This year's Euro 2012 host has been untouched by the financial crisis, but for Poland, success has not come without strainby Sam Knight / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Chuck Norris, a cult figure in Poland, advertises bank services. A cautious financial culture helped the nation avoid the worst of the crisis
Flying into Rzeszów on a clear day, the company name “Zelmer” appears in bold letters across a vast factory roof, surrounded by acres of birch trees. Last summer, after 60 years in a warren of old workshops in the middle of the city, an unshowy city in southeastern Poland, the company moved into a purpose-built plant on the edge of town. While manufacturers in almost every other corner of Europe have spent recent years desperately cutting costs, Poland’s number one domestic brand of vacuum cleaners and kitchen appliances (meat mincers, juice mincers, multi-purpose mincers) was executing “Project Junior”: an ambitious plan to modernise its production lines, increase its profits and break open new markets in Russia and Ukraine.
Driving towards Zelmer’s new premises—a giant grey and blue box—I passed some of the other new things in Rzeszów (pronounced “Jeshoff”): the new airport terminal (built for this summer’s Euro 2012 football championships); the new shopping mall; the new motorway. Flags and posters announced that Rzeszów was now a “capital of innovation.” On the city’s logo, one arm of the red Maltese Cross—Rzeszów’s symbol during turbulent centuries of war, famine and emigration—had been turned into a hopeful, digital arrow.
Rzeszów is a place where the dream of European prosperity is vividly alive. The capital of Podkarpackie, one of the country’s poorer provinces, it is hell-bent on catching up with the living standards of the wealthier, western half of Poland. The resulting sense of purpose means that when you are in Rzeszów it is hard to know whether you have been somehow transported to the innocent days that preceded the European Union’s political and economic crisis, or to some briskly-fixed version of the future.
Rzeszów, and Poland as a whole, is Europe without the crisis. Despite a reputation for excessive bureaucracy and rulemaking, the country has emerged as the EU’s unflashy, undisputed star. In 2009, its economy was the only one in the bloc of 27 not to slip into recession. Since then, the country has been, in the phrase beloved of the Polish media, “an island of green in a sea of red.” While the European economy has shrunk 0.5 per cent in the last four years, Poland’s GDP has grown by 15 per cent. Though the labour market…