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

There will be no breakthrough – but is it bad?

Konstanty Gebert · 25 July 2011
In the Polish presidency the more important part is “Polish” rather than “presidency”, because, first of all, this is no longer a position that would give its holder real power and secondly the circumstances in which we take over it are not favourable. The crisis in the eurozone means that our influence on one of the most important issues of the day is limited and – what is no less important – it undermines all the ideas for spending European money which threatens many initiatives…

This is not to say, however, that Poland is extremely unlucky. I cannot think of any member state that would take over the presidency at a “good” time – there is always a lot going on in the European Union.

A year ago it was Belgium which presided in the Council of the European Union and it managed to perform its duties very well despite deep domestic political crisis. This was undoubtedly a great success but on the other hand Belgium has already been in the driving seat eleven times and one cannot say it has significantly changed either Belgium or the EU. It would be therefore wise to look at the Polish new role from a Belgian perspective and not to expect a breakthrough for there will be none. Presidency is yet another administrative duty of all the member states. It ought to be performed decently but we should not build castles in the air believing that in six months we can change Europe.

Due to these difficulties and limitations it is sometimes said that Poland would be better-off to abandon ambitious plans of influencing the policies concerning the whole Union and to focus solely on local tasks, most important for our national interest. Such conceptualization of this problem is alike asking whether it’s better to wash one’s hands or feet. Both elements of Polish foreign policy within the EU – i.e. having a say in issues distant from us in geographical and political sense, as well as promoting our own local initiatives – should be pursued simultaneously. Poland has to show that EU presidency means presiding over the entire European Union and that it is not a time to deal solely with our own problems. We should encourage such model of presidency in which the presiding country is responsible for the whole organization. Looking from this perspective, Eastern Partnership – one of the chief Polish initiatives – is still very important, yet it has to be discussed in the context of other challenges facing the EU, above all the financial crisis and the war in Libya.

Polish government decided not to become involved in the Libyan conflict when it broke out and maybe that was a reasonable decision – due to for example the lack of financial resources. Nonetheless Polish government has never successfully explained this decision neither to Polish nor to European public opinion. As a president of the EU Poland now has to focus on promoting common European policy in the region and this means mediating between Germany – which opposed this intervention – and France and Great Britain. Nevertheless we need to admit our scope of action is rather limited. I see no space for Polish initiative in this area.

Although from the Libyan war we excluded ourselves, from the other major issue – discussion on the eurozone crisis – we were excluded by France which vetoed the proposition of Polish finance minister participating in the negotiations. Poland is however not entirely blameless in this case. If the Polish authorities had precisely determined the date of Polish accession to the eurozone and had undertaken all the possible means to achieve this goal, it would have been considerably more difficult for France to justify its decision. It has to be acknowledged that Paris did not solve this issue tactfully, yet its decision was to some extent justified – Poland was excluded from the meetings of the club to which it does not belong. Now we need to make sure that this minor disagreement will not dominate other aspects of Polish presidency.

So far this has not happened, which doesn’t mean our presidency up-to-date was free from mistakes. Polish idea, according to which potential border controls within the Schengen Area would apply only to citizens of the countries which do not belong to it, was disastrous, for how can we tell those people from other European and non-European citizens? By the color of their skin? Such propositions suggest a fundamental incomprehension of European rules and values and we are lucky this slip-up was not used to undermine Poland’s capability for leading the EU. It seems other member states agreed to treat it only as a “slip of the tongue”.

Polish presidency has thus still a great chance of being remembered as relatively unproblematic – not because Poland will solve all the problems EU is facing but because it will not add new ones to this list. Hungarian presidency was dominated by domestic affairs and so it will be remembered, Danish presidency may be dominated by the growing reluctance towards immigrants in this country and the Cypriot one by this state’s difficult relations with Turkey which will de facto lead EU negotiations with Ankara to a standstill. Against this background Poland may be seen in the future as a calm and competent president.

This will be very important above all for the Poles themselves. Public opinion in Poland still seems to believe that Polish political interest should be taken into account because of some historical injustices rather than because of our current place among other European countries. Our position in the EU does not result from the fact that we challenged Hitler first or that it was in Poland that “Solidarity” movement was born but from the fact that if we divided Europe in two parts – the one that is efficient and raises hopes and the one that is inefficient and raises anxieties – Poland would undoubtedly be in the first one. In the light of the fears that the European project is defective from its very nature Poland is a proof for the opposite. From the Polish perspective all the advantages EU has brought to its members are more clearly visible than from the perspective of Belgium or Germany where they were belittled long time ago.

I believe Poland to be well-prepared for its role. However, the very nature of the presidency after the Lisbon Treaty makes it a post by which not much can be gained but to which all the failures are very easily attributed. Despite all that we have a great chance to say when the time comes that we have used these six months wisely. Advantages from that will contribute mainly to improving Poland’s image – hopefully not only in the eyes of other countries but also in the eyes of the Poles themselves.