Greek crisis revives Polish debate over joining the euro

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The possibility of a Greek exit from the euro is reviving debate in Poland about the wisdom of signing on to the joint currency, so much so that Poland's president warned this week that his country risks becoming a political lightweight if it sticks with its own currency, the zloty.

President Bronislaw Komorowski's comments touch on a fear in Central Europe that the ultimate result of the crisis in Greece could be a two-speed Europe, a union permanently divided between the countries able to influence its direction, most of which use the euro, and those on the outside.

The European Union has 28 countries that cooperate on issues including foreign affairs, agriculture and international trade, but only 19 that use the euro. The nine that don't include the United Kingdom and Denmark, which were allowed to opt out by the treaty that created the EU, and Sweden, which has avoided joining since its residents voted against membership more than a decade ago.

The other EU members that still use their own currencies are all former ex-communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and the Czech Republic have committed themselves to adopting the currency but none have target dates or realistic prospects for doing so anytime soon.

The dilemma over joining is perhaps most critical for Poland, the largest of the eastern members and the sixth-largest economy in the EU, which harbors ambitions to be a major power player within the bloc and has strong economic growth that makes it a contender to be the next country to join.

"Without membership in the monetary union it will be much harder, or even doubtful, to dream of a stronger role for Poland in the EU," Komorowski told an annual gathering of Polish ambassadors in Warsaw on Monday. "If anyone has another idea about how we ensure a strong position, let them say what it is."

Komorowski, who leaves office next month, spoke as the mood in Poland has turned decisively against the euro.

President-elect Andrzej Duda, who will replace Komorowski next month, and Beata Szydlo, the leading candidate to be the next prime minister, are both opponents.

Szydlo appealed last week to Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her pro-EU Civic Platform party to abandon plans for eventual euro membership "so that Poland doesn't become a second Greece."

Poland remains very pro-Europe, thanks to the benefits of European subsidies and free labor movement. But there are fears that the euro could put the country in the kind of economic straitjacket that has left less room for financial maneuvering in weaker euro economies, like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

If Greece ends up leaving the euro, analysts believe that it could lead the remaining 18 eurozone members to integrate their economies more deeply.

"By not being in the Eurozone, Poland might be excluded from this process," said Sebastian Plociennik, an expert on the EU with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "It's a pretty big challenge for our foreign policy: how to have influence on decisions without any chance of becoming a eurozone member?"

Poland considers being heard in Europe essential to defending its interests, which are often very different from those of other members. For example, Poland wants influence on the EU approach to Ukraine and Russia, countries on its border that hugely impact its sense of security. It's a common feeling in Poland that Western Europeans don't understand the threat from Russia and are not as committed as they should be to Ukraine.