16 Years of EU Membership: What Has Changed in Poland?

Last week, Poland celebrated the 16th anniversary of EU accession. After joining the European Union, Poland has transformed itself into a strong, wealthy European country. In the modern era, Poland, among other influential members of the EU (e.g., Germany, France, and Italy) creates modern political weather in the old continent. EU accession was a watershed event for this country. What has changed the EU membership in terms of political, economic, and social life of Poland, and which factors determined the ultimate success of this nation in the 21st century? In this article I will try to answer above-mentioned questions.

Between 1948 and 1989, Poland was a part of the communist bloc. In 1955, USSR and its Eastern European satellite countries signed the Warsaw pact. Moscow created and designed The Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) – a collective security institution that aimed to deter NATO and grow influence on the European continent. During the period of the Soviet rule, Poland’s economic system was based on the principles of collective property and centralization, in which the government exploited all the resources. However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, Poland realized that swift economic development was possible only after the very painful changes. In 1989, the country adopted the system of reforms, which is known as a “shock therapy”. The creator of this plan was Leszek Balcerowicz – Poland’s leading economist and then Minister of Finance. His reforms aimed to transform the centralized economy into the capitalist market economy. However, the transition was not smooth. The economic situation has significantly worsened during the first years of independence. Until 2004, Poland was quite an ordinary post-socialist state with a relatively weak economy compared to its western European neighbors, such as Germany, France, Austria, etc. Joining EU: 1. Strengthened the security environment of Poland; 2. Boosted economic development; 3. Changed political and social life of Poles and enhanced the process of democratization.

  1. Fostering national security – In 1999, Poland became a member of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). According to the 5th article of NATO’s charter, an attack on one member is an attack on all of its members. In this case, all NATO countries will take necessary actions to assist the attacked ally. Country’s accession to this military alliance improved the regional security environment. NATO’s defense umbrella became the principal guarantee of Poland’s national security. Joining the European Union fostered financial security too. International investors saw that the country became relatively safe for making large investments. Additionally, there are approximately 5000 American soldiers on Poland’s soil. In September 2018, president of Poland Andrzej Duda offered the United States $2 billion to finance a division-sized U.S. base by the Vistula River in Poland’s eastern border, even suggesting to name it “Fort Trump.” Instead of constructing a single large military base, Washington has proposed to disperse U.S. troops across various existing bases in the country, such as Redzikowo, Poznan, and Orzysz. Obviously, membership of Euro-Atlantic organizations, such as NATO and the European Union, made Poland one of the best protected states of Europe.
  2. Swift economic development – After joining the EU, the economic situation has improved in Poland. Basic macroeconomic indexes show that Poland has apparently benefited from membership of the EU. In 2004, the amount of nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was only $255 billion, while it is approximately $600 billion today. In this period, GDP Per Capita has almost tripled (from 6.600 $ -2004 to 17. 800 $ – 2019). Poland has been the largest recipient of EU cohesion and other regional funds until now. From 2004 to 2020, the European Union invested around 130 billion Euros in Poland. This is the enormous amount of money. Comparatively, this amount of money consists of about 20% of the nominal GDP of modern Poland. Furthermore, from 15 top trade partners of Poland, 13 are the members of the European Union. Poland’s accession to the EU attracted foreign direct investments (FDI) too. In 2004, the amount of FDI from EU member countries was only 2.3 billion Euros, while it was 8.7 billion in 2019. It is clear, that economic relations between Poland and the EU are progressing year-by-year. Supposedly, that trend will continue in the nearest future.
  3. Changing the country’s political and social life – Membership of the European Union completely changed the political and social life of Poland. First of all, it embraced the process of democratization, brought Poles more political and civil rights. In 2004, Poland’s freedom index was only 6.2 (out of possible 10), while in 2019 overall rating was 7.73. According to CATO, the evaluation of personal freedom in Poland was 8.6, while economic freedom was 6.88. According to the World Population Review, Poland ranked 48th out of 192 countries by the overall living standard in 2004. By 2020, the country ranked 37th. Membership of the EU improved social life too. Since entering the Common Market, there has been a fast flow of technology, trade, and investment, knowledge exchange, and free flow of capital, goods, services, and people between Poland and other member countries of the European Union. Joining the Schengen Area gave Poles an opportunity of living and working in other EU countries. After that, a significant number of Poles, estimated at over two million, have emigrated, primarily to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Ireland. However, this is not a one-sided process. Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens entered Poland during the last years to work and earn additional financial resources.

To summarize, May 1st of 2004 was the most important date in modern Polish history. After joining the European Union, Poland transformed itself into a strong and wealthy European nation. Membership of the EU strengthened and fostered the security environment, as well as embraced swift and long-term economic growth and the process of democratization. Poland’s membership of the EU is an ultimate success in every measurement. Poland is a clear example of how a country should follow its national interests by further deepening Euro-Atlantic integration.

Giga Jokhadze

Research Fellow

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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