Make or break for Poland as EU cash floods in

Make or break for Poland as EU cash floods in
Picture taken on November 30, 2012 shows Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski during the "Treasury Talks" at the French Economy Ministry in Paris. Poland will likely join the eurozone by 2023 so long as the European single currency union implements necessary reforms, Rostowski said in an interview published on July 19, 2013.

WARSAW - Elzbieta Bienkowska, a 49-year-old mother with a tattoo on her arm and back, has more money to invest than any other Polish minister in history.

As minister for regional development, she is responsible for allocating 73 billion euros ($99 billion) of European Union money over the next seven years with the aim of closing the gap between ex-communist Poland and western Europe.

But with wealth comes responsibility. This will be the last time Poland will get such a huge amount of EU development funding, and if it does not use the opportunity to re-make its economy, it will have blown a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

And it is not as easy as it may sound. Poland needs to go from being a low-cost economy to one based on knowledge and technology - a complicated task that cannot be achieved just by throwing money at it.

Bienkowska, unfazed by the responsibility, has a plan.

"What is very important, maybe it is a kind of dream and it may sound funny, is to build a Polish Nokia," she said in an interview.

The Finnish Nokia, which started as a rubber company, became a dominant global player on the mobile phone market over 2000-2010, creating wealth and high-value added jobs for the sparsely populated Scandinavian country.

Nokia sales have since collapsed, ravaged by nimbler rivals such as Apple, but Bienkowska believes that Polish companies should follow the example set by Nokia in its growth years and work with scientists to develop new products.

"Our companies do not spend money on their own innovations. They prefer to buy the ideas from abroad. We will try to change this way of thinking," Bienkowska said.

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