And two shall become one

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Divided between Germany and Poland is a city that is about to be reunited after almost 60 years, where the citizens' optimism and misgivings provide a microcosm of emotions over the EU's expansion. Rob Hyde reports from Slubice and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder

A city split in two and left straddling the German-Polish border after World War Two will be reunited when Poland joins the EUtomorrow. For almost 60 years, border guards and barbed wire fences have divided the city into two small ones, called Frankfurt-an-der-Oder on one side of the river Oder and Slubice on the other. Now there will be freedom of movement between both sides.

The city was entirely German until 1945, when Hitler's Third Reich collapsed. One half went to Poland, whose borders were pushed west by the Soviets, and the other to communist East Germany.

When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Frankfurt-an-der-Oder looked to a brighter future in a reunited Germany within the EU; Slubice faced a harder transition to a free market in post-communist Poland. Now, citizens on the Polish side are hoping to learn from their German neighbours' experiences when they also become citizens of a united Europe.

Although the majority of Slubice residents are looking forward to the future, there are fears on both sides of the current EU border about what problems enlargement might bring. "I like the freedom that democracy has brought us. But when we join the EU, prices will soar," predicts Zwolak Slawovir, who runs a tobacco shop. He sells top-brand cigarettes for the equivalent of just 70 pence a packet to tourists who flock over from neighbouring Germany, helping to provide his family of four with a monthly income of pound;600. "Fewer people will travel here to buy our products, and that means there will be no security for us and our families."

Although Slubice is visibly poorer than its German counterpart, it has seen considerable development over the past decade, with several plush hotels and stylish restaurants springing up. One of its assets is the Collegium Polonicum, a teaching and research centre that is run jointly by the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and Adam Mickiewicz university in Poznan, Poland. Ewa Bielewicz, a spokeswoman for the centre, believes a united future can only be positive in the long term. "Standards of living are much lower in Poland than they are in western Europe," she says, "but once we have joined the EU things will improve. In 10 or 20 years our children will be living in a cleaner, better organised and more structured country."

College student Magda Segieda agrees with her and says too many Poles are focusing on the potential problems - rushing to buy flour in case the price rises, for instance - rather than the benefits the EU will bring. "What people here in Poland don't realise is that the EU will provide better opportunities to study abroad and be treated on a par with other Europeans - and not as poor immigrants," she says. "This is our chance to prove that we have a lot to offer."

Igor Parka, who studies at Magdeburg university in eastern Germany, says one difference from the east Germans' experience is that the Poles have had a chance to vote on whether they wanted to join the EU. "East Germans suddenly found themselves a part of the union in 1990 when east and west reunified - whether they wanted it or not," he says. "And since then the economy has worsened."

Over the bridge, many Germans welcome the reunion of the two sides. One of them is Michael Kurzwelly, an artist who has for years viewed residents on each side of the Oder not as being German or Polish, but as "Slubfurters".

"As a former West German, I found more differences between east and west Germans than those in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and Slubice," he explains. "I thought it was time people here stopped being divided by geographical barriers. I invented the name Slubfurt to bring everyone together, to promote opportunities between them. Two years ago people in Germany laughed at me. Now the mayor of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder has declared himself a 'Slubfurter'."

Roland Totzauer, one of 16,250 unemployed in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, sympathises with the Poles because of their shared experience before 1989 of studying Russian as a first foreign language and being able to travel only to communist countries. While he thinks bonding with the Poles is a good idea, he believes joining the two sides is impractical. "The local authorities recently revealed plans to build a tramline connecting the two cities. But too many people go over there as it is for cheap cigarettes, haircuts, dentist appointments, medical supplies and car servicing," he says.

"We had communist values and looked out for each other. But another travel link between the cities will kill local jobs and end up causing hostility between the two sides."

The transition to reunion will certainly be hard. In Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, where factories have closed and more than 6,000 flats lie empty, unemployment is around 20 per cent; it is probably at a similar level in Slubice. People from both cities point to the different way Poles and Germans work, which could scupper joint projects in the future. They both say Germans exert strict control over every part of any project from start to finish, while Poles prefer less planning and simply to get on with the job.

A failed bid to build a microchip plant - with a planned 1,500 jobs - that collapsed last year when investors pulled out, underlined how such co-operation projects can fail. But Martin Patzelt, mayor of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, has already thought of a way round that. He says:

"What's difficult could be done on the Polish side, and what takes a lot of preparation could be done on the German side."

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