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In the 20th century the very name “Poland” conjured up images of suffering, refugees, slaughter, terrible destruction and division. Here was a country that had been invaded, partitioned, endlessly fought over, defeated and conquered.

Will the 21st century be kinder to this ancient and proud but often humiliated nation? All the signs are that it will.

Today Poland is a thriving member of the European Union, forging ahead with increasing confidence. It still has much poverty, especially in more remote and rural areas, but it has largely escaped the credit crunch that has crippled most other leading economies. It can look back with pride to the moment when it took the lead in breaking Soviet postwar dominance in Central Europe, with the Gdansk shipyard workers, led by the charismatic Lech Walesa, rising in open defiance of communist dictatorship.

And it can look forward to a robust democratic future with a more balanced relationship, on far more equal terms, with its two big neighbors, Germany and Russia, who have inflicted on Poland so much damage in the past.

Quite a few of the numerous Polish immigrants working in Britain are returning to their recovering native land, going back to jobs that allow them to develop their full skills. In short, Poland, the land of tragedy, is beginning to live again.

This is good for Europe and good for democracy. The great fear of the post-Soviet age, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was that Russia would somehow continue to seek to exert sinister influence, and even, control, over its ex-satellite states in East and Central Europe. It would do this not in the old way — by tanks (although Georgia has had a bitter taste of those recently) — but by using its role as chief energy power supplier to browbeat the Europeans .

Yet unlike other Central European states, Poland, which is far the biggest of the recent newcomers to the European Union, has managed to avoid the dependence on energy from next-door Russia — especially on Russian pipeline gas, on which its smaller neighbors still depend so heavily. It can draw on its own energy in the form of plentiful domestic gas and its own enormous coal reserves.

The coal burning, which currently still provides two-thirds of Poland’s electricity, will of course have to be cut down to meet carbon targets. Gas and in due time nuclear power will have to replace coal, at least until methods of capturing carbon in coal burning can be made commercial, which at present is far from being the case.

But Poland’s gas prospects are now becoming so good that there is even talk of Poland becoming a gas exporter to its Central European and Baltic northern neighbors, thus providing one more means by which the Europeans can reduce their uneasy reliance on Russian gas supplies.

This in turn reinforces the opportunities for the whole of Europe to become increasingly self-sufficient in low-cost energy, and therefore far less reliant not only on Russia’s arrogant gas monopoly, Gazprom, but also on the smoldering Middle East and other shaky and worrying sources of oil and gas round the world. Moscow’s gas czars would then have to sell their gas eastward to China, Japan and other Asian customers for the best price they could secure.

This re-orientation has been the long-standing dream of the energy planners at European Union level — a common energy policy for and within Europe — although so far with little progress being made .

But one further element missing from this dream has been the lack of physical infrastructure of gas and electricity interconnections, so that all European countries can rush power assistance to each other in times of need or emergency, and so that fuel and electric power can flow freely, and competitively, from east to west in Europe, and from north to south, and in reverse if needed.

This would require EU leaders and officials to work for much simpler regulations and licensing procedures and much lighter taxation, to give incentive to private enterprise to get on and build the market network of energy connections Europe longs for.

Each member state could then tailor its own detailed energy policies to meet its own needs within the overall network of bilateral links, as Poland is now doing.

Unfortunately, many high EU officials in Brussels still long to direct Europe’s energy policy centrally with more regulation, heavier taxes and elaborate central blueprints and funding .

This outdated approach will never work. The separate nations of Europe should be left to cooperate but not be corralled into a single official strategy. Poland is now showing what can be done when ancient nations and societies are left in peace to develop their own talents and resources, both in energy fields and elsewhere.

In the past, Europe was brought to its knees and cruelly partitioned by events in and around Poland. In the future, Poland could be the pace-setter in Europe’s efforts to find the best way forward to better and safer times.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.

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