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EU treaty may rest on plumber

Published May 24, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

A faceless Slavic handyman has emerged as a symbol of the struggle to persuade a disgruntled French electorate to vote in favor of a European Union constitution in a critical weekend referendum.

For opponents, the "Polish Plumber" represents fears that under a tighter union, people from poorer European nations will take jobs away in France where one in 10 is unemployed.

Supporters dismiss arguments that France will be flooded by foreign workers or that the treaty will trample on labor rights and leave the door open to unbridled American-style capitalism.

The debate over the treaty, the result of months of negotiation and painstaking compromise among the 25 EU members, also taps into what appears to be a growing malaise about the costs and complications of further integrating member nations.

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

Mentioned in campaign pamphlets, Internet chat rooms, newspaper columns and by politicians on both sides, the plumber reference has become so omnipresent that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged it 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 plebiscite.

The treaty, which is aimed at streamlining the decision-making process in an enlarged EU and providing for a president and foreign minister, needs approval from all 25 members to take effect in November 2006, which means a "no" vote from the French on Sunday 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 chat rooms 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 proconstitution booklet.

Unemployment stands at 10.2 percent, and disappointing first-quarter data last week poured cold water on the government's forecast for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent for 2005 and its pledge to cut joblessness to 9 percent this year.

A series of high-profile moves by companies to outsource manufacturing or services to lower-wage economies, often in Eastern Europe, also has worried 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."

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

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

The EU constitution also comprises a bill of rights and a restatement of existing treaty obligations.

Exasperated supporters accuse the opposition 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," said Pascal Lamy, a former EU trade commissioner who will next head the World Trade Organization.

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


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