daily Telegraph, June 20

Sunday, June 19, 2005

If white wrist bands make you want to puke...

…then the new gimmick by the EU elite is going to produce a fountain of projectile vomit.

For the next few months, EU Commission HQ is going to be wrapped in a giant white wristband. The project is part of the EU’s support for the Global Campaign Against Poverty.

The whole continent is going to be wearing its heart on its wrist.

The EU elite, seizing on a chance to appear relevant after constitutional treaty debacle and budget stalemate, is joining Bono, Live 8 and G8 in dropping the debt of countries so poor they can’t even afford to pay the bailiffs petrol allowance.

The Make Poverty History campaign should be prosecuted for contravening the Trade Descriptions Act. The campaign does not aim to ‘make poverty history’. It aims to half the amount living in the world on one dollar a day by 2030.

Per capita, this means about five dollars more a year.

The poverty of Africans is being matched by the poverty of ambition currently inflicting the western world. The Euro elite is wearing a white wrist band in vain attempt to seem relevant to the Euro masses. But that won’t do much for the poor of the world. And it defiantly won’t be making poverty history.

And that really does make you wanna puke.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

EU budget: Why should Poles subsidize the Brits?

Another day in Brussels, another crisis. Britain wants to keep its budget rebate, and expects countries like Poland to pick up the tab. Since when was the EU meant to be an organization where poor countries have to foot the bill for the rich ones?

In the first few months after New Labour won the general election in 1997, one of Tony Blair’s favourite guests to have round for tea, cakes and pep talk was Margaret Thatcher. Tony valued her advice; the Lady liked the attention.

Thatcher gave the new boy many pieces of advice, including: keep taxes low and put up with the second class public services; do not on any account repeal Tory trade union legislation; and do not in any circumstances hand back the frogs and krauts in the EU her budget rebate, won for Britain in 1984.

Contrary to his popular image, Tony really is a good listener.

Watching the New Labour crowd in Brussels this week reminds the beatroot of Thatcher in her heyday, stomping around smoke-filled negotiation rooms hand-bagging any dissenting Eurocrats who dared to try and slip their hands in her purse.

Those smoke-filled rooms are now as rare as a smoke filled pub in Ireland. Another difference today is that Madge was a conviction politician. She really was a Little Englander.
Blair’s opposition to handing back any of her hard won rebate is more out of the usual desperate attempt to connect with a British electorate that is semi-detached from the EU, and semi-detached from the political class in the UK.

Watch Blair and Straw looking butch before the cameras, explaining to the rest of us that the Common Agricultural Policy needs reforming if it is ‘to be relevant to the modern world’. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Blair claimed that he would only agree to freezing the rebate at 2005 prices if the CAP was reformed. The agricultural policy accounts for 40% of the EU budget. Blair thinks that the budget should be spent on education, training and the environment, and not lining the nests of those pesky French farmers.

The beatroot cannot find any evidence of this UK policy in any manifesto. In fact, it seems the policy has been plucked out the air just before New Labour turned up in Brussels this week. This new found interest in the CAP is just another piece of Blairite oppotunism.

In 1984, when Thatcher snatched the rebate, Britain was one of the poorer nations of the Union. These days, it’s the richest.

Poland, the second poorest member, is now paying 200 million euros every year just to pay for that rebate.

All of the new members from central Europe, most of them impoverished by decades of communism, were so desperate to secure a budget deal that they offered to sacrifice some funds from EU coffers in a dramatic last-ditch attempt to revive the stalled negotiations.

The delay means that Poland cannot go ahead with the much needed building of new motorways and other infrastructure projects.

So not only was Poland – a country that has around 20% of its population involved in some way with agriculture – willing to forgo some of its subsidies because poor old, cash-strapped Britain doesn’t want to give up some of the Thatcher rebate, but it is even willing to go on paying some of its bills.

Blair’s argument that the CAP needs reforming on moral grounds looks a little hollow.

From July 1, the UK is going to be EU president for six months. It is going to have to sort out the Constitutional Treaty crisis and do something about the budget. Poorer nations be warned: keep your hands on your wallets – New Labour is in town!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Baby Beats: bite size stories

And now for a ‘Normality Parade’
Following last Saturday’s ‘Equality Parade’ in Warsaw - banned by the homophobic mayor, Lech Kaczynski, but went ahead anyway much to the disgust of far-right fascist types in Poland - the far-right fascist types have now responded with a planned Normality Parade.

The fascist-come-catholic-nationalist rally will take place on Saturday, June 18.

The mayor, however, is not so sure that good catholic boys should be taking to the streets of the capital city in this way.

“This is like a vicious circle – first the Equality Parade, which though illegal, enjoyed police protection, then the Parade of The Normal. Maybe we’ll have another Quality Parade after that. This is a very bad phenomenon”, said a bemused Kaczynski.

Lech Kaczynski is also the favourite to win the presidential election in October.

Read on:
The twins who would lead Poland BBC June 16

The Battle of Britain

It’s one year since Poland entered the EU. But the only countries where Poles could look for work without any restrictions at all were the UK and Ireland. So how have Polish job seekers got on?

One of the most successful reality-type TV shows in Poland since last May has been the intriguingly titled: Battle of Britain. The programme followed the fortunes of several young Poles who had taken the opportunity after Poland joined the EU to leave home and see if they could make a living in the UK.

Most said that they had encountered little discrimination there, and had found work in bars, restaurants, clubs or as au pairs. Many of them then lost jobs in bars, restaurants, clubs and as au pairs, only to later find other jobs in similar places.

Many of my friends in London have noticed an increase in the number of Poles living there. In fact, Londoners seem to be of the impression that all the new young workers in the pubs of London are in fact Polish. And they are half right. Fifty percent of workers who have entered Britain since the EU’s expansion have come from Poland. This is not surprising as out of the 80 million people who entered the European Union last year, 40 million of them were Poles.

So, whereas many of the bars and pubs of London used to be staffed by people from Sidney, Melbourne or Brisbane, they are now coming from Warsaw, Krakow or Gdansk.

Poles in London are the new Australians.

But Poles have also been filing posts in the professions too – most notably in dentistry. Around 200 Polish dentists, for example, are now working in the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, drilling and filing in British teeth for 50,000 pounds a year (that’s around 100,00 dollars). Which a large jump in salary. In Poland they get about a fifth of that amount.

And if George Orwell’s famous observation about English teeth is still correct, then they’ve got their work cut out.

The title of the Polish reality TV show I mentioned earlier, Battle of Britain, seems a strange choice. But what it is referring to is the fact that the last time a small wave of Poles hit the British coast was during the Second World War, when many of the finest pilots flying the spitfires and hurricanes in the RAF were Polish.

As newspaper reports at the time show, these dashing young Polish pilots were treated by British women as rock stars would be today.

But this positive attitude changed in the latter half of the war. The newspapers started to print negative stories about the Poles. This was mainly due to the fact that the British government was spending a lot of its energy trying to placate Stalin, who didn’t like the Polish government-in-exile in London.

But will the same happen this time? Will Brits tire of their new Polish friends?

There have been a few disturbing reports coming from loyalist, protestant areas in Northern Ireland. For instance, a group of Poles who had arrived over the Christmas period to work in a livestock stock factory in the Bushmills area of County Antrim were forced out of the area after receiving threatening phone calls from males claiming to be from loyalist groups.

And there have been other reports of attacks on Poles in these sorts of areas.

Some commentators have been trying to link these incidents with religious antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants.

But I think there is just a general breakdown in law and order in places like North Antrim. This is where some of my family are from. During the nineteen seventies and eighties – and if you exclude sectarian violence - crime was very low in places like Bushmills and other parts of NI. Working class communities basically policed themselves. If you got out of line then you could expect a visit from ‘the boys.’

But, ironically, since the Good Friday peace agreement was signed in the 1990’s, crime has risen in all areas of Northern Ireland. The tiny Muslim and Chinese populations there – around 10,000 at most, and who have lived there in peace for many years, have begun to experience attacks.

And violent crime against the indigenous population, along with housebreak-ins, and other sorts of crime, has risen as well.

So I don’t think that these attacks against Poles in Northern Ireland has anything to do with them being Polish or even being catholic. I just think they are in the right place at the wrong time.

There has also been a few strange articles in the British press about Poles. Since newspapers have found it hard to compete with the immediacy of the internet, radio and 24-hour TV news, they have all but given up writing news stories and filled more and more of their pages with opinion pieces.

One very highly paid columnist in the Times (London), Julie Burchill, wrote an article last year called, ‘Poles and Proles’. In it she stated that bringing in tens of thousands of eastern European workers to Britain, “robs those countries they leave of the young and the strong, and it robs [the working class] in the countries they go to of any pride they once had…” What chance have the British working class got, she goes on, “if east Europeans are willing to work for peanuts?”

She concludes by wondering if the only winners in this are rightwing neo-fascists like the British National Party.

Now, for a long time I have wondered if highly paid columnists like Julie Burchill are either being deliberately provocative, or are simply barking mad. I think probably the latter.

Anyway, over half the Poles that went to Britain last year have already come back. They probably got fed up with Britain’s public transport system. And the ones who have remained like it there and like the people.

Except that is for a few wackos in Bushmills, Antrim and Julie Burchill in the Times.

Read on:
For more on Ms Burchill see Sarah Anne's blog

This article was originally published on the Radio Polonia web site

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

How to spoil a skinhead’s weekend

Last Saturday around two and a half thousand activists marched through the center of Warsaw in support of gay and lesbian rights. This did not please the Mayor of Warsaw, however, who had banned the parade. The march also spoiled the weekend for a few hundred skinheads who were determined to stop the demonstration.

The Equality Parade, as it was called, was meant to be the centerpiece of Equality Weekend – two days of debates and educational initiatives about homosexuality and universal human rights in Poland.

Though homosexuality has been legal for decades in Poland, during communist times it was a bit of a taboo subject and was swept firmly under a rather tatty red carpet. Now that communism has gone everyone is free to give their opinions about everything. Unfortunately, westerners and many Poles find some of these opinions slightly antiquated, to say the least.

Hence the Equality Weekend. But the organizers of the Equality Parade quickly run into a few problems when organizing the event. The Mayor of Warsaw, the conservative right-winger Lech Kaczynski, decided that he was not going to allow gays and lesbians and their supporters to march through the streets of the capital.

The whole affair began to resemble ‘groundhog day’ – you somehow got the impression that you had been here before. And you had. Exactly the same thing happened last year.

In 2004, Mayor Kaczynski had refused permission for a similar march to go ahead. He said that he thought that it might constitute a 'danger to law and order'. Kaczynski is the head of the populist Law and Justice Party, whose central platform rests on promises to stamp out crime and corruption in Poland and to usher in a moral regeneration of the country.

Though the mayor had banned the gay parade he had given his permission for a counter-demonstration by far-right groups to go ahead. In the event, nobody showed up from either group.

But this year, gay and lesbian groups decided that enough was enough: they had the right to free assembly and expression just as much as everyone else. So, though officially illegal, they went ahead with the march, regardless of the consequences.

And I went along to have a look.

Showdown at high noon
Though the march on Saturday was illegal, a meeting outside the parliament building at 12 noon had got permission from the mayor. The Deputy Prime Minister and other left wing politicians gave speeches, and then the illegal march began to weave its way through the main shopping streets of Warsaw, heading for the Palace of Culture and Science, smack bang in the center of town.

Accompanying the two and a half thousand gays, lesbians and human rights activists were members from the Green party in Germany, plus a few hundred police in riot gear. There were also about 300 skinheads and members of far-right political groups who had been given permission to demonstrate and march against the illegal Equality Parade.

But Polish skinheads aren’t what they used to be. For a start, because modern day fashion dictates that virtually all young men in Poland sport very short hair these days, the average Polish skinhead to has been forced to make a radical decision: he has decided to grow his hair. Not by much, just a few millimeters, but enough to distinguish him from the rest of Polish youth.

Soon, in the not so distant future, everyone will look a bit like Polish skinheads, apart, that is, from Polish skinheads, who will be wearing long curly hair, and love beads.

But longer haired skinheads are at a noticeable disadvantage, as it makes them look significantly less scary.

In fact, last weekend, your average Polish skinhead didn’t look very scary at all. Not only because of their radical sartorial re-think, but also because there just wasn’t enough of them to seem particularly threatening.

Occasionally they chanted a few obscene remarks and made threatening gestures. But the Warsaw police, who recognized many of these characters as local football hooligans, had obviously decided that if there was going to be a law and order disturbance then it was going to be coming from the direction of the skinheads, and not from the gays and lesbians.

At one point along the route the Polish skinheads decided to have a sit-in in the middle of the street – a tactic utilized to great effect, of course, by 1960’s hippies. It seems that having slightly longer hair really is going to Polish skinhead’s heads.

The police were not going to put up with this, however, and as soon as they had sat down they were hauled off to a secure location away from the demo.

Once gays and lesbians got to the Palace of Culture – their numbers now swollen to over three thousand due to numerous weekend shoppers you had stopped to have a look, they were confronted by what was left of the skinheads, their numbers now down to about one hundred.

This is when the skinheads started throwing eggs. I was standing right next to someone who was on the receiving end of one these homophobic omelets and I can report that the skinheads had not even the wit or forethought to have prepared rotten eggs – they were fresh as a daisy and recently bought from the supermarket near by.

Along with the eggs came a few bottles and rocks. But you could see that the heart had gone out of the far-right demonstrators, and when the police charged they ran off into the Palace of Culture, pursued by a few police with very long sticks.

Mayor Kaczynski, and members from the far-right League of Polish Families have complained of police brutality against the skinheads, who, they remind us, were taking part in a legal march; whereas the gay and lesbian demonstration was not.

The human rights supporters proclaimed the whole event as a success for democracy and the Polish constitution. The skinheads, though, after running away, simply disappeared. Perhaps they went off to have a hair cut to make them feel big and strong again – a kind of Samson experience in reverse.

Read on:

Gay Pride in Warsaw ‘a Great Success” say Activists Gay News UK, June 13
Gay activists lobby EU Catholic World News, June 10
Antigay protesters clash with police in Poland The Advocate, June 14
Twins lead polls Cnews June 13

This article was originally published on the Radio Polonia web site

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