On the German-Polish border 10 years after enlargement
"The only way to tell a Pole apart from a German these days is at the swimming pool. Poles keep their swimming suits on under the shower, Germans don't," quips Krzysztof Wojciechowski, head of Collegium Pollonicum – an academic institute in Slubice, just across the river from Frankfurt/Oder.
Differences were far more apparent 10 years ago when Poland joined the EU.
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Back then "you could tell just by the way people dressed and walked" who was a Pole and who a German, the Polish academic told a group of foreign journalists from Berlin ahead of the 1 May celebration.
The twin towns are now part of a European cross-border region, Poles buy flats on the German side of the river, school children are bilingual and students go back and forth on the bridge buying cheaper cigarettes on the Polish side and partying in the clubs on the German side.
The transformation, says the Polish academic, is nothing short of a "miracle".
Wojciechowski came from Warsaw to the border town in 1991 to set up the Collegium, which is linked to Viadrina University in Frankfurt/Oder.
"What I saw back then on the western side, was that German reunification transformed the city into a wealthy one, with the purchase power of its citizens increasing by 5 to 20 times, basically over night,” he recalls.
"On the other side, Poland in this time got poorer, there was a radical project of transitioning to a market economy which meant that the households had less money. The wealth difference was 1 to 10 – a German would earn an average of 2,000 DM per month, while a Pole would get [the equivalent of] 200 DM on the Polish side.”
As a consequence, tensions built up between the two sides.
Poland joined the EU in 2004, but the river Oder remained an eastern border with a checkpoint and customs controls on the bridge until 2007, when the former Communist country became part of the border-free Schengen area.
"This was the border of the EU, the border between rich and poor and of course it attracted criminality. This was the frontline between two sides – on the one hand the German state, police, customs, border control – with the highest density of police in history – statistically one policeman every 3 metres. On the other side was a very successful army of smugglers, car thieves, transnational gangs, pimps and prostitutes from all over eastern Europe.
"Every morning I could see out of my window how young Poles were selling some Mercedes to young Russians. The price was about 4-5,000 DM," Wojciechowski says.
But once the border posts were scrapped and Poland established itself as a successful EU member, "the smugglers went legal and became honourable taxpayers."
The wealth ratio has now reached a level of 60 to 100, the Polish side being only 40 percent smaller than on the German side, compared to 1,000 times smaller 20 years ago.
The mayors of the two towns are working together and the local councils have developed a joint tourism campaign – "Frankfurt/Oder-Slubice – without borders", there is a joint bus line and they are now working on granting Polish schoolchildren free access to the swimming pool in Frankfurt/Oder.
Speaking at a press conference with his Polish counterpart, the mayor of Frankfurt/Oder, Martin Wilke, admitted there are some cultural differences.
"Polish people are more spontaneous – us Germans want to plan everything for the next 20 years. But we have found a middle road, to combine both creativity and a bit of forward planning," Wilke said.
Tomasz Ciszewicz, the mayor of Slubice said through a translator that co-operation between the two municipalities is often hindered by the capitals or by the lengthy EU procedures, which take up to three years to get funding for a project.
"There should be more flexibility in transferring money from one country to another for cross-border projects," he noted.
Not all is rosy in the enlargement story. With no more border checks along the river Oder, transnational crime has increased, says the Slubice mayor, Ciszewicz. Car thefts in particular have "risen considerably" over the past two years.
"But this is not really a regional or local problem, rather a problem for the entire EU. Only one citizen from Slubice was part of a car theft in 2013, the gangs are mostly international: Polish-Russian, German-Russian, Polish-Turkish," the mayor said.
Joint patrols, investigation teams and a joint crisis cell have been set up in Frankfurt/Oder, said Peter Salender, spokesman for the local police.
"It is true that we have some citizens of another kind visiting our city. Cars are being preordered, stolen in Belgium, driven across Germany and all the way to Latvia, for instance, hoping that the police will lose track," he said.
However, Brandenburg, the German region where Frankfurt/Oder is located, is only fifth in Germany in terms of thefts.
"Berlin, Cologne report many more thefts, for instance," Salender said.