WARSAW--Visitors driving through the outskirts of Warsaw could be forgiven for thinking they were in France.
The shopping centers that ring the capital are dominated by giant French retail chains like Auchan, Carrefour, Go Sport, Leroy Merlin, Castorama and E. Leclerc.
The stores tell the larger story of what happened to the Polish economy over the past decade: banks and companies were swallowed up by West European companies so thoroughly that today in the construction industry, for example, there are no major companies - those that handle big contracts, as opposed to subcontractors - owned by Poles, according to the Polish Chamber of the Building Industry.
Poland accepted this because it was a condition of joining the European Union, specifically the principle of the free movement of "goods, persons, services and capital."
But are France and other countries in Western Europe living up to their side of the bargain? What about the free movement of people? For some Poles this was the troubling subtext to France's rejection of Europe's proposed constitution on Sunday.
Only Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden have allowed Poles to work in their countries since Poland joined the EU in May 2004.
Zbigniew Bachman, the director of the Polish Chamber of the Building Industry, says foreigners are profiting handsomely from their domination of the market - and the profits are going back to France, Spain or Germany. Yet French voters are famously up in arms about Polish plumbers coming to fix French pipes at cut rates.
"We believe that if Poland is now a member of the EU, it is like being a province in a larger country," Bachman said. "It is obvious that rich regions will suck people away from poorer areas."
The message to West Europeans these days from Poland may be this: Beware of the backlash from the east. You have gobbled up entire industries, and for the European Union to truly work, you will have to give something in return.
Saturday, June 04, 2005
The International Herald Tribune has a lovely follow-up on France's sorry vote against the EU constitution - Thomas Fuller examines the French and their fear of Polish plumbers: