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20th Jan 2020

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Poland seeks new status in EU arena

  • Polish special forces: either the EU moves forward now or in 2017 (Photo: Polish defence ministry)

Poland hopes that its upcoming EU presidency will complete its transformation from a prickly newcomer to an established member of the EU elite.

As the biggest of the eight post-Communist countries to join the club in 2004, Poland has long nurtured ambitions to lead EU policy-making alongside France, Germany and the UK.

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The goal has proved elusive due to prejudice from Western countries and the corrosive diplomacy of previous Polish administrations.

Former French leader Jacques Chirac in 2003 famously told the EU aspirants to "shut up" about the Iraq invasion. And former Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski in 2007 told Germany to give it more EU votes in return for World War II.

Poland's current leader, the emollient Donald Tusk, has in the past few years moved away from the defensive, veto-wielding politics of Warsaw's early EU membership period.

He has vastly improved relations with Germany - a sine qua non for getting on in the EU - and adopted a less confrontational stance toward Russia.

The Polish economy has also put a spring in Tusk's step. It was the only one to avoid recession amid the financial crisis and it grew by 3.9 percent last year. Poland is now the sixth largest EU country in financial terms.

"Poland's presidency adds great value to the results of a longer process. Its size is now being backed up by appropriate skills - coalition building and a more pragmatic international policy - and the right policy choices when it comes to the global financial crisis," Bartek Nowak from the Warsaw-based think-tank the Centre for International Relations said.

Agnieszka Lada, from Poland's Institute of Public Affairs, predicted that Poland will play its presidency role well.

"Poland wants to show itself a serious member state, mature enough to be at the helm of the European Union," she said, adding that Warsaw is conscious that older member states "scrutinise" the performance of new ones "more strictly".

Mediocre presidency track records by fellow class-of-2004 members - Slovenia, the Czech Republic and currently Hungary - are adding to the pressure.

Defence

As a sign of its confidence, Poland already last year indicated it would prioritise EU defence – a policy area famed for the persistent discrepancy between talk and action.

It got Germany and France onboard and all three signed up to a letter of intent on defence in December last year. The goals are to get the EU battlegroups to deployable stage, the setting up of permanent EU civilian and military crisis management structures and more intra-EU defence co-operation.

As is often the case with EU ambitions in this contentious area, events on the ground have since undermined the sentiment.

The democratic uprising in Libya earlier this year saw France and the UK push for military action against Colonel Gaddafi, Germany side with Russia in the UN by abstaining from the vote on the move and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was sidelined.

But Warsaw has maintained the goal nevertheless. Polish Europe minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz says the Libya reaction means it is "more than logical" to re-start talk on a common security and defence policy: "If we had civilian and military planning capacity we would have been much effective at the outset of the crisis in Libya."

The "capacity to do tactical lifting" as well as ready-to-go battlegroups are essential, Dowgielewicz added.

There's nobody else

For all the divisiveness surrounding EU defence policy, two side factors play in favour of Warsaw's decision to try and push forward in the area.

Both are accidental. The first is a factor of the list of rotating presidencies. Poland is the only credible country in terms of defence for some time to hold the rotating presidency. The next military important country to hold the presidency is the UK, but not until 2017.

Meanwhile, the policy area as a whole is suffering from neglect. It is meant to fall under the remit of Ashton, but the over-stretched top EU diplomat struggles to deal with the scope of her foreign policy brief.

The resulting gap gives Poland leeway to try and make progress. But with an eye on a past littered with big but ultimately fruitless statements on defence, Warsaw is careful to downplay its chances of success.

"Sometimes you have to start a difficult discussion even if you know it is so difficult that you may not succeed," Dowgielewicz said.

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