Poland's European affairs minister said the "biggest disappointment" of his country's EU presidency, largely seen as successful under the difficult circumstances of the eurozone crisis, was the failure to take on board Bulgaria and Romania in the EU border-free Schengen area.
Speaking to the press before Poland hands the EU presidency baton to Denmark, Miko?aj Dowgielewicz deplored the lack of consensus to conclude talks on Bulgaria and Romania's membership in Schengen.
"This is the biggest disappointment of the Polish presidency, without any doubt," Dowgielewicz said.
The Polish minister said the issue is "not only about a technical process, because we all know that those two countries have fulfilled the technical criteria to join Schengen."
"It's about the spirit of loyal cooperation among the member states which is required by EU treaties," he said somewhat bitterly.
Denmark takes over the presidency on 1 January.
Without going into details, Dowgielewicz said that Poland had made a number of compromise proposals. One of these proposals was that Bulgaria and Romania would first remove barriers at airports and maritime ports, while maintaining land restrictions.
However, he said "one country" – namely the Netherlands – maintained its opposition on what he described as "political grounds".
At the recent Justice and Home Affairs Council on 13 December, Dutch Minister for Immigration Gerd Leers reiterated his opposition to Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen area.
"This is about the rule of law, this is about crime, this is about corruption," Leers said.
Reportedly, the Netherlands keeps linking the issue to Bulgaria's and Romania's progress under the so-called 'Cooperation and Verification Mechanism' (CVM), set up in January 2007 to help them adapt to EU standards.
The Hague has said it wants to see two positive CVM reports before considering changing its position. From a legal point of view, CVM and Schengen accession are unrelated, according to the EU Commission.
Regrets on EU patent
Another disappointment was Poland's inability to ink a final agreement on the EU patent.
Dowgielewicz said his country had put a lot of effort into finalising the patent agreement, which is almost entirely secured. But he said the Polish presidency has "hit a wall" because of the opposition of "one or two member states" over the location of the central patent court. The candidate cities are London, Munich and Paris.
Poland had nourished hopes to crown its EU presidency with a signing ceremony of the unified EU patent in Warsaw on 20 December. The effort to reach a community patent started as early as the 1970s. A renewed effort was launched in 2000.
"I'm not sarcastic here, it's a sad remark, but the most contentious issue has become who will have the seat of the court with the budget of a few million euros and a staff of 15 civil servants," the Polish official said.
No association deal for Ukraine
Turning to the EU's Eastern neighbourhood, Dowgielewicz voiced frustration about the slow pace of advancement in negotiations with Kyiv, making it clear that the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine will not be initialled at the upcoming EU-Ukraine summit on 19 December.
The agreement includes provisions for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) that would require Ukraine to adopt legislation approximating EU trade rules.
The Polish official said his country hoped that the Association Agreement could still be signed before the end of the year, but made it plain that this would depend on the summit results.
EU-Ukraine relations hit a snag in October when former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of abusing her office.
Poland is known as the strongest promoter of Ukraine's geopolitical anchorage with the European Union. According to diplomats, the biggest hurdle to initialling the agreement is the preamble of the Association Agreement. It could either state that Ukraine is destined to become an EU member country, or just "take note" that Ukraine attaches importance to its European identity.
Diplomats indicated that the country most opposed to any overtures to Ukraine is Germany.
EURACTIV asked Dowgielewicz why Poland, which has to play the neutral role of a "honest broker" as EU presidency holder, has been such a strong advocate of various causes, such as preserving the community method in EU affairs and opposing trends towards a two-speed Europe.
"I don't think that the role of the EU Presidency is to be castrated," Dowgielewicz replied.
Poland assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July. 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 had big hopes of paving the way for an "ambitious" agreement on the 2014-2020 EU budget, and other topics such as energy security and the European Union's Eastern neighbourhood policy.
However, the eurozone crisis largely eclipsed many of the Polish presidency policy priorities. As Poland is not a eurozone member, Warsaw was left fighting to preserve the community method in EU decision-making.