Poles fulfill aspirations, vote to join European Union

Monday, June 9, 2003

WARSAW, Poland -- President Aleksander Kwasniewski told cheering supporters Sunday that Poland has fulfilled its aspirations to return to Europe, after exit polls showed an overwhelming vote in favor of joining the European Union.

"We are coming back. We are coming back to Europe," Kwasniewski said at the presidential palace after kissing his wife, Jolanta, and hugging former Solidarity activists.

Concern that voter turnout would fall below the 50 percent required to make the referendum valid spurred many to the polls on the second day of voting Sunday, encouraged by their priests, family and friends.

Turnout reached 56 percent of the registered 29.5 million voters Sunday, according to exit polls, after an 18 percent vote on Saturday. The polls, by the private PBS polling agency, said 82 percent voted "yes" for membership.

The referendum gives Kwasniewski the popular mandate needed to ratify Poland's treaty with the EU, signed at an Athens summit in April. The first official results were expected after midnight.

With 38 million people, Poland would be the largest country to join the 15-nation bloc, leading the largest wave of EU expansion and holding voting power equal to Spain and behind only Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy.

Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Lithuania have already approved EU membership with referendums. The Czech Republic votes next week, followed by Latvia and Estonia in September. Cyprus is leaving the decision to parliament.

Heavy campaigning

Polish leaders campaigned heavily for membership, saying it would accelerate modernization in Poland, still recovering from 40 years of communist rule that ended in 1989, and end historic division in Europe.

Outside the EU, Poland, with a GDP of just 42 percent of the EU average, would never bridge the gap with the West, leaders argued.

They were opposed by a loose alliance between ultraconservative Catholics worried about an erosion of traditional values and radical farmers who warned that Poland's 2 million sustenance farms would disappear under western competition.

Dismay at poor first-day turnout of just 18 percent mobilized a grass-roots call to vote on Sunday, with EU supporters counting on the Polish habit of voting after Mass.

From their pulpits, priests in this devoutly Roman Catholic country reminded people of the importance of voting.

In Warsaw, where turnout Saturday was the highest nationally at 34 percent, people returned early from weekend homes to vote, creating a traffic jam hours earlier than the usual pattern.

"Not joining the EU means cowardice. We have to be ambitious and we need to join," said Wlodzimierz Kruk, voting after a weekend away with his wife, Elzbieta.

Turnout appeared to pickup in rural areas where Sunday is the only day for many to rest -- but that was not necessarily heartening news for pro-EU forces.

In villages, some voters made a show of slipping their open ballots marked "no" into ballot boxes in plain view of anyone present.

Only 134 of the 1,647 residents of the village of Gluchow, 50 miles southwest of Warsaw voted Saturday. On Sunday, about 50 people walked from church straight to the polling station.

But many in villages were doubtful about their future in the EU -- persuaded by anti-EU campaigners' fearful predictions that their farms would be destroyed and skeptical about the annual subsidies that Polish negotiators secured for them.

Stanislaw Lach, 74, a retired farmer, voted 'no.'

"They are threatening us with Brussels, which is not willing to vie anything to farmers, and our living is hard," Lach said.

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