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By Colin Graham

WARSAW, 15 JUNE 2007— The celebrations commemorating the 50th birthday of the European Union on March 25th allowed the continent’s citizens —or rather more their leaders— to pat themselves on the back for what a great job they had done in bringing so many nations together under one economic roof. Though an increasing number of political allegiances have been formed as well, this also belied the fact that the EU is to its core as divided as it is in many senses a miraculously unifying body of nations.

The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 80s/ early 90s was what really alllowed most of the self-congratulation. (Can you image a big birthday party in the German capital if the Berlin Wall was still standing?) But in many ways this seemed quite empty and devoid of real sense against the backdrop of what is happening in countries, such as Poland, which in the early-80s were seen as the beacon of freedom against the Communism that had so harshly split European from European. Right-wing conservatism from the East and bureaucratic superciliousness from the EU’s headquarters in Brussels increasingly mean that the Union, as it is rather over-confidently called, is in danger of becoming a misnomer.

Back then, the Berlin Wall was the most literal manifestation of the divide that befell Europe with the end of the Second World War and beginning of the ‘Cold’ variant. Europeans locked in Communist countries stretching from East Germany to the Soviet Union yearned for the freedom to travel to the West, and for many their wish was granted with the EU’s 2004 enlargement.

As far as the Poles were concerned, they could not get out soon enough. Droves living in towns with double-digit unemployment have made the trip via budget airline or coach to countries such as the UK or Ireland to seek a better life. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million have headed to various parts of the UK alone. Labour shortages have meant they are more than welcome, particularly for their willingness to work hard.

But while the emigrants make money, buy British and Irish homes and seemingly look forward to bright, rosy futures, the country they have left behind is in much more of an uncertain—arguably even bleak—state, one which threatens to loosen ties with the rest of the EU, which, ironically, the departees have so warmly embraced.

The arch-conservative, right-wing populist government that came to power in 2005 has created an atmosphere in the country that ensures that a good many of the young, educated Poles who have left will not be returning any day soon. This, regardless of the fact that regression in politics has been matched by a quite dramatic economic upturn, and though the open market and extra EU funding that came with accession can explain much of this, so can mass emigration for its help in depleting the ranks of the unemployed.

There are some towns in Poland which are almost deserted. In Czarna Bialostocka, in the north-east, for instance, around 40 percent of the 5,000 population have gone to the UK to live and work, leaving behind parents and sometimes spouses and children, whose often meagre incomes are bolstered by the money sent home to them.

The resulting anomaly is that whereas before the country joined the EU Poland could boast one of the youngest populations in Europe—mainly because of the baby-boom that occurred during the Martial Law of 1981— it now risks becoming one of the oldest.

This helps explain the rise of the conservative parties. Left-wing satirists milk plenty of mirth from the fact that the ruling party in the populist coalition— the Law and Justice party—is generally supported by the elderly. Indeed, pensioners have become recognised as an increasingly militant and cohesive grouping, whose views are vented by the extreme right-wing and often anti-Semitic Radio Maryja on a daily basis. The station is one many over-60s listen to religiously, in both senses of the word.

But once you go deeper into the heartlands of the conservatives’ support you see that there is more to it than arch-Catholic mania, though this ingredient can never be completely dismissed in Poland, a country where around 70 percent of the population believe that Pope John Paul II routinely performed miracles, according to a recent survey.

Up in the far north-east of Poland a battle has begun that may determine the country’s ultimate fate as a member of the European Union. In the town of Augustow and its surrounding villages, a sometimes vicious conflict has broken out between local residents and the government on the one hand and the EU and ecological NGO groups on the other, because of plans to build a by-pass—to be part of the Via-Baltica road linking Warsaw with Helsinski—through the almost preternaturally beautiful Rospuda Valley, which is regarded by many environmentalists as containing some of the last, purely untouched vestiges of natural life in the whole of the continent.

It is fair to say that the views of the EU and the ecologists have dominated coverage of the stand-off in the international media, and for not entirely surprising reasons. Whereas they have well-worn PR tools at their disposal, the government—noted for its surliness in its dealing with most things foreign—and the locals, more understandably cut-off from big-time media contacts— have struggled to present their case Until recently, that is.

In early April, the ministry of the environment, which supports the locals’ stance, arranged a visit to the region for members of the international media, among whom were journalists from Japan, the UK, Holland, Canada and the USA.

The present author was one of the party and went along as an ardent sceptic of all things associated with the current Polish government.

As we flew over the Rospuda Valley wetlands by helicopter, it was impossible not to be struck by the genuinely unspoiled landscape. On the ground, the sight was even more exquisite.

That the government would want to ruin this exemplar of natural beauty seemed the most heinuous of crimes but the town of Augustow feels an even greater one is being perpetrated against it on a daily basis. Being there in person, however, you see that this happens by the second.

On the main road going through the town there is a unremitting stream of juggernauts and the noise has to heard to be believed. They are the consequence of the increase in trade between Europe and the former Soviet Union countries that happened after the fall of Communism in the early 90s and EU status for some of these—basically the Baltic States—has meant that the traffic has multiplied into a relentless convoy that sends tremors throughout the whole town. Not surprisingly, the residents find it unbearable and they argue that the by-pass would rescue them from the torture, which frequently involves them being killed in road accidents as well. Mention of the EU and the ecology groups that have thwarted the construction of the new road, is like spitting in their faces.

From the other side there is an equally strong case, because building a road in the valley could disprupt natural life there terminally and create a precedent that Europe becomes just the same anti-environmental terrorist that the USA is often alleged to be. Once this road ploughs through the forest and disperses the wolves, birds and other animals hitherto living there to narrower corners of habitation, the argument goes, what is stop other initiatives turning beauty into the deadly and dull usefulness of concrete?

So the EU/ecologist coalition have devised an alternative road-plan that will go the other longer way round and avoid touching the Rospuda Valley, and the trucks will get to Germany and beyond without hurting a rare species of wildlife. But this will in turn collapse most of the villages that exist in its proposed wake into extinction, the government and the locals insist, making it impossible to cultivate the land they have fed themselves by for generations. The vitriol the mostly elderly locals aimed at Brussels during our conversations suggested a vitality they have regained in the light of the departure of so many younger, and they intend to fight.

You cannot see them winning, though, because their ideal is ultimately parochial, not universal. In their view, their families and way of life are under threat but these are anyway disappearing with every moment as their sons and daughters make their exit further West. Ultimately, there will be no-one left to till the fields.

But then this will in itself become the environmental disaster the bureacrats in Brussels are avowedly working so hard to avoid. Ultimately, nature is best served by man’s benign interaction with it so that it flourishes, and the villagers in north-east Poland know this fact viscerally. They also know keenly that EU membership could be the death of them.

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture in Central and Eastern Europe.  He has written on the Polish satirical cartoonist Marek Raczkowski, the Stanislaw Wieglus scandal as well as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan for   

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