Special Reports / Polish presidency, or how to explain Europe to the Europeans?

Explaining Europe to the Europeans

Łukasz Pawłowski · 25 July 2011
During a conference organized five years ago in London to celebrate Europe Day one of the major issues raised by Austrian ambassador to the United Kingdom (Austria was at that time president of the EU) was… the lack of jokes on European Union. At the time being, only British historian, Timothy Garton Ash, replied with the one-liner: “If the EU applied to join the EU it would not be admitted”. Over the next few years this became more of a reality than anecdote and I am pretty sure that…

The conflict in Libya is prolonging, the Arab spring is far from a happy ending, the specter of Greek bankruptcy still lingers on, the Schengen area wobbles and the idea that used to keep the whole institution together seems to have got lost somewhere. Can Poland – the biggest post-communist country in the community which has just taken over the presidency in the EU – breathe some fresh air into the European project and maybe make the EU “admissible” again?

Polish authorities seem to have no doubt about it. In an article published on the first of July Prime Minister, Donald Tusk has identified the following goals Polish administration wants to pursue when at the forefront of European politics:

“The task I consider to be most important is reviving trust towards Europe among its citizens. The first message of our presidency will be therefore to rebuild common language and faith in European politics. […] Our plan is ambitious. We will strive for deepening the integration of European market, since it will increase the pace of economic growth. We will be advocating for further EU enlargement and better cooperation with its neighbors since it will guarantee stability at the continent’s gates – both southern and eastern. We will strengthen the security of Europe in terms of energy and food provisions as well as militarily. Finally we will commence a discussion on a new European budget”.

The plans are grand, numerous and diverse and so are the expectations towards the Polish presidency. “Financial Times” went as far as to claim that from all the member states only Poland with its heritage of ‘Solidarity’ and the economic success of recent 20 years can reinvigorate the faith in European Union. Flattered as they may be politicians in Warsaw need nonetheless to remember there is a limited number of things one can do in half a year. Instead of promising too much Poland should focus on what is really important and avoid spreading itself to thin.

The crisis of faith in common Europe has reached such proportions that even pro-European analysts claim that EU can no longer be taken for granted. A growing number of EU citizens ask themselves a simple question: “What are we doing here?” and the more they ponder over it the less convincing answers they come up with. The narrative of international solidarity on which European Community was originally founded is clearly losing its social resonance. Europeans need a new account of what actually keeps them together. Does Poland have such a story to tell? I believe it does. The only problem is to get the message through.

This may be difficult since for most Europeans – if they have any opinion on the subject – Poland is still a far-east, poor state with hardly anything to offer to its Western European counterparts. It is also often seen as unable to transgress its petty interests and predisposed primarily to take rather than to give. This reputation was supported by Polish recurrent conflicts with Russia and Germany during the years 2005-2007. Only one year after joining the EU Poland found itself in isolation and in a serious conflict with major European players.
Since then a significant amount of work has been done to change this image. Relations with Germany are now probably the best in the last 20 years and even always difficult cooperation with Russia is running relatively smoothly – at least from Brussels’ perspective. The country has gradually freed itself from being perceived as nuisance and “conflictmonger”. Now the major task is to convince other EU members that Poland is not only capable of acting in its own right but that it may also manage pan-European issues. Only then will it be treated as a credible partner and that is why it should be a pivotal point of Polish presidency.

In order to achieve that Poland must not focus solely on regional affairs such as Eastern Partnership. Important as attracting East European states to the West is, it should not overshadow the fact that for the time being EU has hardly anything to offer to them. Expanding eastwards towards Ukraine – a second largest country in Europe – is out of the question since – as already said – the Union must first face a grave internal crisis and find a new answer to the question of what keeps it together. Europe should clearly indicate its will to cooperate with former soviet republics and gradually tighten the relations with them. “Gradually” is however a crucial word in this context. European Union is obviously fatigued with a growing number of tensions coming both from within and outside the organization. If Poland presses too hard on a single point of Eastern Partnership it may backfire and discredit Poland’s impartiality. Should this happen, all other plans will be doomed to fail.

Presidency must not be considered a good time to quickly get all the particular interests done. On the other hand, it mustn’t either be considered a time when all the pending problems can be solved. In everything it does the government in Warsaw should always remember about its priority that is, in the words of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, “reviving trust towards Europe”. This is certainly not a task to be accomplished in six months but these six months may be either a good start or a lost opportunity. How can we make it the first rather than the latter? By beginning to draw up a new narrative explaining to the Europeans why their countries should remain united. There is more to Europe than economics and if we don’t want the EU to break up or turn into a “living dead” someone will finally have to say it. Polish recent history makes the country a good place to start a new debate on the idea of Europe. First, however, we must convince others we are worth hearing out.