A celebration of freedom and community at the University of Gdańsk - the anniversary of Poland's accession to the EU

fot Alan Stocki

‘The University of Gdańsk is not just an 'ordinary' young public university where knowledge is imparted and research is carried out, but it is first and foremost a place where ideas of freedom and community have always been important,’ with these words the Rector of the University of Gdańsk, prof. Piotr Stepnowski, inaugurated the conference 'Poland in the European Union 2004-2024. Cooperation, achievements, and challenges', organised on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Poland's membership in the European Union.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Poland's membership in the European Union. On the occasion of the anniversary, a conference entitled 'Poland in the European Union 2004-2024: Cooperation, Achievements and Challenges' was held at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Gdańsk on May 17. The event was attended by former Prime Ministers of Poland, experts and politicians, as well as guests of honour: former President of the Republic of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski and current Minister of National Education Barbara Nowacka.


The event was hosted by students from the Faculty of Economics: Celine Haida and Oskar Kapela, who were born in the year of Poland's accession to the European Union. 

The ceremony began with the University of Gdańsk Academic Choir, conducted by prof. Marcin Tomczak, singing two anthems: the anthem of the Republic of Poland and the anthem of the European Union. The participants were then welcomed by the Dean of the Faculty of Economics, dr hab. Monika Bąk, prof. UG.

Dziekan prof. Monika Bąk

‘I welcome you to a place that is not accidental. For the Faculty of Economics, scientific research, as well as teaching, expert, and popularisation activities in the area of expanding and deepening European integration are an inseparable part of our history, our identity. As early as 1978, the Centre for European Documentation was established here at our Faculty. A few years later, in 1983, the first Polish Centre for European Economic Community Studies, later known as the European Integration Research Centre, was established by prof. Andrzej Stępniak. In 1990, on the initiative of several members of our faculty, the first Polish Association for European Community Studies (PECSA) was established, which still exists today. In 1993, more than 20 years before Poland's accession to the European Union, the Department of the Economics of European Integration, headed by prof. Anna Zielińska-Głębocka, later a member of the Monetary Policy Council, MP, and today's speaker, was granted departmental status by the European Commission,’ with these words the Faculty of Economics’ Dean opened the conference. ‘People who studied and worked at our faculty have made a substantial contribution to the transformation of the Polish economy and its preparation for European accession, as well as people who have shaped and are shaping the European Community today, working in its various institutions,’ she added.

Piotr Stepnowski

The guests were also welcomed by the Rector of the University of Gdańsk, prof. Piotr Stepnowski: ‘It is safe to say that since the University of Gdańsk was established in 1970, we have been spreading our pro-European wings. Among our academics, students, and graduates you will find extraordinary personalities. Personalities who have shaped contemporary Polish history and Polish membership in the European Union - presidents, prime ministers and deputy prime ministers, ministers, MPs and MEPs, prominent financiers and legislators. Today we have the great pleasure of hosting them within the walls of our university, your Alma Mater,’ said the Rector. He also stressed the importance of the privileges offered by the European community: ‘We, too, at the University of Gdańsk, have taken and are taking advantage of the financial and social opportunities arising from membership in the Union.  To date, our university has obtained funding from the European Union to the tune of half a billion zlotys. Without this money - and this needs to be made clear - we would not have the most modern academic campus in northern Poland, we would not have well-equipped laboratories that are the envy of scientists from abroad, or beautiful buildings in which we can pass on world-class research to young people.’


The guest of honour at the conference, the President of the Republic of Poland in 1995-2005, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, then took the floor. The President began his speech by reflecting on the generation of the European Union and appealed to young people not to take life in the EU for granted once and for all. Those gathered had the opportunity to learn what the process of obtaining a passport and visa looked like at a time when Poland was not in the European Union and travel to the West was a privilege for the few. The President also introduced the conference participants to the history of Poland's entry into the European Union: ‘Success was not obvious. Many people today are ready to say that it would have happened anyway. Well, no. Firstly, there was serious resistance to the broadening of the European Union in the West of Europe, expressed by important political, intellectual, and journalistic circles. For many of them, Europe was a concept they had derived from Carolingian times, which in fact ended at the borders of a United Germany,’ Aleksander Kwaśniewski said. ‘This was not obvious. It required a colossal effort and I am grateful to all those who made this effort, but I would like to emphasise once again, because this is almost unimaginable in contemporary Poland, the issue of the European Union found cross-party agreement,' he added. ‘We have made the right and historic choice, because we have chosen an organisation that has provided its people with decades of peace, development, security, and, adding it all up, was and is the largest economy in the world. Any alternative to joining the European Union was a very poor or even tragic one.

Finally, President Kwaśniewski spoke about the threats he sees in the near and distant future of the European Union and the challenges facing the member states.


The next to speak was the Minister of Education in the Prime Minister's Office, Barbara Nowacka: ‘Today we know that Poland's accession to the European Union was the right choice. When we look at the countries that did not or could not join the Union at that time, we see how much has changed in Poland, how much our whole society has gained, and how important it was for my generation to feel that an epochal change was taking place,’ said the Minister, who also stressed the importance of participating in the upcoming European elections.


After the speeches by the special guests, it was time for the next part of the conference, the Prime Ministers' Forum: 20 Years of Poland in the European Union 2004-2024, attended by Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Hanna Suchocka, Leszek Miller and Leszek Balcerowicz. The forum was moderated by economist, writer, and member of the Monetary Policy Council in 2004-2010 dr hab. Dariusz Filar, prof. UG. In the first part of the forum, the panellists talked about their hopes on the eve of Poland's accession to the European Union.

 ‘I remember that it was a great expectation and an extremely positive signal for us that we would join European structures, in which we would also be able to reach the roots of law together. Our aspiration was to join the Council of Europe, to join the European Convention on Human Rights, and to open the borders for taking our cases to the European Court in Strasbourg,’ Hanna Suchocka recalled.


‘What the European Union has brought are opportunities. What is most important, on the other hand, is the free market - much more important for growth than transfers from the European Union,’ stressed Leszek Balcerowicz. The next to share his thoughts was Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: ‘Such a warm and nice image has emerged, as if Western Europeans wanted to take Eastern Europeans into their family from day one. I think there is no more false statement than that. We were constantly faced with the challenge of how to join these communities and where the line of compromise was, and whether it was a good decision or not,’ he recalled.

‘For me, the decisive moment was the signing of the Accession Treaty in a beautiful setting, in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis. The wings of history were humming. I was genuinely moved and very emotional, because I was sure that together with Mr Cimoszewicz we were signing one of the most important documents in our history. Somewhere in my soul, however, I was anxious, because preparations for a nationwide referendum had to begin immediately, and as we all know, things can go differently in a referendum, all the more so because we did not have to do it. My group had such an advantage in parliament that we were able to carry out the entire ratification process in parliament,' Leszek Miller recalled.


The second part of the conference featured an expert panel, The European Union - Challenges 2040+, with the participation of Jarosław Wałęsa, MP, dr Magdalena Adamowicz, MEP, dr Janusz Lewandowski, and the Head of the Jean Monnet Chair, member of the MPC in 2010-2016, prof. dr hab. Anna Zielińska-Głębocka.

After introducing the participants, the moderator of the meeting, the Polish Ambassador to the European Union from 1996 to 2001, Jan Truszczyński, proposed a number of issues on which the European Union should reflect in the coming years. These included: the EU's defence and economic security, the external competitiveness of EU economies, adaptation to climate change, the EU's migration policy in the long term, the issue of EU enlargement and the need for changes in the functioning of the EU, and financial matters.

When asked about his vision for the European Union, dr Janusz Lewandowski said: ‘The future of the EU is open, as it is the privilege of free societies to grow up to challenges and change.’ According to the MEP, it is a great abuse to scare Poles with a 'federal state of Europe', as national identities will always be stronger than European identity. The key to building the future of Europe should be respect for the ideas of the founding fathers and creating the widest possible scope of common interest between states. Dr Lewandowski pointed out that the development paradigm of the European Union is changing. Nowadays, the mileposts - instead of treaties - are the various crises: financial, migration, pandemic, and finally the war that has returned to the continent.
‘If we renounce constructivism in thinking about the future (...), we cannot renounce the values that cement the European Union. Integration has no chance of surviving in an axiological vacuum that will be filled by various nationalisms’ he said.

When asked about the most important instruments that should be implemented in the coming years, dr Magdalena Adamowicz pointed to the need to join forces in matters that were not previously part of the EU's main policies, and which individual countries cannot cope with on their own. Key areas were security and health policy (e.g. in the context of pandemics or the fight against cancer). She identified the fight against disinformation and hate speech as an equally important objective. Disinformation - according to the speaker - is a very dangerous tool, capable of tearing the EU apart from the inside, and the only way to fight it is to have access to reliable and truthful information. Hence the focus should be on the defence of free media, independent journalists, and activists - those who look at the hands of power and big business daily.

Ambassador Jan Truszczyński mentioned it is defence security - including resilience to threats from hybrid attacks, space or digital threats, and the strengthening of the European pillar of NATO - that is currently at the forefront of Member States' minds. These challenges must be dealt with more effectively than before.


Prof. Anna Zielińska-Głębocka pointed to the issue of preparing for EU enlargement and developing a model of operation that will allow for the accession (in the perspective of decades) of Ukraine, the Western Balkans, and possibly Georgia or Moldova as one of the two key issues at present. She drew attention to the need for these countries to meet the basic requirements of values, the rule of law, or European law. The second issue is defence security, which is not limited to the creation of rapid reaction forces but is also linked to the building of industrial capacity.

Jarosław Wałęsa drew attention to the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament, which in its new form may be strengthened by Eurosceptic votes. In his opinion, it is worth reflecting on the reason for this, if only from the perspective of 'Poland's backyard'. ‘How do we treat the European Union? Do we consider ourselves part of this community - or do we still approach it as a new member of the EU?’ he asked. According to the MEP, after 20 years of membership, we should completely reject such thinking. The challenge for the new MEPs will be to ‘regain Poland's voice’ in the European Parliament, lost over the last eight years. It is important to think about improving the functioning of the EU. If we do not want Europe to be a two-speed Europe, we should return to mainstream thinking about the European Union. Jarosław Wałęsa also expressed regret that there is a lack of people among panelists who are critical of the Union - which is essential for the debate. The European Union is a series of crises - which should not be feared, but learned from. Dr Magdalena Adamowicz agreed with this position, admitting that constructive criticism is very much needed. It is therefore important for the Union to open its ears a lot - and listen to what the public, especially the young people who make it up, are saying.

Dr Janusz Lewandowski summarised the various areas of challenge facing the EU. According to him, defence comes to the fore - due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. The defence community is a new, emerging dimension of the Union (after the first such concept was rejected in 1954). It is vitally important that economic capabilities translate into deterrence potential. The second challenge is the issue of migration. Europe has become an area of great immigration - due to war in the Middle East and famine in Africa. We are an ageing continent and the introduction of a long-term migration policy has become a necessity.


The culmination of the Conference was the presentation of the Barbara Centkowska Award of the International Relations Offices Forum to the Polish Ambassador to the European Union from 1996 to 2001, Jan Truszyński. The IROs Forum is a network of employees of the International Relations Offices of 31 of the most internationalised Polish public universities. The award is presented annually to individuals who have made the greatest contribution to the internationalisation of Poland. The award was presented by: IROs Forum Chairwoman Ewa Kiszka, Award Chapter Chairwoman Hanna Lamers and University of Gdańsk Rector prof. Piotr Stepnowski.

You can watch coverage of the conference on the UG's Youtube channel here.


Julia Bereszczyńska, Karolina Żuk-Wieczorkiewicz/Press Team