“Oh Sea, our Sea, we will protect thee faithfully...” So sang the sailors of the Polish fleet as long ago as the 1930s. Today, the Baltic Sea represents an opportunity for cooperation between the new European neighbours. Roman Daszczyński, a local journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza in Gadansk, travels the 788km of the Polish Baltic coast guaging the hopes and the fears of the people involved in the new cross-border of the neighbouring communities. Special examples are the Pomeranian and Baltic Euro-regions. Two young men from Kętrzyn, training as car mechanics on the island of Bornholm, speak for the future of these regions.The majority of Poles living along the Baltic coast are very rarely aware of the advantages being generated by the new cooperation with neighboring countries. They notice the effects of this process only indirectly – through a steady rise in the standards of day-to-day life, greater professional and job opportunities, and new personal friendships. The Polish coast measures 788 km – extending from the Wolin Peninsula to the town of Piaski on the Vistula estuary. Concealed behind this basic fact are decisive historical, cultural, and political conditions. For how is it possible not to remember that for centuries the greater part of this area, that so many cities, towns, and villages, were once German? As Poland lost its eastern regions to the Soviet Union in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Poles were forced to resettle westwards.
Stalin acted like a ghostly chess player. He moved the chess piece representing the German inhabitants of East Prussia and Pomerania in the direction of Berlin, Dortmund, and Cologne. On the vacated square he placed the piece that was the Poles expelled from their homes in the east.
Chances in the west
Here one should refrain from idealizing. Only a segment of Polish society represented Western European standards in intellectual and material terms – principally the intelligentsia descendant from the Polish nobility, who had paid an extremely severe price for their patriotism during the Second World War. The new Polish inhabitants of the Baltic region came largely from impoverished villages and small towns in the east. For them, the journey westward was a giant civilizing advancement, arriving in the rich, modern cities and towns of the Germans. They settled into their new dwellings, which were attractive at that time. They took over the factories which, despite the destruction wreaked by the war, soon provided employment. They traveled over better roads than in Europe’s east.
Two years later, as across all of Poland, the Communists began to install their absolute rule over this area. But they proved incapable of modernizing the state; the civilization gap to the free countries of the West grew year for year. The Communists fanned – in the context of the propaganda disseminated during the Cold War – fears that sooner or later the Germans would return to the new Polish Baltic territories and reclaim their former property. Today, although the Communists have gone, the fear remains. The political populists profit from it. “We Poles must pull together, otherwise the foreigners will come and take away our homes,” say rightwing populist politicians and meet with the applause of thousands, mainly amongst those who personally went through the suffering set off by the Nazis.
Oh, your old prejudices!
The shadow cast by the Second World War is different in Poland than in Germany, which was frozen socially only in part – for half a century in the east under Honecker’s Communism. What makes the situation worse for Poland is that Poles also largely distrust their other important neighbor, the Russians. This, too, is a consequence of fatal historical experiences. Germans and Russians are the closest neighbors along the Baltic; each of these groups perceives potential partners through a prism of stubborn prejudices. According to one sociological study, only two years ago half of the four hundred students in Szczecin asked what they associated with “Germany” responded with “Fascism.” Only one third nominated the high standard of civilization. At the same time, in the eyes of the students the typical German is seen as being a disciplined, hardworking, modern, and agile person. Instigating cooperation between these nations must almost inevitably run into difficulties. As far as the Poles are concerned, a complicated mix out of old fears and a new recognition for Germany’s achievements lives on. What is therefore at issue is to dismantle and overcome fears and antipathy.
Let’s begin with the foundations
Poland’s involvement in European structures is the country’s first real chance to liberate itself from the harmful patterns of the past. Of prime concern here is action on the municipal and NGO level. Two Euroregions form the foundations of cooperation: Pomerania, a partnership of Poland’s western coastal region with German and Swedish organizations; and the Baltic, a region Poles share with Russians, Danes, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Swedes. Local contact generates ideas and initiatives which serve to raise the quality of life in its broadest sense. Productive cooperation is rewarded by receiving support for projects from European Union funds. For the respective Euroregions, these are grants of between 80 to 90 million Euros and more.
How politics gets done
Why is support for the transnational cooperation between municipalities so important? Agreement with partners is reached most rapidly through such channels and the decisions taken are as good as free of politicized views – it is difficult to find more solid foundations. This was particularly evident in mid-2006, as the Polish Minister for Maritime Industry, Rafał Wiechecki, surprisingly cast doubts on the plans to expand the harbor in the border city of Schwedt. This sort of ploy is typical for rightwing populists in Poland, who like to employ catchphrases which rally people to defend national interests. The result was serious discord in Polish-German relations, for the Minister was doing his best to present himself as the “defender” of his constituency. Had he asked experts however, he would have found out that the proposed German harbor does not represent a threat to the coastal port of Świnoujście. The harbor in Schwedt is designed to accommodate only smaller vessels. And what is more – the harbor in Szczecin shall profit from this investment, from German investment, improving shipping conditions along the Oder River.
The go-ahead for the sea
A similar situation is taking place in the Baltic Euroregion. For years, the Poles have been trying to get the Russian blockade of the Pilawa Strait lifted, so that ships and yachts from Elbląg can reach the open seas through the Vistula Spit. This would benefit all parties by opening up new economic and tourist opportunities. But the Russian government remains unrelenting and says “njet.” “If the decision lay with the municipal governments in Kaliningrad, then we would have reached agreement long ago,” asserts Sławomir Demkowicz-Dobrzański, head of the international secretariat for the Baltic Euroregion. “They have a far better appreciation of what is important, but they have no influence at all on the issue of the Pilawa Strait.”
Between Szczecin and Berlin
In April of this year, journalists from the Gazeta Wyborcza asked inhabitants of Szczecin what they thought was the most important factor for urban development. They polled almost four thousand persons. For the majority, the most important factors were opening Szczecin for cooperation with Germany (1751 votes) and cleaning up the city (1705). The remaining responses were concerned with modernization issues: the building of a multipurpose sports complex, the construction of a modern city district, and an operating municipal rail system. The journalist Wojciech Jachim commented on the results as follows: “Our biggest problem is the lack of vision for a modern Szczecin. How badly we need one is proven by our fascination with the town’s Prussian past. The old Stettin is associated with prosperity, orderliness, and progress. It’s sad, but we can only be proud of our place on this earth when we look at postcards of prewar Stettin. We have no ‘progress’ program. And here again I welcome (…) that the Prussian or the socialist Stettin or Szczecin is a closed chapter. The number one necessity is a transnational strategy for developing a new, European Szczecin. We have to find out what we can hold onto and build on.”
The red-brick city awakes
The example of German towns inspires Szczecin. Cooperation with German municipal authorities enables consortiums to apply for EU funding to expand and improve transport infrastructure on routes towards Berlin. This is absolutely necessary if cultural and economic ties with this large European metropolis are to be broadened. Germany’s experience and expertise in dealing with the EU bureaucracy has proven helpful on several occasions. In 2004, the “marshal office” in Szczecin hesitated with utilizing 30 million euros from the EU Interreg program earmarked for enhancing road works, environmental protection, promotion of the economy, and training.
In the end, it was the responsible German authorities – the Ministry of Economics in the federal state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and the German partners of the Pomerania Euroregion – who took the initiative and traveled to Szczecin to stir the Poles into action. It turned out that the civil servants in Szczecin were needlessly waiting for the European Commission to approve a certain document – although this was not necessary for the transference of the granted funds. The Poles were also having difficulties dealing with organizational issues. Norbert Obrycki, director of the Euroregion Pomerani, likes to say: “The effort is worthwhile. The European Union is a group of busy people who are not afraid of being pushy.” It is his view that Szczecin’s citizens are not even aware of how much they have already profited from interregional cooperation. The millions of euros in aid earmarked by the EU for this purpose have resulted in important roads being built in the city and the financing of quite a number of cultural events, as well as enabled work to commence on a large sewage plant in Pomerania. Cooperation between the Euroregion partners generates new jobs; the role model is given by the UK, where up to 30 percent of jobs are created by NGOs who benefit from EU support.
Wellness for east and west
One could cite numerous examples. Cooperation between municipal authorities in the tourism sector facilitates promoting a region and the creation of databases. Thanks to this, Poland’s wellness centers and pensions located in the voivodeships along the Baltic are currently enjoying a real boom. Holidaymakers from abroad – predominantly Germans, but also Scandinavians – already make up twenty percent of the guests. But this is not that surprising when a one-week stay of comparable standard in a Polish center costs half as much as it would in Germany.
Cooperation between German and Polish tourist organizations has been functioning well for years. One of their goals is to promote the tourist attractions of the Szczecin Lagoon. The Germans were the initiators of the project; they believe that the lagoon could become a permanent weekend idyll for Berlin’s inhabitants. The first serious test for this undertaking got underway in the summer of 2004, with the German municipalities of Uckermark and Barnim taking part. One outstanding example of cooperation is the Polish-German Business Fair held in Torgelow. The town’s mayor, Ralf Gottschalk, traveled specifically to Szczecin to encourage Polish participation. The Fair of 2004 attracted 83 firms to Torgelow – ten of them Polish. Two years later, their number had risen to twenty. Similar fairs are being organized for Schwedt and Trebieża as well.
Educated for partnership
“Far-reaching economic ties are unbelievably important, but cooperation will develop far better when we manage to bring our respective societies closer together.” This is the conviction of Sławomir Demkowicz-Dobrzański from the Baltic Euroregion. “And this is most easily achieved with the help of children and young people, through encouraging language learning. A sympathy forged early in life will prove fruitful in the future. It also hinders looking at your neighbors through the prism of hurtful prejudices.”
This is already underway, also thanks to EU assistance. Examples? In September 2005, 1500 teenagers from Polish, German, and Swedish schools traveled to Stargard Szczeciński for the tenth Polish-German Youth Festival. They spent a whole weekend showing off their artistic talent on stage and took part in sporting competitions and open-air events. For seven years now, Elbląg has hosted the Euroregion Art Competition “We are from the Sea.” Last year, 2300 children from Lithuania, Denmark, the Kaliningrad district, and Poland came together. A couple of dozen finalists celebrated a vernissage and took part in a weeklong workshop on the Polish coast.
In the meantime, delegations from partner countries are looking for Polish youths who wish to pursue their education abroad. For this purpose, representatives from the Bornholm city government traveled through towns and cities in the Baltic Euroregion at the beginning of 2005. They visited Elbląg, Olstyn, Gdansk, and other cities and towns. Two boys from Kętrzyn took up the offer. “I met up with them recently when visiting Bornholm,” says Sławomir Demkowicz-Dobrzański. “They’re attending a school that is like a college. They’re learning to become car mechanics and seem to be happy. Two are not a lot, but at least it’s a start.”