Waiting At Europe's Door

Aleksander Kwasniewski has played the political fireman this year. Poland's two-term president strongly supported America in the Iraq war, angering France and neighboring Germany, its biggest trading partner. Another flare-up could come on June 8, when Poles vote on entering the European Union. The 48-year-old former communist discussed his plans and challenges last week with NEWSWEEK'S Stryker McGuire and Ginanne Brownell at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: To be legally binding, 50 percent of Polish voters must turn out for the referendum. Will they?

KWASNIEWSKI: It won't be easy. But Poland would be making a terrible mistake by voting no. We would be entering a deep political crisis.

Many Poles fear that joining the EU would somehow sacrifice their cultural identity.

The European Union has been around for 50 years. Not one of the countries has lost anything in their identity, national language or traditions. There is no reason to think Poles will stop speaking Polish, or start eating oysters and drinking only red wine. [Laughs]

Poles also worry they will be second-class citizens.

The European Union is the ticket to the future. If we do not get the best tickets on the train today, we will have an opportunity to move later, to get better seats.

Poles once looked to America as the land of opportunity. Does the younger generation look toward Europe?

Yes. It is a big change. In the past, our hopes were placed in the likes of America, Britain, Scandinavia or South Africa. Today, we do not have to look for opportunity in the U.S. We have Europe. But people will not be leaving Poland when we join the EU. More people are coming back to Poland than leaving these days. This has never happened before.

Can Poles be both good Europeans and good American allies at the same time?

Yes. We have a sense of some security and stability, and it is thanks to the transatlantic bond. We are Europeans. But we also have several million Americans who claim Polish roots. We can respect both. As for Iraq, it was not an easy decision but I am convinced we did the right thing. It would be bad if, from the grave, Saddam Hussein were to achieve his biggest success--to divide Europe and America.

President Chirac recently told the Latvian president that NATO is no longer relevant.

It is unfair for France and others to tell members of the Baltic states that their NATO does not make any difference, especially when they are unwilling to develop a European alternative.

Will U.S. troops move from Germany to Poland?

It is a very delicate discussion, started long ago. On one hand, it can be seen as punishing Germany. On the other, Russians are discussing their doubts about American bases closer to their border. I can say, politically and pragmatically, that this issue is not now being considered. There is no reason for me to talk more about it.