There is one story that Poles always tell visiting Turkish delegations. When Poland lost its sovereignty in the late 18th century to Austria, Prussia and Russia, Ottoman officials continued to include the Polish ambassador in its roll call at international diplomatic gatherings. The symbolic gesture was largely a sleight towards Russia, with whom the Ottoman Empire had uneasy relations; nonetheless, Poles today are still taught this in history class, and it serves as the historical bedrock from which Poles today support Turkey’s European Union Accession process.
There are many things in common between Turkey and Poland that might serve to shed some light on Turkey’s EU accession process. Poland, like Turkey, has a large population of roughly 38 million. Like Turkey, Poland’s eastern provinces are very underdeveloped compared to the rest of the country. Unemployment runs high in both countries. Migrants from the east, from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia come to Poland to work as seasonal laborers.
Given the many demographic similarities, it is unclear to many in Poland why Turkey has not managed to progress on its EU accession progress. Some of the deputy editors of Gazete Wyborca, Poland’s prestigious domestic paper with the highest circulation amongst non-tabloid newspapers, told a visiting delegation of Turkish journalists this week that they supported EU enlargement in general. They also believe that Turkey will join the European Union.
Grzegorz Cydejko, who works for Forbes Poland and is the head of the Warsaw Chapter of the Polish Journalists Association, sees Turkey’s human rights issues and developing democratic institutions as the main barriers to Turkey’s accession.
However, Adam Balcer, Senior Fellow at demosEUROPA and Project Leader of the EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Project, believes that given the similarities between Turkey and Poland, the reason that Turkey has yet to progress very far in its accession process is due to religious differences.
“The thing that separates these two countries [Turkey and Poland] is religion,” said Balcer. “Whatever Turkey does, a group of people will always say no to Turkey.”
Poland’s Path to the EU
How has Poland overcome issues that are problematic for EU regulations on security, economic stability, and immigration?
Poland is currently the largest recipient of EU aid for member states, from member states. For the period from 2007-2013, Poland will receive over 67 billion Euros for development. EU project banners can be seen everywhere in Poland, signaling some new development or restoration project. These developments stand out particularly in Poland’s poorest voivodships, or provinces, Podlaskie, Lubelskie, and Podkarpackie.
In Podlaski, EU funds have done a great deal to help develop the infrastructure, according to Andrezej Kurpiewski, secretary of the Podlaskie Voivodship.
“Infrastructure has completely changed,” said Kurpiewski. “We used to have to go to Warsaw to do shopping. Now people from Warsaw are coming to do shopping here.”
Apart from road infrastructure, EU funds are helping the region to develop universities, technoparks, research institutions, and foster tourism to what is a verdant region with four national parks. However, EU membership has also had some negative effects on Podlaskie. Poland effectively joined the Schengen Area, an area of 25 countries that operate virtually under a single border, in December 2007. This required stricter border controls that have taken their toll on tourism to Poland’s eastern provinces from Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian nationals.
Turkey shares borders with five countries that are not members of the European Union and has no visa requirements for visitors coming from neighboring Syria and Iraq. This raises the question of whether EU membership may have negative impacts on Turkey’s business ties with its other neighbors. Future attempts to comply with EU border and security requirements may also force a recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy.
At the Polish-Belarus Border
The Polish-Belarussian border crossing at Kuznicy is “the most modern, most contemporary border in Poland,” according to Major Anatol Kalinowski, deputy head of the Kuznicy border crossing. A total of 43 million Euros went into developing the state of the art border crossing point and the monitored area went from covering 2 hectares to 19 after Poland joined the EU.
“Before that we just had a couple of fences,” said Maciej Czarnecki, spokesman of the Regional Customs Office in Bialystok.
However, problems still arise when bordering poorer, less developed nations. Smuggling, especially of cigarettes, is a huge issue.
“In 2009, Poland seized 29 million cigarettes from the [Belarussian] border,” said Maciej. “10 thousand people were detained…for example, recently they [the border police] seized 5 million cigarettes hidden in a cake.”
Human trafficking is also a huge issue. Every truck that goes across the border is X-rayed, and some are randomly subjected to a machine that tests if there is a heartbeat on board.
“At the border, they put people like ants into the corners of the trucks,” said Maciej.
The mind boggles at what logistical challenges would await Turkey were it to have the responsibility of patrolling the EU’s border with Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
EU Creates Global Vagabonds
Poland has an even larger problem with its own population emigrating out of the country to countries in Western Europe. Many Polish laborers, mostly unskilled, work in Germany, the UK, and Ireland among others. According to Izabela Grabowska-Lusinka, head of the research unit of the Center of Migration Research, many people left Poland with good degrees thinking that there was no opportunity for them in Poland. Others left because they did not have good enough English to operate in their field. What happened was that they started working as unskilled labor in the west and could not return to the sector they were trained in when they returned to Poland.
However, Grabowska-Lusinka also thinks that the problem of emigration after EU accession was exaggerated in the Polish media.
“What happened in the Polish public discourse, in the Polish media, the media started exaggerating, just after accession, the number of people who left Poland,” said Grabowska-Lusinka. “There was a lot of scare-mongering scenarios that Poland would experience a kind of brain-drain.”
Many Poles who were working abroad in the UK and Ireland came back to Poland after the global economic crisis severely affected those countries’ economies. However, most Polish workers now travel freely back and forth, with no set plan, and move depending on their economic opportunities. These people, who take advantage of the EU system, have become an entirely new category of workers that have been deemed “global vagabonds.”
“There is not that much planning, recruiting, organizing, all these things that were in the pre-accession period. Migration is more spontaneous,” said Grabowska-Lusinka. “Free movement of labor brought this.”
(A similar version of this article first appeared in the Hürriyet Daily News)