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

The power of limited ambitions

Edward Lucas · 25 July 2011
We should not have excessive expectations of the impact Polish presidency will have over the European Union during the next six months. Due to the reform introduced by the Lisbon Treaty the role of the country presiding in the Council of the European Union has been largely diminished and one has to bear in mind that the scope for action is nowadays quite limited.

Poland should therefore focus more on administrating the current European affairs rather than initiating new ventures. That is the role of a country running the presidency which now serves as a kind of secretariat for the meetings of the Council ministers. That is by no means a trivial task and judging from how the other countries have handled it lately, it may actually prove quite difficult. Polish supervision over all the major events within the European Union will make hundreds of European civil servants from many different levels focus on Poland and that is in itself very important. It will be a big challenge for Polish administration which needs to present itself as reliable, communicative and well-organized. If we get to the end of December with a successful Eastern Partnership summits and no major fiascos I would consider Polish authorities to have done well.

Presidency is a great chance to put Poland in the spotlight and thus underline the economic progress it has made over the years. Many people in the West still hold a view of Poland as a bizarre and backward country. Presidency may help to dispel those stereotypes. We should not underestimate that goal yet I have the impression that it is precisely what is often being done. Especially in the Polish press there is a tendency to think of the Polish role in black and white – if it is not brilliant then it must be disastrous. That is not true.

But does it mean that Poland has to abandon the great problems of our time as for example the crisis in the eurozone? I think it would be difficult for Poland to come up with dramatic and original idea on how to deal with this predicament and then push it through. This is a job mainly for France and Germany – because it is the biggest problem for them – and Britain since it is the third biggest economy in Europe. These countries are already discussing it very intensively behind the scenes. It would be a mistake to see Poland as a prime mover in this debate since it is not yet in a position to do that. I suspect that the best Poland can do is to facilitate the debates already in progress.

All that I have just stated here may seem to be in contrast with what Prime Minister Tusk said just a few weeks ago in his speech in the European parliament. Tusk said the goals of Polish presidency were very ambitious and he also presented himself as a convinced euro-optimist when he claimed that the best solution for the current crisis is not less but more European Union. I agree that such statements may lack credibility in the eyes of many European politicians or Europeans themselves but let’s imagine Tusk saying exactly the opposite – what would then be the reaction of MEPs and other member states? Poland has taken over the presidency at a difficult time, its space for maneuver is not great but that does not mean the Polish Prime Minister should go to the European Parliament and say the European Union is doomed to fail. That would be both ridiculous and disastrous. Donald Tusk’s remarks on the dangers of the new wave of euro-skepticism and the necessity of regaining faith in the European project may have limited direct impact on the EU but they were nonetheless encouraging and necessary. It would be infinitely more difficult to have as a president of the EU a country like the Czech Republic that was actively euro-skeptic. In this sense having Poland in the driving seat of the Union for the next six months is very important.

Polish presidency may prove significant for yet another reason – its end may be the beginning of the eclipse of the rotating administration. It is worth noticing that after Poland no big and politically influential European country will take over the presidency for the next few years. It will be held by a series of minor, peripheral member states – Cyprus, Ireland, Lithuania and Greece – until it will be passed to Italy in the second half of 2014. Poland is thus the last big and above all Europhilic rather than Eurosceptic country to hold this position for a long time. After Poland the role of the presidency will probably be diminished. It does not mean that the European Union will collapse but it will probably need to change.