Why has Poland not managed to deal with its historic shipyards?
The answer lies largely in the enduring power of historic symbols in Poland nearly 20 years after the independent Solidarity trade union led by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa helped topple the communist regime and usher in democracy.
Announcing her decision to grant Poland a temporary but final reprieve, EU ompetition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said on Wednesday: “We have now entered the second half of extra time.”
Poland must now present new plans by September to overhaul
the shipyards and avoid a huge repayment of state aid totalling
2.3 billion euros that would force them into bankruptcy.
In a wave of protests at the ports of Gdansk, Gdynia and
Szczecin, workers have been busily pressing key emotional
buttons of the Polish psyche with their Solidarity flags, Roman
Catholic prayers and a clever blend of chivalrous charm and
patriotic defiance — handing out roses to passers-by while
letting off firecrackers and vowing to fight to the end.
“We have earned a special place in history because we fought
for the freedom of all,” Jan Guminski, a senior labour union
official, told protesters at Gdynia shipyard on Wednesday.
But analysts say the shipyards are in their sorry state —
they have not made a profit on a single ship built there since
at least 2004 — precisely because successive governments and
managements have been too awed by their iconic status.
“The historic angle is hard for people outside Poland to
understand. But the shipyards are the cradle of the Solidarity
movement. Successive governments have preferred to pretend the
problem is not there rather than take on 15,000 angry shipyard
workers with all they symbolise,” one Polish diplomat said.
In its heyday, Solidarity boasted almost 10 million people and was far more than just a trade union.
British historian Norman Davies, author of numerous books on Poland, says Solidarity was seen as “heir to all the nation’s freedom fighters” down the centuries in its brave struggle gainst a totalitarian regime and its paymasters in Moscow.
But Poland has changed enormously over the past two decades, becoming a much richer, more open and more self-confident country firmly anchored in the European Union and NATO. Solidarity today is a shadow of its former self and has little political clout.
For all the emotionally charged rallies and the politicians’ fiery rhetoric, the fate of the yards is not a top concern for many Poles trying to cope with rising food and fuel prices.
And Prime Minister Donald Tusk, pro-EU and pro-market may
yet find new investors by September. By winning the reprieve, he
can at least argue he has done more than his predecessors and
political rivals to salvage Poland’s shipbuilding heritage.