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Challeges for the Polish presidency

Submitted by on 01 May 2011 – 10:44

Bartek Nowak, Executive Director at the Center for International Relations, a Warsaw-based think-tank. E-mail:

“Watch Poland!” I heard some time ago during an international academic debate on the presidency in the EU Council. It is only partly true.

It is often argued that Poland, although being a relatively new EU member, will hold an ambitious presidency. The arguments for this are solid. First, it has quickly learnt how to handle the EU’s bargaining games, build successful pro- and contra- coalitions, and rightly present its policy-choices in front of European public opinion. It is now a much more self-aware country than it was just after its 2004 EU accession. Poland’s assertiveness is no longer inclined to the simple threat of veto in defence of its national interest. It plays much more subtle games and is not afraid of the trade-offs. Its new government (since 2007) has practically implemented an old saying, that you can achieve a lot in the EU having Germany on board, but you can do nothing against them. Moreover, Poland’s influence within the EU institutions – the key ally at the moment in a number of important policies (vs. member states) – is much stronger than in the past.

Second, the external environment has dramatically changed since 2008, both economically and politically. It has played in favour of Poland’s objective and relative position on the EU map. Poland’s economic performance during the global financial crisis seemed remarkable. For some time it was even remaining as a ‘green island’ of European economic growth among the lands of recession. No need to add the comparisons with the devastating picture of so-called PIGS economies.

A more political change has appeared simultaneously. The developing partnership with Germany and Poland’s increasingly important role towards the EU’s Eastern neighbours, including successful set-up of the EU’s ‘Eastern partnership’, paved the way for changes in its usually tense relations with Russia. Both countries have discovered that simple “business as usual” does not work anymore and actually diminishes their political influence in handling within or with the EU.  Russia cannot bridge over Poland and talk simply to EU members it likes most, and Poland is less effective in a number of important EU policies if it is regarded as ‘Cold War warrior’ towards Russia.

These political and economic shifts have boosted Poland’s significance on the EU’s chessboard. It should normally be expected that this presidency will intend to raise the high stakes, especially as it is the last big country among EU presidency holders in years to come. But there are factors which limit that kind of strategy. First, we live in a post-Lisbon EU, a fact which the Spanish presidency experienced painfully. The role of presidency in the EU is still very important, but not as much as previously. Second, and no less important, the latest events in the EU and elsewhere have taught us again the lesson of expecting the unexpected. It certainly brings challenges for Poland’s presidency. We can only hope that they are not too immense in scale. Imagine the further troubles with sovereign default in the eurozone’s peripheral countries, or the spill-over of North African events. Both will not only draw attention of the EU and the wider world, but they may hurt the presidency’s bravest plans.

Poland is now promoting its successful transformational experience towards democracy and market economy in North Africa, but there can be no doubt some of the EU’s eastern neighbours are in stalemate and need help as well. They still do have – maybe not in the foreseeable future- an imaginable European perspective. If left alone, they may drift apart. Eastern Europe, one of Poland’s presidency priorities, needs attention followed by resources. The 2011 September EU Eastern Partnership summit in Poland will be a big struggle for maintaining it.

But resources are scarce as well. In a time of general austerity measures and budget cuts, the new EU financial perspective, of which the introduction of the first draft has been planned in July this year, will hardly be maintained by the member states in a spirit of solidarity. The regional policy has already been under attack and the arguments of those EU states which are catching-up economically do not resonate today as they should. Due to the incredible dynamic of economic changes in the world, the core decisions in the EU are now being taken in the eurozone, of which Poland is not (or not yet) a member. It will have a limited role in this regard in terms of the presidency. Thus it rightly chose promotion of economic growth as the main goal for presidency. In practice, this means advancing the EU’s internal market, which will soon be celebrating its 20th anniversary. Economic analysis proves how beneficial our enterprises and consumers might be if the Single Market Act comes into life. On the EU’s ‘external’ front, Poland would also be very happy to have two significant events: if in the second half of the year Croatia completes the negotiation process on its EU entry, and Ukraine agrees with the EU on an association agreement and the deepened trade zone. And it is all about pragmatism in the Polish presidency. Do not aim too high and you might be surprised.