Thursday

15th Nov 2018

Focus

A short guide to the Polish presidency

  • The Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline. Poland is hoping that shale will reduce its vulnerability to gas politics (Photo: nord-stream.com)

With Poland taking over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July, EUobserver presents a short non-exhaustive guide:

Calendar restraints - Being a second-half-of-the-year presidency, Warsaw will fall afoul of the EU's famously extended holiday period. Most of the Brussels EU elite starts disappearing in July. The EU capital re-emerges as a complete political city only around the beginning of September. The same Brussels evacuation starts to take place around the middle of December, too. So, the period for getting things done is short.

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Polling day - And while the effective calendar months are short, so may the attention span of Polish politicians be. National elections will be held in October. Polish officials promise otherwise, but the call of the local constituency will likely prove more alluring than that of Brussels. Meanwhile, a win for the opposition Jaroslaw Kaczynski will see politicians, in handover mode, distracted for the remainder of the six-month stint too. And, in that case, everyone else will be wondering whether it means a return to the abrasive politics of previous administrations.

Defence - It might seem an inauspicious time to want to start talking about EU defence, what with the EU's less-than-exemplary display of unity over Libya, but Poland is going to persevere anyway. "If we had civilian and military planning capacity we would have been much effective at the outset of the crisis in Libya," says Europe minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz.

Warsaw is neither "naive" about EU defence of "afraid" to start a conversation about it. (The 'it' includes battlegroups and a permanent military headquarters). And to be fair, no one else is rushing to talk about defence at the moment. It falls to EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton. But she is too busy trying to do several other jobs at once. And Poland has a point when it says is the only country with any military credibility to hold the presidency since France and the only one for quite some time into the future. This is not a debate Denmark and Cyprus can kick off.

Eastern Partnership - This is where Poland has a chance to shine. The recognised lead member state when it comes to countries on the EU's eastern borders, it wants to see real progress - on association agreements - with Ukraine and Moldova. An Eastern Partnership Summit in September in Warsaw is meant to give the policy – which has fallen down the political agenda - a boost. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt recently said the initiative is as significant as the Lisbon Treaty. The problem is getting other bigger member states - read France and Germany - to think like that. More cash would be good too. See below.

EU budget talks - The European Commission will this summer publish its first proposals for the EU's 2014-2020 budget, a moment that marks the traditional beginning of table-thumping disagreement until the thing is signed and sealed, usually at the last possible minute about two years later. Poland - very keen on seeing the EU's cohesion funds maintained - is shackled to a neutral position because it is the presidency country. But it hopes to project its budgetary views well beyond its presidency by producing a "serious paper" for discussion in 2012. It plans 12 technical meetings and two ministerial meetings on the budget.

Energy security - This is a biggie for the Poles. They want the EU to be energy-independent of Russia. And they particularly want Poland to be energy-independent of Russia. This has resulted in some near-evangelical talk about Shale - the unconventional gas apparently in great quantities in Poland and which Warsaw has indicated it would like to exploit. If commercial exploitation is possible - and it remains a big if - the gas would both eventually end the country's heavy reliance on the dirtier coal and on Russia. Environmentalists are sceptical. But expect more talk anyway.

The economy - Poland is outside the eurozone - though looking to come in - and so lacks clout here. It is not automatically privy to discussions on economic governance or competitiveness, something brought home in March.

However it has an ace up its sleeve: its economy is doing relatively well and the only country in the EU at no point to have tipped into recession during the recent economic crisis. So even if it is not inside the room, it can feel somewhat superior outside it. And its finance minister will chair ecofin - the full complement of EU finance ministers - meetings. Warsaw's main focus will be on implementing the new Single Market Act. It also wants to try and achieve something more ephemeral - economic optimism. According to Dowgielewicz, "Point two on our to-do list as a presidency is to try to create a better narrative about the European economy." Arguably a task that alone would be tricky enough for any single presidency.

One to watch - On the high-flying foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, opinions are divided. Some say that he has no interest in Poland's EU presidency and so will not help more committed members of the administration to make it a success. Others point to the fact that he has been quick to carve out a role for himself alongside Cathy Ashton. Sikorski is keen to take the lead on eastern neighbourhood issues. But Poland also sees its approach to its eastern neighbourhood as a model for the EU to take towards countries in its southern neighbourhood. This gave Sikorski the perfect excuse to pay a highly publicised visit to Libya in May - the first Western foreign minister to go the country since the uprising began. Sikoroski points out that the trip was agreed with Ashton beforehand. Nevertheless, his interactions with Ashton - weakened by internal criticism - throughout the presidency will be something to keep an eye on.

Stress test - Poland will take over the presidency with the EU creaking at the seams. Centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski puts it thus: "All other presidencies have had difficult challenges but none of them have had such a culmination of difficulties. The Union is undergoing a stress test in terms of the euro, in terms of schengen, in terms of ESDP and in terms of [its] neighbourhood. All that put together makes this presidency extremely challenging. More and more, Poland sees that new member states will have take upon their shoulders the defence of the acquis of the old [member states]."

Logo - There is a long and proud tradition of EU presidency logos. It is not really clear why they are needed (especially in these post-Lisbon mini-presidency times) but they are always unveiled with a something of a flourish. They also usually attract more interest than the presidency programmes themselves. Past star logos include Belgium's 2001 showing with Magritte's hat, while Italy's 2003 effort was something of a flop, where it remained something of a small mystery as to why the E of EU was backwards. Poland's logo meanwhile is inspired by the by the iconic flag of Solidarnosc and was designed by the very artist who designed that movement's symbol so many years ago.

The last word - And according to the somewhat ominous words of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, presidency countries can never be too prepared. "My message to the Polish presidency is: Be prepared, because something may happen." Famous "events" of past presidencies include the Russia-Georgia war under France's watch and the teetering and then utter collapse of the Czech government in the middle of its presidency.

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Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has promised to be EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton's "loyal deputy." But his outspoken ways could upstage her despite his best intentions.

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With Croatia still finalising talks on EU entry, Jan Truszczynski, Poland's one-time negotiator, recalls the "patronising" attitudes of Western states and the fact there is no such thing as a friend when you are trying to get into the club.

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