2009 — Summer / Commentary

A Pole at the Head of the European Parliament

JerzyBuzekIn June 2009, the people of Europe elected their deputies to the European Parliament. On July 14th the Members of the European Parliament elected as their leader, for a two-and-a-half year term, Jerzy Buzek, a Polish member of the European Parliament who had served as Prime Minister of Poland from 1997 to 2001.

In recent years, many ground-breaking events in European history have been marked, especially from the perspective of Poland. This year Poles celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland: the roundtable talks and the first democratic parliamentary elections, bringing about almost unbelievable changes to Europe. With the election of Jerzy Buzek as the President of the European Parliament, the last remaining symbols of the old divisions are dropping.

Twenty years ago, a Pole heading a European institution was pure science fiction. But over the years all the unimaginable things began to happen: the country was admitted to NATO in 1999 and to the European Union in 2004. In 2008 Poland joined the Schengen zone removing border controls for travel within Europe, the most tangible sign of what  European integration has to offer. The election of a Pole for the post of the President of one of the major European institutions means that democratically elected representatives of European citizens to the European Parliament agreed to let a politician of a country still considered one of the “new” Member States to speak out on their behalf.

This news made headlines across Europe and of course in Polish newspapers too. The Polish government considered Buzek’s election its diplomatic success; Polish people felt  proud that a Pole was taking up such prominent international position. Europeans were amazed to see a representative of a former Eastern European country heading a European institution and reflected about how much has changed in the last two decades.

In fact it has. Perhaps the election of Jerzy Buzek as President of the European Parliament is the last in the long sequence of steps taken to overcome the division between the old and new member states? Perhaps this is the moment when the countries that joined in 2004 should no longer be considered new?

In popular opinion the old dichotomy still seems to be alive: the East and the West. This division is very much resented by people in the ‘new’ member states, as are the designations “Western” and “Eastern” in public discourse. There is no Eastern and Western Europe anymore; that is the vocabulary of the Cold War. When used in today’s context it implies a denial of all the changes that occurred in this part of the continent in the last two decades. These are, of course, geographical terms, but between the West and the East there is also a Center, and this is where Poland lies. This is how we see ourselves and our role in the Club. The dated idea of “East” and “West” should not be further burdened by terms such as “old” and “new” EU Member States. This year we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the big 2004 EU Enlargement, after which, in 2007, two more countries, Romania and Bulgaria, also joined the European Union. For the past five years, each newcomer had its Commissioner in the European Commission, its deputies in the European Parliament, many of whom chaired different Parliamentary Committees; two ‘new’, formerly Communist member states, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, held the rotational European Union Presidency, and now the European Parliament is headed by a Pole. The newcomers quickly learned the dynamics of European politics. Isn’t it time to consider all the countries as legitimate and equal members of the Club?

From the perspective of young Poles these distinctions are meaningless. We are equally well educated, multilingual, knowledgeable about the world and as aware of the ideas behind European integration as our colleagues from France or Germany. With perhaps one small distinction, we do not take the blessings of European integration for granted, because we know what a long way our country has come. This is why Central and Eastern Europeans are generally more enthusiastic about the ideals of European integration and more aware and supportive of the process. But we do not see the difference between “us” and “them” anymore. We also take our place in the European Union for granted, because all Poles believe that it was truly a place to which we always belonged, but were temporarily separated from. The election of Jerzy Buzek as the President of the European Parliament was a very important event for Poland, and a highly symbolic if not a groundbreaking one for Europe. Poland’s true return to Europe occurred with the accession to the European Union. Now we are simply proud of our compatriot who was selected for a prominent position, wish him all the best and hope that he will represent Europe well on the international stage.


Kasia Szyndel
Kasia Szyndel is a graduate of International Relations and American Culture Studies from the University of Warsaw and European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe, Natolin. Of Polish origin, as a child she lived in the United States and today she loves to travel and discover new places and cultures. She works in the field of international affairs, but in her spare time she is passionate about the 1930s, Classic Hollywood cinema, and the life and work of The Oliviers.
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