WARSAW, Poland -- Poles began voting Saturday in a two-day referendum on whether their nation of 38 million should join the European Union next year, a move their leaders say will end historic divisions, boost the economy and raise living standards.
Opinion surveys show overwhelming support for joining the bloc.
Poland signed the accession treaty at an Athens summit in April, but it's not official until President Aleksander Kwasniewski also signs it with the blessing of voters.
Poland is by far the largest of 10 nations invited to join the European Union on May 1, 2004. It would have voting power equal to Spain and behind only Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy.
"This is one of the greatest days in Polish history," Prime Minister Leszek Miller said while voting with his wife, Aleksandra, at a small public library in Warsaw.
"I think that Poles will confirm that they are choosing the right path for Poland and our common future. We are choosing the path which will allow us to join the most economically developed and powerful nations."
Polling stations were to remain open a total of 28 hours Saturday and today for voters to deliver their verdict.
Of the candidate nations who signed the accession pact in April, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia backed joining the EU in referendums.
Polish leaders have campaigned vigorously to boost voter turnout, which has suffered under disillusionment with recent governments and fell below 50 percent in the last parliamentary election.
Light turnout was observed at polls in the capital, where officials offered free museum admission all weekend to entice city-dwellers, who often spend summer weekends in the countryside, to stay in town long enough to vote.
Cost of jobs
EU opponents, a loose coalition of radical farmers and ultraconservative Catholics, argue that membership will cost the country jobs and erode its national identity.
They fear Poland will be treated as a second-class member and maintain that Polish industries and agriculture will be unable to compete with their western European counterparts.
Kwasniewski, Miller and the main opposition parties supporting the move argue that joining the EU will bring subsidies for farmers and development funds.
Staying out means political and economic isolation, they say.
The pro-EU camp has support from the country's influential Roman Catholic bishops and from the country's favorite son -- Pope John Paul II, who has made clear his desire for Poland to join in an "act of historic justice"
Across Poland, billboards bearing the slogan "I'm a European" and featuring actors, singers and even first lady Jolanta Kwasniewska have encouraged Poles to vote.
"It is a historic day for Poland," Kwasniewski said after voting with his wife in Warsaw.
"This is important because we will be able to see if Poles, who like talking about democracy, can also take advantage of democracy."
A survey by the private CBOS agency released Wednesday showed 70 percent of those questioned planning to vote -- with 76 percent of those voting yes, the highest level of support in a year of surveys on the referendum. The poll of 1,260 people from May 29-June 1 had a margin of error of 3 percent.
Still, EU opponents remain firm.
"We won sovereignty only in 1989 and now we are going to lose it again?" said Anita Majewska, 68-year-old retired teacher from Warsaw. "Only those who don't remember communism and our dependence on Moscow can vote for entering the EU. Not me."