Polish EU Presidency vows to rescue European project

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The Polish EU Presidency is taking on the "exciting challenge" of countering a new wave of Euroscepticism and convincing other members of the Union that the European project is a "great thing", the country's prime minister, Donald Tusk, told a select group of Brussels journalists in Warsaw on 1 July.

Tusk expressed bitterness about discussions held at recent EU summits where, in his words, some leaders claimed to support further European integration, but in fact pushed for "solutions which weakened the community".

The Polish prime minister did not name specific countries. Later, other Polish officials told EURACTIV that Poland had been "upset" during discussions at the 23-24 June EU summit over a "safeguard clause" which would allow individual member countries to re-introduce internal border controls in the borderless Schengen area.

The European Commission is due to present a legislative proposal in September, with individual member states such as France or the Netherlands seeking to secure the last word in activating the safeguard clause.

"Too often do we impede our actions because we are at the crossroads of various interests, various emotions and various traditions. Too often do we see the red light flashing, the red light of exaggerated national accents," said Tusk, speaking through a translator. He explained that the Poles, who had long being deprived of the right to travel, were especially sensitive to this subject.

The Polish Prime minister said he was not uncomfortable with the traditional Euroscepticism of the UK, with which one could agree or disagree. But he said he was worried about a new form of Euroscepticism, which was "not of declaratory type" and was instead "situational".

Taking aim at the Netherlands?

He said his country stood ready to "fight" and "argue against" detractors any time that a specific situation in a country, "for example upcoming elections," resulted in formulating "a view which does not strengthen the Community".

Although it appeared that Tusk was referring to French elections due in May 2012, a Polish diplomat told EURACTIV that Tusk in fact had in mind the Netherlands, where a minority government was formed last September, counting on the support of Geert Wilders' right-wing populist party PVV.

Since then, the Netherlands has put the brakes on Serbia's EU integration process, insisted on monitoring Croatia after its accession – expected in 2013 – and openly opposed Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen accession.

Nonetheless, Tusk said that in his position at the EU's helm, he would take up the challenge and speak openly in such situations.

"Will this be a problem for the presidency? Actually it's exciting persuading others that the EU is a great thing […] It is going to give meaning to our presidency, so it's not going to be a burden, quite the contrary," he said.

Euro-optimism and over-expectation

This Polish 'Euro-optimism' appears to be fuelled by stable economic development and a growth rate of around 3.5% of GDP, which has resulted in growing purchasing power and average monthly salaries of 1,000 euro, much higher than before the country's 2004 EU accession.

80% of Poles have a positive opinion of their country's EU membership, which Tusk said was "an absolute record".

According to economists, the country largely remained unaffected by the global crisis thanks to various circumstances. Poland, often described as "a giant building site", is a champion in absorbing EU funds.

Quite obviously, Poland takes pride in taking for the first time the European Union's helm.

The role is seen by many as a "maturity test for Poles in Europe," Miko?aj Dowgielewicz, Polish secretary of state for European affairs and economic policy, told EURACTIV.

But Dowgielewicz also warned against over-expectation, perhaps resulting from the fact that some Poles may overestimate the leverage of a country holding the EU presidency.

According to analysts, the Polish government is benefitting from the country's EU presidency in view of upcoming parliamentary elections, due in early October. Ministers would stay focused on the presidency and the prime minister alone would make some TV appearances "here and there," a high-ranking source said.

Budget 'hypocrisy'

Donald Tusk was cautious on the EU's long-term budget, up for the discussion after the recent European Commission proposal. He tried not to sound self-interested in securing continued transfer of cohesion funds for his country, but rather sought to advocate an EU budget that remains a cornerstone of EU integration.

"It's also important to break away from hypocrisy. Sometimes I witness it personally when the EU budget is discussed. It's very important to say openly: do we want the European budget to be one of the main tools of European integration and the development of Europe as an entire project, or perhaps the discussion should be how to give as little as possible to Europe?" he wondered.

Tusk added that in an effort to provide answers to difficult questions, Warsaw would organise a conference in the autumn with the participation of the European institutions, about "how much Community" and "how much of the national dispute" should be in the EU budget.

A high-ranking Polish source told EURACTIV that despite pressure from the European Parliament, the conference, not to be held before November, would not take the form of a convention like that which drafted the ill-fated EU constitution, but rather a two or three-day forum for discussion.

Poland is hoping that a consensus on the EU's long-term budget would emerge during the Danish EU Presidency in the first half of 2012, officials explained.

Georgi Gotev

Zbigniew Niemczycki, president of the Polish Business Roundtable, Poland's leading industrialists' association, told EURACTIV that the country's business system was very transparent and largely corruption-proof. He also stressed the "high professionalism" of consulting groups assisting small companies and the high quality of the Polish educational system.

Journalists met with Poland's Regional Development Minister El?bieta Bie?kowska. Asked to comment on whether Poland was afraid of France's push to preserve subsidies for its farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as the fact that Britain was not expected to make any concessions on the British rebate and France, Britain and Germany were insisting on keeping the budget frozen, Bie?kowska answered:

"Of course we are afraid. That's why we are not so enthusiastic and we don't show our optimism about this project of the budget. This is only the first step of the negotiations and discussions. Of course we are afraid, but this is our task, to convince those countries that these policies are good for them."

Bie?kowska made available research showing that the 15 EU members from the time before enlargement had in fact benefitted greatly from returns from EU money spent on regional development programmes in Poland.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on whether the fact that Poland did not appear to suffer from corruption had impacted positively on its capacity to absorb EU funds, Bie?kowska said that indeed, corruption was not a problem in her country.

Years ago, she said, people had been calling her, trying to get easy access to EU or state funding. But over time, such calls had stopped, as those interested understood that they would not receive special treatment. "My telephone is silent now," she said.

Tusk's present government was described by Janusz Jankowiak, Poland's chief macroeconomist, as "the best in the last ten years". It is widely expected that Tusk would lead the next government as well, although setting up a coalition cabinet could take some time and he may take part in the December EU summit in a caretaker capacity.

Poland took on the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July 2011. It is the first EU presidency for Poland, which joined the EU in 2004 as the biggest newcomer of the 2004 enlargement wave. Poland is now one of the 'big six' EU countries.

Poland's stint at the EU helm comes at a time of great challenges and opportunities, including a push for economic governance against the background of the Greek crisis, the future of energy in light of climate change and the Fukushima nuclear accident, the planning of the EU's long-term budget, defending the free movement of people within the bloc, and the evolution of Europe's neighbourhood policy against the background of the Arab revolutions and developments in Eastern Europe.

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