In 1995, I was 17 years old and I wanted to see the world (meaning territory behind the Velvet Curtain; one-day trip to Hradec Kralove did not count).
When holiday time came, I jumped on the bus to Britain. After 22-hour ride (all passengers were meek and ordered; even if incidental bus stops turned out to be places without proper toilets) the whole bus went strangely quiet at the solemn anticipation of judgment at the border. Where to hide extra amounts of cigarettes so that customs do not get them? As we were getting closer to the immigration office, we passed the people with sad and disappointed faces by the side of the road. They were refused entry and were trying to hitch a ride back home. You could tell by their incongruous clothing and wild look in the eye they were Poles. I looked the same – my second-hand shop jacket and Sunday best jeans with a marble pattern appeared less fashionable in the civilised world than I originally thought.
I stepped out to face the immigration officer. At his little desk the radio was on, ironically it played the Queen’s “Heaven for everyone”:
In this world of cool deception
Just your smile can smooth my ride
These troubled days of cruel rejection, hmm
You come to me, soothe my troubled mind.
The interview was tough – detailed account of my life was needed. I had to show how much money I had (all my teenage life’s savings) as well as the invitation letter (the officer called my companion’s aunt to check if she was expecting us). I dreamed of the summer job of strawberry picker which would allow me to go to the university in Warsaw. I could not believe it but I made it. They let me though. “Are you excited to be in the UK?” one of the stern-faced officials asked. “I do.” I replied, momentarily forgetting the grammar.
What followed was sweet and sour. Britain was full of vivid colours, so different from grey post-communist Poland. Whenever asked about my citizenship, I learnt quickly it was so much better to say “Poland” with a slur, as it was so much better for your interlocutor to hear “Holland”. Jokes reflected the stereotype well…
Q: Why aren’t there any suicides in Poland?
A: You can’t kill yourself jumping out of a basement window.
There was a prevalent stereotype of poor, desperate, inarticulate Pole living in the shadow economy, on the margins of the Western European societies.
Q: What does it say on the bottom of a Coke bottle in Poland? A: Open the other end.
And here is another one:
Guy walks into a bar, sits down and starts to make conversation with guy at next table. “Want to hear the world’s worst Polish joke?” #2 says “Sure, but before you tell it, let me tell you something. See those two bikers over there by the door? They’re Polish. And those two bouncers by the bar? They’re Polish too! The Bartender?? Polish!! And one more thing pal, I’m Polish too!!! Now…. still want to tell that joke?” “Hell no,” replies #1, “I don’t want to have to explain it 6 times!”
I soon learnt that tasting the West can be a bit like licking the candy shop window. To run the risk and seek employment on a farm exposed you to the risk of deportation (this happened to poor Maciej; having spent a few days in the detention centre; meals at her Majesty’s cost provided), abuse from dishonest contractors or employers (Jacek got beaten up for eating some of the beans he was supposed to pick; he fled in the dead of night as his oppressor went to fetch the gun). Rough-sleeping Poles were the common sight at the Victoria Coach Station.
I took up a holiday job: I picked celery for 2 pounds an hour. It ended badly: the plants were sprinkled with some fertiliser or insecticide that gave me severe burns on the skin. I worked hand in hand with a Kurd who told me the story of his life: how Saddam Hussain killed all his family through a lethal gas attack at his village. On my way back on the ferry to France. I watched Europeans enjoying themselves, laughing and drinking.
This is a typical experience of the Pole/Slovak who came into adulthood in 1990s. This is a common fate of Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland today. Is it so hard to see the connection between the EU and prosperity of people?
I returned home with a conviction that it would be good if Poles and fellow Central Europeans could be the EU citizens. I wanted Poles to move freely and take up employment where they wish, participate in the Socrates programme, enjoy the same status as the Dutch or Portuguese youth. I became a sceptic of Euroscepticism. I moved on to become a civil servant leading Poland to become part of the EU. My heart overflew with happiness on 1 May 2004. I started to believe my poor country would escape the curse of history – to be placed on the periphery of Europe. In the following years, the Poles enjoyed the full access to the single market; and the country was back on the map of Europe after terrible 50 years of communism. The Polish jokes were just jokes again, with Western Europeans realising Central Europeans are good people like everybody else.
It took our region over two decades to become fully-fledged members of the EU. It did not happen by itself of course – it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the part of bureaucrats, intellectuals, entrepreneurs or simply hard-working people. Prosperity in Central Europe increased not solely due to the EU membership, but it was not a pure coincidence that Eastern European countries which did not join the EU did not fare so well.
Today I hear voices in Central Europe that the EU is unfair (because Germans, instead of paying for the cohesion policy, want to have a say in governance of Europe), morally spoilt (because the rights of sexual minorities are guaranteed), anti-Christian (because there is separation of state and church) and living hell (because it dared to accept refugees from war-torn countries that happen to be Muslim). I do not think these complaints make a lot of sense. I do not buy politicians’ talk how evil EU bureaucracy is, how immoral or failed European Western European societies are, how big a threat to national sovereignty the EU can be.
Only the EU can guarantee freedoms on the Single Market. And do not be mistaken, when Britain eventually leaves the EU, it will make sure the movement of people between Britain and the EU will be as seamless as possible. It is the third countries which will suffer because of tightening of the immigration regime.
I have been in the antechamber of Europe before and I do not want to go back to that status. When it comes to humiliation at border checks, I have had my share.
This is a long way to say thank you to Mr Robert Fico who said several times that he wants Slovakia to be in the centre of Europe. I wish other V4 leaders followed.
(Photo: Open Society Foundations)