When Polish members of the European Parliament placed an anti-abortion display in a parliamentary corridor in Strasbourg, France, recently, Ana Gomes, a Socialist legislator from Portugal, felt compelled to act, she said.
The display showed children in a concentration camp, linking abortion and Nazi crimes.
"We found this deeply offensive," Gomes said. "We tried to remove it."
A loud scuffle ensued as she and the Poles traded insults before the display was bundled away by guards.
It was the latest skirmish in what some here see as an incipient culture war in the heart of Europe. The clash of values has intensified since countries from Central and Eastern Europe that are experiencing an increase in the influence of the Roman Catholic Church joined the EU last year.
In the 732-seat European Parliament, and more widely in the EU, the clash extends to issues like women's rights and homosexuality.
"New groups have come in from Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Catholicism is certainly becoming a very angry voice against what it sees as a liberal EU," said Michael Cashman, 54, a European Parliament member from Britain who has campaigned for gay rights.
"On women's rights and gay equality, we are fighting battles that we thought we had won years ago," he said.
With a population of 40 million, Poland is the biggest of the 10 states that joined the EU last year. It is still uncertain, 19 months later, how Poland, a formerly Communist and overwhelmingly Catholic nation, will fit in with the other members on issues from foreign policy to economic management.
Since the election in October of President Lech Kaczynski, a conservative defender of family values and a critic of abortion and homosexuality, concerns are being voiced that, on social policy at least, Poland is on a collision course with Brussels.
"This is for real," said Christopher Bobinski, director of Unia I Polska, a pro-European research organization in Warsaw. "This is a very reactionary, conservative group of people that have taken the helm, and on these issues we are going in the reverse direction to the direction everyone else in Europe is going," he said.
The effects of Poland's religious conservatism were felt in 2003, during the drafting of the European Constitution, when Poland took the lead in pressing for the preamble to refer to Europe's Christian heritage. After much debate, the reference was not included.
Then, in November last year, Polish diplomats played a major behind-the-scenes role in the fight to save Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission whose remarks about women and homosexuality at a European Parliament hearing were widely regarded as offensive. The Parliament rejected Buttiglione's candidacy.
Poland's impact on the European debate has been economic as well as social. Its fast-growth, low-wage and low-tax system is perceived as a threat by the stodgier, economies of Germany and France.
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