Andrew Gimson

Pole position

Andrew Gimson prophesies that Poland will be an important EU ally of Britain

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Anyone inclined to despair at the European Union's headlong rush towards statehood should visit Poland. It is impossible, when one talks to the Poles, to imagine that having survived Hitler's and Stalin's attempts to destroy them, they will allow their nation to be drafted out of existence by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the other notables who are even now completing a new European constitution. The Poles' habits of thought and behaviour, including their tradition of disobedience to foreign powers, render them quite unfit for the submissive role envisaged for them by French and German politicians.

This is not to say that the Poles are bent on causing trouble. On the contrary, in any European co-operative venture which makes sense to them, they can be depended upon for vigorous support. With their forthcoming accession to the EU, they will become guardians of the union's new border with Russia along the southern edge of the Kaliningrad enclave, and last week I witnessed the energetic measures they are taking to guard that frontier against illegal visitors and goods, while impeding legitimate trade as little as possible.

At the Bezledy crossing-point, the most suspicious vehicles seeking entry to Poland are taken to a shed to be searched with every kind of device, including thin tubes of the sort which can also be used to peer into a human being's bowels. A customs officer removed the narrow panel between the bonnet and the windscreen of a car with Lithuanian number plates. He reached in to the cavity beneath and began to remove packet after packet of cigarettes bearing the brand name St George, said to be destined, like much of the contraband which arrives at Bezledy, for the British market. With open borders inside the EU, this is the only place where such shipments are likely to be stopped.

The cigarettes piled up on the dusty floor of the shed. At the next car along, a thin young woman in jeans and high heels, with blonde hair and a hard face, watched disdainfully as her vehicle was searched. Many of the men seeking entry looked like ruffians, but the thick forest further along the border offers better chances for illegal immigrants trying to get across – though night-vision cameras and detectors under the soil, as well as the two high fences maintained by the Russians, are making that route a more and more daunting prospect. The only man recently found trying to smuggle himself across at Bezledy was a deserter from the Russian army who was lying along the axle of a lorry.

A woman was turned back after the coach in which she was travelling showed up on the radiation detectors which have already been installed to prevent nuclear material from coming across the border. She was receiving treatment for cancer and was above the permitted limit. No uranium has yet come to light. Dogs sniff for drugs and explosives, but cigarettes – 29 million last year – and vodka are the most common kinds of contraband, followed by amber.

The Poles have acquired much of the new equipment they need to guard this frontier with EU money, which seems only fair given that they are also guarding those member states which have no external borders. I asked the commandant of the crossing, Mariusz Haraf, what he thought of the idea, seriously entertained in Brussels, that responsibility for guarding the EU's borders should be transferred to a European frontier force.

Commandant Haraf, wearing a khaki uniform reminiscent of the British army, has one of those handsome, utterly dependable faces so often seen among Polish men, with a moustache but without any trace of vanity. He considered and said, 'It's very useful to exchange experience, and it's highly appreciated that we get technological support, but we should be able to do it on our own.' He pointed out that each section of the border has special features, and a Dutch or Spanish guard would certainly lack the local knowledge and languages needed on the frontier with Kaliningrad, just as a Pole would not be right for the Netherlands or Spain. Nor would local people be able to understand the employment of foreigners.

Had I been asked the same question myself, I think I would have said it was a damned insult even to think of supplanting national frontier guards with a European force. My bellicose indignation would probably have discredited me in the eyes of all but those who already agreed with me. This is not how intelligent Poles conduct the European debate, for they know that with their long land frontiers they have a far greater and more enduring need than Britain does to remain on friendly terms with their neighbours, and above all with Germany, with which they now do a third of their trade.

Yet it was a delight to spend much of last week talking to politicians and officials in Warsaw. Words like 'sovereignty' come quite naturally to their lips, without any visiting British Eurosceptic needing to insinuate such terms into the conversation. The contrast with Germany could scarcely be more marked: the German political class is still deeply ashamed to be German, and completely uncomfortable (except in Bavaria) with any idea of national sovereignty, while the Poles are immensely proud to be Polish and refer at very frequent intervals to salient events in the 1,000 years of their history, such as the saving of Europe from the Turks at Vienna in 1683. Poland's spirit of liberty is bound up with its sense of nationhood.

Tony Blair will visit Poland at the end of the month, and his faithful courtier Peter Mandelson was last week in Warsaw preparing the way for him. But one wonders whether either man is temperamentally equipped to grasp how great an opportunity now exists for a Polish