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Friday, May 27, 2005

Job-stealing Polish bogeyman takes center stage in French referendum

Associated Press:

A faceless Slavic handyman has emerged as the bogeyman of France's nail-biter referendum on Europe's proposed constitution, which the French establishment - and leaders across the continent - are struggling to sell to a disgruntled electorate.

Opponents of the treaty that marks the next big step in a 50-year process of European economic and political integration have turned the so-called "Polish Plumber" into a symbol of fears that France will be hurt by the treaty's vision for a larger, more closely knit Europe.

That addresses fears that an army of people from lower-tax, lower-wage East European countries that joined the European Union last year will take hundreds of thousands of jobs away in France, where one in 10 workers is already unemployed.

On a deeper level, it also taps into what appears to be a growing malaise about the costs and complications of further integrating 25 member nations whose leaderships and people have sometimes conflicting notions of what Europe should be.

Mentioned in campaign pamphlets, Internet chat rooms, newspaper columns and by politicians both for and against the treaty, the plumber has become so omnipresent that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged him during a visit to France last week.

"It's completely exaggerated," Kwasniewski said as he joined forces with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to campaign for a French "yes" vote in Sunday's crucial referendum. The treaty needs approval from all 25 members to take effect in November 2006 - which means a "No" vote from the French could bring Europe's hopes for closer integration to a halt. Opinion polls in the final week show the "No" camp holding a narrow lead.

Piotr the plumber, as some Internet bulletin boards have dubbed him, has touched a nerve in France because of the high unemployment and mounting economic anxieties hanging over the vote.

"It's clear that if our current economic circumstances weren't so morose, we would be seeing a very different campaign," said Phillipe Moreau Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations and author of a pro-constitution booklet.

Unemployment stands at 10.2 per cent, and disappointing first-quarter data last week poured cold water on both the Government's forecast for growth of 2.0 per cent to 2.5 per cent for 2005 and the credibility of its pledge to cut joblessness to nine per cent this year.

A series of high-profile moves by companies to outsource manufacturing or services to lower-wage economies, often in Eastern Europe, has also unnerved French workers and their unions.

"The French have had trouble accepting the enlargement of the EU," Moreau Defarges said. "Some people really believe that the best policy would be simply to close France off."

It was against this background that former EU internal market commissioner Frits Bolkestein caused a storm in France by telling reporters he would have appreciated a Polish plumber when his French countryside vacation home sprang a leak and he was unable to find one nearby. Left-wing commentators were scandalised, and the local mayor vowed publicly to send the former commissioner a list of unemployed French plumbers.

Andrzej Kowalczyk, whose Polish-registered building company has a subsidiary in Paris, says he's been feeling the heat from the cantankerous referendum campaign.

"At the moment there's a lot of customers who don't want to work with Poles because they're afraid, even when they have all the right papers," he said in an interview.

He said few French want to do construction work anyway, because the pay is only slightly better than generous state welfare handouts. Employees below management level are "mostly North Africans and Poles", Kowalczyk said.

Supporters of the 448-clause constitution, the result of months of negotiation and painstaking compromise between EU members, say fears that France will be flooded by overseas workers are unfounded. They dismiss arguments from the "no" camp that the treaty will trample on workers' rights and leave the door open to unbridled American-style capitalism.

The EU constitution comprises a bill of rights, a restatement of existing treaty obligations and some new ones to streamline decision-making in an enlarged EU. It would give no new impetus to EU market liberalisation - but that doesn't deter its critics.

"It's precisely this silence which is significant," said Jean-Claude-Mailly, head of the left-wing Workers' Force union, in a recent interview with financial daily Les Echos. "You'll find no measures in there to rein in social or fiscal dumping."

The constitution's exasperated supporters accuse opponents of the text of playing to nationalist sentiment by seizing on the Polish plumber.

"I don't think the French economy is at serious risk from an invasion of plumbers with hacksaws between their teeth, suddenly interested in the nation's bathrooms," said Pascal Lamy, a former EU trade commissioner who will next head the World Trade Organisation.

"Let's drop the bogeymen and the plumber-phobia which, in this Polish example, looks a little like xenophobia, pure and simple."


Blogger Gustav said...

More here at the International Herald Tribune:

There is also the frequent reference in French debates to the Polish plumber, an abstract character meant to symbolize the threat of cheap labor.

Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, brought up the issue during a visit to France last week.

"I know that the argument about the Polish plumber is very often used, or exploited, in France, but I must tell you that this is really exaggerated," he said. "It's not true that low-wage workers from the new members of the European Union have flooded the other countries."

They hit the nail right on the head, here:

The overall irony for Europe is that the constitution was supposed to bring the Continent together and create a greater sense of European solidarity. Instead the campaign to ratify it has engendered fear of other Europeans and has led to broader questioning of the European project.

5/27/2005 04:16:00 PM  

Blogger Redneck Texan said...

Where do you stand on this issue?

Yes or No.

Would it be different if you were living in one of the big 3 European economies.

I guess my vote would depend on what European country I resided in.

I think not having the political courage to tell Turkey they are not welcomed in the EU is a mistake.

But at any rate Europe has never in its history been on the same page, what makes you think anything has changed?

From a purely pro-American standpoint I do not wish to see them become a unified economic / political competitor. Luckily I don't think I am ever going to have to worry about that ever happening.

btw....why is unemployment so high in France and Germany?

5/29/2005 05:44:00 AM  

Blogger Gustav said...

I'm indifferent.

This constitution is some 190 pages, and more than 400 clauses long. In all that verbosity, it doesn't manage to make anything clearer or government more accessible to the people of Europe.

That being said, I believe Europe needs a constitution, I just don't think this one is good enough. The Union needs a document clearly delineating its powers, and a document declaring Europe's "mission statement", so to speak.

Living in one of the new-EU10 countries, I'm dismayed that 10 Commissioners will be losing their vote-- Poland's commissioner is likely to be one of them.

I'm also worried about tax policy. At the moment taxes here work roughly as they do in the states: Each country can decide its own tax system. With the greater power that the bigger members would gain from this treaty, I'm worried that France and Germany would try to force higher taxes in Poland to make their own economies more effective.

If I were living in one the big three, I'm sure I would be worried too. The euro has already caused real or perceived inflation rises in eurozone countries, slowing consumption and growth. Add on top of that the frightening prospect of paying to bring the new-EU10 (plus Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, with Turkey and Ukraine soon after) up to Western-European standards of living-- and a "no" vote seems a logical step.

The 10 new members joining last year has proven to be a titanic project, but one that is going relatively smoothly so far. Still, Western Europeans are dismayed that these pesky little countries in the East actually GET A SAY in what the Union does, now that they've joined. The Union needs time to iron out these relationships, and to see the longer-term effects of accession.

The Union is moving too fast for its citizens. It needs to slow down, explain itself, and decide on how federal it really wants to be. This constitution does none of that.

From a purely pro-American standpoint I do not wish to see them become a unified economic / political competitor

If we're speaking economically, it already is. Europe is one market (more or less). Funnily enough, this hasn't brought economic ruin to either Europe or the states, and their trade ties have only grown stronger over the years. There's nothing wrong with a big trading partner -- big, open, stable markets bring profits.

Politically, Europe is still a smorgasbord -- but once it finally does speak with a common voice on say, foreign policy, there's no reason to fear Europe. We have our disagreements, but Europe is a democratic ally who respects human rights. An ally who is stronger and better able to promote those values is an asset.

5/29/2005 11:53:00 AM  

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