Thursday, May 11, 2006

Leading article on Poland

Poland's new government

The trouble with Poland

May 11th 2006
From The Economist print edition

A country that thrives despite its governments


SEEN one way, Poland is a dreadful example of how central Europe is going wrong. The largest post-communist country in the European Union has remarkably high unemployment (18%), a remarkably bad system of public administration and some remarkably odd politicians.

Some of the time Poland has been governed by suave but sleazy ex-communists. At other times—including now—it is run by prickly, eccentric anti-communists. The biggest ruling party, Law and Justice, has decidedly rum notions. It loathes gays, feminists and the secular liberal order that most of Europe equates with modernity. On foreign policy, the party's sentimental attachment to America is matched by a visceral loathing of both Germany and Russia (recently the defence minister, Radek Sikorski, likened a German-Russian gas pipeline that Poland opposes to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939).

The government formed last weekend is even odder than the minority conservative administration of the past six months. Law and Justice has brought in two populist parties, the left-wing Self-Defence, and the right-wing League of Polish Families. In most European countries, such outfits would be on the fringes, not at the centre of power. Both parties have thuggish streaks, dodgy connections and peculiar ideas about politics and economics (until recently, Self-Defence wanted to cure unemployment by splurging the central bank's foreign-currency reserves). All this seems dismal to Poland's EU partners, who want a calm neighbour that plays by the rules. Instead they see a cranky, unpredictable country that reeks of backwardness; its cut-rate workers destabilise domestic labour markets; its bureaucrats can't implement the EU's rules; and its leaders make sensible decision-making impossible.

Yet as our survey this week argues, this picture of Poland is misleading. The main story of the past 15 years is of stunning success and modernisation. Poland's booming service industries are unrecognisable compared with the exhausted rust-belt country of 1989. Exports are soaring. Economic growth, running at 5% or so, puts old Europe to shame. Even the emigration of a million-odd Poles has its upside. It is better to wash dishes in London than to be jobless at home. Many Poles abroad are learning new skills, languages and attitudes that will stand them in good stead when they return, as most do. Freedom of movement inside the EU means that, unlike previous generations, most Poles are not emigrating for ever.

Nor is Poland's foreign policy as objectionable as some aver. Like its Baltic neighbours, Poland has reason to be suspicious of Russia, over both its aggressive energy policy and its baleful influence in Belarus and elsewhere. Poland is certainly increasingly assertive within the EU—but hardly more so than Spain, a comparably big country. The idea that new EU members from central Europe should be eternally grateful suppliants in the corridors of Brussels is patronising and unrealistic.

Even the latest coalition government may be less bad than it seems, for all the opprobrium deservedly heaped on its smaller parties. The prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, has confounded critics by making his minority government both effective and popular. Reforms in state administration—particularly the legal system—are proceeding apace. Armed with a parliamentary majority, his government could do still more. And it may be better to have populists of left and right tied down within the government than sniping from outside.

But this is still only a second-best outcome. Best would be a coalition that united Law and Justice with the country's other centre-right party, the more liberal-minded Civic Platform. It is baffling that two parties which share so much history and have such similar views are now at odds thanks to personality clashes. Mr Marcinkiewicz and his colleagues in Law and Justice should give their new coalition a chance. But if the populist parties start demanding more than cosmetic changes to economic or foreign policy, they should be thrown overboard without further ado. Poland has done well despite its bad governments. It could do even better with a good one.


oikonomikos said...

i will be the first to put a comment...having such a high profile (from The Economist) i'm sure others will follow soon. i have been an avid reader of another blog where comments count goes up into hundreds, so i wish Mr. Lucas the same...i will be back with more comments after i have read the survey

oikonomikos said...

as promised, i'm back...having read the survey..well hidden inside the first page i must say. as en emigre (immigrant), expat professional of 15 years we kind of have similar experience of watching each other's culures become similar, but i'm just a blogger and i suspect Mr. Lucas being the man behind of The Economist aricles on Poland and Eastern Europe for most of the time i have been reading this well-regarded and influential periodical. i have also traveled to Poland through the Warsaw airport, but recently more through its Western border to visit my home town where few even heard of The Economist.
my comments about Poland are a mirror image of another mirror image...having left 16 years ago and started family beyond its borders just like hundreds of Poles have done...i'm keenly interested in what's going on back home. with internet and satellite television i know instantly and can see things that are nicer and not so nice both in the old and in the new country. Poland has only been open for less that half of my adult life, so no wonder that the new government is well liked by those who have never traveled much by choice or by circumstances. They don't speak English and don't get along with French journalists, but as u have pointed out yourself, "So what?". To me, Poland is becoming quickly a Western country, still trying to find a niche for itself in the new community. People may not like to be classified as prickly or gloomy or whatever so maybe they should be told some Polish jokes...that would cheer them up [not]...few would wonder why others would think that.
i was only surprised at the very little business/economic commentary and a bit too much opinionated comments with the funny picture of a farmer at the end...stereotypes die hard if ever.

moritzek said...

Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to read the whole survey but the first part seems to me a bit surprising. I just wonder, how many young people Mr. Lucas has talked to. Because as far as I know, not so many is really willing to come back because there's nothing to come to. His picture of Poland is probably the one that current Polish govrnment would like it to be. Sadly, the truth is much less optimistic.

konik said...

Really interesting and thorough article. Although I can't agree with everything stated there, I must admit that author's knowledge of my country is quite extensive.

Edward Lucas said...

Thanks for these comments. Inevitably there is not room to write about everything--I wanted to have a chapter on the education system, and more about business. But the political situation is so complicated that it needs about three pages to explain it for a non-specialist audience.

On the subject of migration, I simply don't think it is true that "not many young people" are willing to come back because "there is nothing to come back to". The planes are full in both directions, after all. I think that if Poland was in an economic slump like Moldova, it would be conceivable that many peopl e would want to stay abroad for longer. But the fast-growing economy, and fast-hiring businesses, must be quite tempting for people who are not determined to settle abroad.

Unknown said...

I'm a third generation Polish American, who found the survey very interesting. I'm wondering what are the most knowledgeable and trustworthy sources for an American interested in investing in Poland.

HalHughes said...

I think there is a book in here for Mr. Lucas. I live in Italy, which is a country full of amusing politicians, celebrities, eccentrics, scandals, etc. The book Mr. Lucas could write would focus on the strange tales of Polish politicians, celebrities, eccentrics, scandals, etc., as well as the Polish psyche of victimhood referred to in this wonderful article. I have in mind two books in a similar vein that I enjoyed very much: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, by Michela Wrong (also an Economist journalist, about Congo, and Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones, about Italy.

Edward Lucas said...

There are too many bad books about the CEE region already for me to be tempted to write another one. The comparison with Italy is interesting, but in the end the region is like Latin America: fascinating for the specialists, and mostly dull for outsiders.

One good source of business information is PMR Publications which I mention as a source in the survey (disclosure: the main shareholder is my brother). Another is the Economist Intelligence Unit. It depends what sort of business you are interested in investing in.