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17th Nov 2019

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Polish EU presidency to test treaty rules

  • Tusk (l) and Van Rompuy: Poland aims to play the game but does not want to be 'invisible' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

As a large and ambitious member state, Poland will be the first country to really test the arrangement - in the EU's Lisbon Treaty - that national governments assume all the work and expense of running the EU presidency without enjoying the limelight.

Under pre-Lisbon rules, national prime ministers and foreign ministers - no matter the size or status of the country - got a spotlight-stealing half year summiteering with world leaders and speaking out on everything from events in the Middle East to human rights in Russia, all in the name of the EU.

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The Lisbon Treaty's creation in 2009 of the posts of President of the European Council (Herman Van Rompuy) and EU quasi-foreign-minister (Catherine Ashton), all but put an end to these speaking rights. Presidency countries are instead left with the less showy task of organising the day-to-day running of the EU council.

The line-up of Lisbon-era presidencies has not tested the system so far.

Spain from time-to-time jarred with Ashton on foreign policy but was largely distracted by its own economic woes. Belgium ran its EU show with no domestic government in place and was in any case content to give the spotlight to former Belgian leader Van Rompuy. Hungary, much smaller than Poland, has under its populist prime minister Viktor Orban, also focused on domestic issues.

Analysts say Warsaw will be the first to answer the question of whether major EU capitals are ready to take a back seat.

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, from the Brussels-based Centre of European Policy Studies, predicts that Poland will shake-up the Brussels status quo.

"The EU institutions are established. Not only the EU commission with [Jose Manuel] Barroso but also Catherine Ashton will have been there for more than a year and a half and Herman Van Rompuy is actually in the second half of his first term. So they are all settled into the system. Then on 1 July there is a very well-prepared presidency by an actor who has quite significant leverage and clout who wants not only to have the behind-closed-doors role but who is also going to claim visibility."

The issue is given added piquancy by the fact that Poland has national elections in October.

According to Kaczynski, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, with an eye on national polls, will be keen to have a prominent role within the presidency. "The problem is that there is no [official] role for him," he noted. "It's all part of the great Brussels theatre," Kaczynski added.

Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski put it another way: "It may set the pattern of how far a Lisbon Treaty presidency can go."

The Poles, who recently hired PR firm Burson Marsteller to organise presidency events and to train spokespeople in the art of spin, began early on to try and raise the profile of their EU chairmanship.

In the past three years, the numbers in the Polish EU office in Brussels have swelled to around 300. The office itself was recently moved from the relative backwaters of Brussels to an imposing new structure in the heart of the EU district.

Last year they tried to convince Van Rompuy to let them host an informal meeting of EU leaders in Poland. But they were turned down.

They got a consolation prize in the form of the Eastern Partnership summit, to take place in Warsaw in September.

The event is to bring together leaders from the six post-Soviet countries on the EU's eastern fringe (minus Belarusian autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko) and as many of the EU 27 prime ministers as Warsaw can persuade to fly in. It is not as attention-grabbing as the Arab Spring. But while the Arab revolutions have exposed the failures of EU foreign policy in the south, the Eastern Partnership is a modest EU success story in terms of closer relations with Moldova and Ukraine.

The summit is a windfall for Warsaw - Budapest was due to hold it in May, but cancelled after France decided to host the G8 meeting at the same time.

The Poles say they will be as "co-operative" a presidency as possible and that there is no question of competition between Warsaw and Brussels. But they are not prepared to be invisible.

"For us, it is no question of whether Mr Tusk will be visible. Of course he will be visible, he is the prime minister of a relatively big country. If you know what you want to achieve, then you can be really visible," Poland's Europe minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz told this website.

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