The Polish EU Presidency: Budget and solidarity [Archived]

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Paving the way for an "ambitious" agreement on the 2014-2020 budget, energy security and the European Union's Eastern neighbourhood are all key priorities of the Polish EU Presidency during the second half of 2011. The Poles, for their part, have pulled all the stops to ensure that the Union remains committed to redistributive policies at a time of economic austerity.

Interview with Beata Stelmach, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Poland:



Poland is set to assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 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.

Today's EU is a place of great challenges and opportunities, including the future of energy in the 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 (see 'Issues').

Significant divisions exist within the EU on these and other issues. Poland's presidency does not mean the country will be able to easily overcome them. The rotating presidency is for the most part a ceremonial role whose duties mainly involve framing the EU's agenda and chairing the various meetings of the EU Council of Ministers.

However, Poland is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its stint as rotating president. Not only will it preside over ministerial meetings, but former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek is the current president of the European Parliament, and the Pole Janusz Lewandowski is the current commissioner for financial programming and budget, a fact that may be significant as Poland pushes for an ambitious EU budget.

Ambition, Europhilia and optimism

So there are significant challenges ahead, but the Poles have made great efforts towards ensuring a successful presidency and have made no secret of their ambition.

Poland recently symbolically opened its impressive new headquarters a few minutes' walk from the European Commission's flagship Berlaymont building, for which it has hired 100 extra staff. It also signed a €1 million contract with leading PR firm Burson-Marsteller to help it manage its presidency's communications efforts.

The flurry of activity led Ewa Sinowiec, head of the European Commission's office in Poland, to say the Poles "are approaching work with a kind of 'Alexey Stakhanov' attitude, in a positive sense". Stakhanov was a Soviet coal miner whom the authorities promoted as a model for his reputedly incredible productivity.

The European Union has entered a phase of some pessimism since the 2005 rejection of the draft constitution in France and the Netherlands, and especially since the financial and economic crisis since 2008. There are worries that growing populism and nationalism in certain member states might even reverse the process of European integration, notably with regard to the Schengen area and the euro zone.

In contrast, Poland's current government and indeed its people are unabashedly Europhile. Polish officials have claimed their presidency will "inject optimism" into EU affairs. They have been strongly supportive of increasing the EU budget, and have defended the 'Community method' against fears that divided national governments will take over decision-making.

An autumn 2010 Eurobarometer found Poles to be second only to Swedes in terms of the country going in the "right" direction, with 46% agreeing with the statement. The same survey also found that Poles are, along with Slovaks, the most favourable towards the European Union, with 78% saying that their country "on balance" benefits from being an EU member (the pan-EU average was then 50%).

This enthusiasm for Europe is partly based on the very real benefits Poland draws from its membership of the EU. In 2009, Poland became the single biggest net recipient of EU funds and millions of Poles have taken advantage of opportunities to find gainful work in the rest of Europe. In spite of fears of the 'Polish plumber', even after the recent lifting of all restrictions on 2004's newcomers to the EU labour market, the results appear largely positive for all sides concerned.

Poland's optimism is also based on its economic success in recent years. European integration has tended to stall in difficult economic times and today's situation resembles in some ways the 'euro-sclerosis' and economic 'stagflation' of the 1970s.

Poland is the only European country to have not suffered from a recession as a result of the global economic crisis. Indeed, the country's economy is currently recording a growth rate of 4.4%. But Poland is not yet among the new EU members that have succeeded in joining the eurozone: Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia.


The Poles have been keen to draw upon the symbols of their past victories to colour their presidency. Polish officials often use the word 'solidarity' in reference to the country's Solidarno?? trade union movement, which helped bring down communism in the 1980s.

Indeed, the Poles have used 'solidarity' to defend the maintenance of cohesion funds for Europe's regions, they have argued the experience of the 1989 revolutions should inform European policy towards the Arab revolutions, and they have even used Solidarno??'s iconic flag as inspiration for their presidency's colourful logo.

Similarly, though in a more understated way, the Poles have also been keen to use the legacy of Pope John Paul II. While numerous EU and national leaders attended the late pope's beatification last month, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk cited the "values based on the teachings of John Paul II" in presenting his presidency's priorities.

It will of course take more than good facilities, elite PR experts and symbolism to ensure the EU is able to deal with the challenges it faces. Much will depend on the negotiation abilities of the Poles, the willingness of EU members to compromise and, ultimately, a degree of luck.

Key Polish politicians and officials:

  • Bronis?aw Komorowski, president of the Republic of Poland.
  • Donald Tusk, prime minister of the Republic of Poland.
  • Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament.
  • Janusz Lewandowski, European commissioner for financial programming and budget.
  • Miko?aj Dowgielewicz, secretary of state for European affairs.
  • Jan Tombi?ski, Polish ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union.

Migration, Schengen and the free movement of people

Millions of Poles have taken advantage of the opportunity to live and work in other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom and France, since Poland joined the EU in 2004. As a result, Warsaw has been one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the free movement of people within the European Union.

Migration, Schengen and the free movement of people

Millions of Poles have taken advantage of the opportunity to live and work in other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom and France, since Poland joined the EU in 2004. As a result, Warsaw has been one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the free movement of people within the European Union.

The nature and the breadth of freedom of movement within the EU has evolved considerably in recent months. Germany and Austria recently removed barriers to the arrival of citizens from countries that joined the EU in 2004. Between 300-400,000 Poles are expected to find jobs in Germany in the coming years.

However, there have also been numerous revisions and threats to freedom of movement within the European Union and its border-free Schengen area in particular. These include France's expulsion of Roma EU citizens last summer, the Netherlands' attempt to reduce the number of Bulgarian and Romanian workers in the country, France and Italy's forcing of a revision of Schengen, and Denmark's plans to reintroduce border checks.

Poland has been keen to defend Schengen and freedom of movement. Last May, the Poles exposed Dutch plans to expel EU citizens. More generally, Miko?aj Dowgielewicz – Poland's secretary of state for European affairs who is largely responsible for steering the presidency – went as far as saying that "saving Schengen should be our primary goal – it is one of the greatest achievements of Europe".

Just like the previous Hungarian EU Presidency and unlike France and some other older EU members, Warsaw supports the early accession to Schengen of Bulgaria and Romania.

Poland's defence of Schengen is nevertheless accompanied by consideration of Western European countries' concerns about immigration. The Polish Presidency's official priorities explicitly mention an upgrading of border security as an integral part of a "Secure Europe".

They mention in particular that the presidency will "aim to make Frontex, the EU's border security agency, more effectively support member states in crisis situations, such as those taking place in North Africa and the Middle East". Frontex is based in Warsaw.

Energy: What future for nuclear power, coal and shale gas?

Since the 2006 'gas war' between Russia and Ukraine, energy has firmly established itself as one of the most important issues on the EU agenda.

Current issues include the decline of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the future of the renewables market, carbon emissions and climate change, and boosting Europe's energy independence. More immediate concerns that will continue to be discussed in the coming months include the future of nuclear power, coal and shale gas.

Poland is expressly engaged in these issues as it has a special interest in energy independence, particularly with regard to Russia (although relations between the two countries have significantly improved since the air crash in Russia which killed former Polish President Lech Kaczy?ski in April 2010).

Earlier this year, Poland and Slovakia agreed to explore the possibility of building a new gas pipeline between the two countries to alleviate dependence on Russian gas. Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Parliament, has said the market will not provide energy security alone, and that public funds are needed.

The Polish Presidency's priorities explicitly mention energy independence as "another step forward towards 'Secure Europe'," adding that "it is essential to work out solutions strengthening such policy". Poland's priorities on energy security, notably through the use of fossil fuels, largely trump environmental concerns.

Poland has taken the lead as shale gas's promoter in the EU. Proponents claim the controversial energy supply could become a huge asset for cheaper energy prices and Europe's energy independence. Shale gas has become a staple in the United States of America in recent years, accounting for over 10% of natural gas production.

However it is unclear if Poland would be able to make shale gas development an EU priority. Environmentalists are critical of this fossil fuel for its greenhouse gas emissions and health risks, such as groundwater poisoning. Similar concerns have moved France to move to ban shale gas production in the country. The opening of the first shale gas well in the UK earlier this year prompted significant protests. Divisions within the EU on the subject have become apparent.

Poland has also placed itself firmly behind coal power. Over 90% of the country's electricity is provided by coal and it is the second-largest coal consumer in Europe after Germany. Poland has previously attempted to prevent the taking into account of coal in the EU's proposed emissions permits scheme.

The position of nuclear power in Europe has been enormously affected by the Fukushima accident. Nuclear power plants will be completely phased out in Germany and Switzerland, plans to expand nuclear power are in doubt in the UK and Italy, and Austria intends to use a citizens' initiative to eliminate the energy source from the EU altogether.

Poland has no nuclear power plants of its own and has a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards nuclear energy. The government has held firm on its commitment to build two new nuclear plants despite moves away from the controversial energy source in other countries. Questioned following the decision on the German nuclear phase-out, Prime Minister Tusk stated that this "will have no impact whatsoever on our decisions".

However, many Poles are sceptical of nuclear power: including the government's junior coalition partner, the Peasants' Party (PSL), which has called for a referendum on the subject. Polish authorities have in the past voiced doubts about nuclear power and had considered shifting more towards gas. More generally, Europe may be at a real turning point regarding nuclear power's future, particularly in the east, where many investors were skittish about it even prior to the Fukushima accident.

An 'ambitious' budget: 'Solidarity' for regions and farmers

The Polish Presidency will be an important step in the determination of the EU's next long-term budget, to cover the 2014-2020 period.

Poland is well-positioned to influence this debate as in addition to the country's EU presidency, former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek is the current president of the European Parliament. The current commissioner for financial programming and budget, Janusz Lewandowski, is also a Pole.

Unlike some other EU newcomers, Poland receives a very high amount of EU money. Poland is the single biggest net recipient of EU funds and also one the biggest recipients per capita. Poland has also benefited most from the European Investment Bank's 'crisis loans' since 2008, second only to Turkey.

On this basis, Poland has so far taken the lead in efforts to legitimise and expand the EU's budget. Polish politicians have repeatedly stressed the benefits of a bigger and more 'ambitious' EU budget. Polish officials claim that the EU budget should be a major driver for increasing the competitiveness of the European economy and strengthening solidarity within the EU.

The Polish presidencies' priorities stressed the importance of a strong budget saying "if Europe is to be competitive on the global scale, it must not concentrate solely on public finance and limiting budget deficits."

On the contrary, they argue that "the EU's new budget should be an investment tool serving the implementation of the 'Europe 2020' strategy" and that "enhanced cooperation within EU is the most appropriate answer to the economic crisis and the Cohesion Policy should remain a key policy of the Union."

This is line with previous statements by Polish officials. In an interview with EURACTIV last February, European Affairs Miko?aj Dowgielewiczstressed the importance of the EU budget to the upcoming Polish presidency saying: "I think we have to realise that this budget will very much define what we can do with the EU in the next ten years. It will be the sign of our ambitions." He added that "if I speak about economic growth, I cannot forget that the EU budget is a great tool to create better conditions for growth all over the European Union."

Similarly, budget commissioner Lewandowski has defended a 5% increase to the EU's budget for 2012 and president Buzek has warned that freezing the EU budget, as demanded by some countries, would be "very dangerous".

This is occurring in the context of proposals by MEPs of various mechanisms to expand the EU's "own resources" such as through a value-added tax and a carbon tariff. However it is uncertain whether such ideas will be taken up.

Specifically, Poland is strongly backing the maintenance and expansion of cohesion funds for regions. In his parliamentary hearing to become budget commissioner, Lewandowski had underscored his support for cohesion policy. On his first visit to Brussels last September, Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski similarly stressed the importance of structural funds, saying: "We are open to both participating to any decisions that will be an expression of solidarity and at the same time we expect cohesion funds to be maintained."

These perspectives starkly contrast with those of France, which has suggested that structural funds should be gradually decreased. Poland has previously warned of upcoming 'wars' over the EU's long-term budget. Indeed, the compromise on the 2011 budget reached last November did little to reduce divisions over the long-term budget.

The Polish Presidency's priorities also cite the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as an important area of reform but here they are somewhat unspecific. Agriculture still represents by the single largest portion of the EU budget by far, accounting for almost half. Poland has previously supported an EU-wide flat rate subsidy based on land area. The country has also been deeply involved in negotiations, notably with France and Germany, to have a "more equitable distribution" of payments.

Neighbourhood Policy: Focus on Eastern Europe

Poland is also keen to make its mark on EU's foreign and neighbourhood policy during its presidency. The country has been particularly vocal about developing Europe's defence and foreign policies, promoting democracy in Eastern Europe, and relations with Russia.

The Polish Presidency's priorities, while acknowledging the developments the Arab revolutions in North Africa, include the objective of ensuring "that Europe does not lose from sight its eastern neighbours". More broadly, Poland says it "will act towards expanding the area of European values and regulations, including further EU enlargement and the development of cooperation with neighbouring countries".

Concretely, this means Poland is pushing to support Croatia in its well-advanced accession process, liberalise visa requirements with the EU's eastern neighbours, and conclude free trade agreements with some of them.

Poland has been eager to promote its leadership in the region. This included creating a 'Visegrad EU battlegroup' along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, holding a summit of Central and Eastern European countries last May, and scheduling an 'Eastern Partnership' summit for September.

Poland has also been eager to take on a leading role in the EU's foreign and defence policies. Ambassador Jan Tombi?ski, Poland's Permanent Representative to the EU, recently cited his country's participation in the so-called 'Weimar Triangle' EU battlegroup, made up of Poland, Germany and France, as an example of how it was working towards strengthening the EU's defence capabilities.

Poland considers relations with Russia an important priority. Historically the two countries have had poor relations and indeed tensions continue to be apparent in the shape of Poland's concerns regarding dependence on Russian gas (see 'Energy'), hawkish attitudes during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and continued suspicions in some Polish circles about last year's tragic plane crash which killed almost 100 senior Polish officials near Katyn, where 22,000 Polish military officers were murdered by Joseph Stalin's order in 1940.

At the same time, however, there has been a concerted effort to improve relations between the two countries. Poland invited Russia to participate in its 'Weimar Triangle' summit with France and Germany last February. The country will also no longer be hosting a US missile shield, officially aimed at Iran but strongly criticised by Russia. Broadly speaking, Poland has not stood in the way of improving relations between Europe and Russia, including when Russian officials have suggested a customs union with the EU.

In contrast, Poland has taken on a leading role in promoting a more hawkish approach towards Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship in Belarus. The Poles have called for the use of "Cold War tactics" against the Belarusian regime, pushing for a mix of measures including raising funds for pro-democracy dissidents, easing access to visas for Belarusian citizens, and sanctions. The country has not hesitated to unilateraly impose its own sanctions. Poland is also home to prominent Belarusian dissidents.

On a recent state visit to Poland, Turkish President Abdullah Gül hailed Poland for being "on top of the list of countries that have not lost their strategic vision on EU affairs and who are thinking of Europe's future".

He said he particularly hoped "that during Poland's EU Council Presidency the technical aspects concerning Turkey's accession to the European Union will be approached". "We hope that the entire period of Poland's presidency will speed up negotiations," Gül added.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank and former foreign minister of Nigeria, has called on Poland to assume a greater role in global development policy in light of the country's successful transition from a planned to a 'high income' economy.

Okonjo-Iweala said that "Poland is already active in supporting development efforts in Africa and Asia. The time is ripe to scale up its role in development finance for poor and fragile countries. But it is not just their wealth that Poles should share. Even more valuable is their knowledge".

"When it assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union later this year, Poland will take centre stage. It will have responsibility for the stewardship of the most powerful association of nations. And it will have the opportunity to shape the future of millions around the world," she added.

Speaking to EURACTIV PolandEwa Sinowiec, head of the European Commission's office in the country, said the Poles "are approaching work with a kind of 'Alexey Stakhanov' attitude, in a positive sense. I mean it is like during the accession negotiations: people are fully mobilised, and I've noticed that work is better when you have a clear objective".

"This is the first Polish Presidency, a kind of maturity test for us," she added.

Last December, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published a letter by the heads of several prominent Polish think-tanks - Krzysztof Bobinski, Jacek Kucharczyk, Bartek Nowak and Jan Pieklo – which criticised what they saw as "the visible lack of understanding by [Polish] politicians as well as businesspeople of the nature of the rotating presidency in the EU".

At the same, they stressed that "the Lisbon Treaty has fundamentally changed the nature of the rotating presidency". They argued that Spain, Belgium and Hungary had been unable to define a new role for the rotating presidency and as a result, "[t]o Poland, then, falls the responsibility of shaping a post-Lisbon presidency model".

  • 1 July: Official inauguration of Polish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
  • September: Eastern Partnership conference of ministers for economic affairs in Krynica-Zdrój (southern Poland).
  • September: European Culture Congress in Wroc?aw.
  • September: Enterprise Europe Network annual conference in Warsaw.
  • October: Single Market Forum (SIMFO) in Kraków.
  • October: European Tourism Forum in Kraków.
  • October: European Heritage Forum in Warsaw.
  • November: Equality Summit in Pozna?.
  • November: Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership in Pozna?.
  • December: Conference on Fundamental Rights 2011 in Warsaw.
  • December: European Development Days in Warsaw.
  • 31 Dec.: End of Polish Presidency.

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