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Polish Presidency

Submitted by on 07 Jun 2011 – 12:45

Jacek Kucharczyk President of the Executive Board, The Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw

Great Expectations – Can the Polish Presidency deliver?

On 1 July this year Poland will take the European hot seat as it enters into the seventh year of its EU membership. The challenges it faces are as formidable as the expectations from Brussels and other Member States are high. Neither is the Polish EU agenda lacking in ambition: it embraces both tackling the financial crisis and economic reform as well as crucial policy issues in the field of EU external relations.

As the global financial crisis looms over Europe, the EU is still groping for exit. Strong leadership and new ideas are needed not only to overcome immediate threats to the European financial architecture but also to make sure that regaining stability will not be followed by economic stagnation. This challenge is well understood in Warsaw, which has announced that the first priority of the Polish presidency will be to ensure the prospects for long-term growth through deepening of the European internal market.

Leading the way in the area of economic and financial reform will be difficult in view of the fact that Poland still remains outside of the Euro-zone. However, by joining the ‚Euro Plus Pact’, Warsaw seems to have fulfilled the precondition (necessary albeit not sufficient) for  succesful implementation of the agenda of its presidency in this field. The other challenge here will be the conduct of the initial phase of negotiations of the Multi-Annual Financial Framework. Poland is expected here (and in other parts of the agenda) to act as the honest broker while at the same time, as the largest beneficiary of EU budget, it has a big stake in ensuring that the financial perspective for 2014-2021 will be at least as beneficial for less developed EU members as the present one. This will not be easy at the time when so many EU governments have to implement unpopular austerity measures at home. Nevertheless the fact that the MFF negotiations are still at an early stage should be helpful as it gives Warsaw an opportunity to start up a serious pan-European debate on what kind of budget is needed for the EU. In the following years, when the negotiations become more concrete, the Polish government will have its hands untied and will be able to push strongly (together with other like-minded countries) for a big budget.

The other broadly defined Polish prorities: ”Secure Europe” and “Europe benefiting from its openness” are also beset with difficulties. For starters, these priorities concern such policy areas as European Neighbourhood Policy and Common Defense and Security Policy, where most competences are reserved under the Lisbon Treaty for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. However, Poland has an opportunity to set a lasting precedence for practical implementation on the treaty provisions in this field by striking a deal regarding the division of tasks in the External Relations area between HR and the foreign minister of the Rotating Presidency country. Such a division of responsibilities gives Poland a chance to actively pursue its ambitious agenda.

This year’s democratic revolutions in North Africa constitute both a challenge and an opportunity for the priorities of Polish presidency. On the one hand, they refocus the attention (and possibly also resources) on the Southern Dimension of EU Neighbourhood, while Polish interests are strongly fixed on the Eastern Partnership countries. On the other hand, the Arab revolutions have not only rekindled the interest in EU neighbourhood but also opened up new possibilites of the debate on EU’s role in supporting democratization of these countries. Poland has a strong interest in pushing the democratization agenda in regard to such countries as Belarus and Ukraine, while reaching an EU-wide consensus in this area had been earlier next to impossible as some influencial members, such as France and Italy, gave precedence to stability over democracy when it came to the EU’s southern neghbourhood. This policy has been discredited by the demands for democracy from the Arab street and Poland is keen to act as a leader of democracy support efforts not only in the East but in the south, as evidenced by Lech Walesa’s recent visit to Tunisia.

The Polish government seems fully aware of the high expectations placed upon the Polish presidency as well as the challenges facing Poland in this capacity. As a new member state, and one of the six big members, Poland is likely to be judged more harshly for any inadeqacy then, say, Belgium. This situation is not made easier by the looming parliamentary elections in October. Nontheless, despite growing public dissatisfaction with its performance, Donald Tusk’s government is still leading in the opinion polls and has a chance to become the first post-1989 Polish government to be re-elected for the second term. A succesful presidency can help the government to regain its recently floundering public support, especially as the strongest opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), is widely perceived as Eurosceptic and the prevailingly pro-European public opinion distrusts its foreign policy credentials. This is one more reason for the Polish leaders to take seriously the challenges as well as great expectations of the Presidency.