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24th Apr 2019

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'Coming from Mars' - Poland looks back on EU entry

  • Warsaw - by the time Poland was negotiating its EU membership, everybody was aware of what the country was about (Photo: EUobserver)

Way back in 1986, many lifetimes ago in EU history, four Polish negotiators came to Brussels to negotiate a trade agreement for their country.

Over a liquid lunch, one of the negotiators strayed from his brief and said what he would really like to be doing was discussing Poland's membership of the European Economic Community, as the EU was at the time.

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As Jan Truszczynski, who would go on to become the man who negotiated Warsaw's EU membership almost 20 years later, recounts it, the commission officials at the table reacted with "hearty laughter".

"They found it terribly amusing that a guy from a far away country they knew nothing about, and which they didn't care much about - it was a Communist country after all - would say such a thing. We could as well be coming from Mars, such was the mental and psychological difference at the time."

Fast-forward a decade and a half: The Berlin Wall has long fallen and Poland is a post-Communist country and negotiating its EU entry. And this time everybody knew what Poland was about.

As the biggest of the 10 countries hoping to enter the EU, and with the brashness of the leader of a group, plus some extra chutzpah for wanting to be treated the same as established members of the club, Poland was the problem pupil at the discussion table.

"We had this reputation," said Truszczynski, adding "but it had much to do with the distance between the limited generosity of the EU and the large, and some would say inflated expectations, of the candidate country that was Poland at the time."

The big issue of the day was farming.

Warsaw wanted its farmers to be treated to same as farmers in the west, long supported by an extremely generous Common Agricultural Policy. Established EU members took one look at the scale of subsistence farming in much of eastern Europe at the time and shook their heads pre-emptively and vehemently. A compromise was only reached at the 11th hour and the Poles were the last of the 10 to agree their membership terms.

With Croatia currently negotiating EU membership, and with Montenegro hoping to soon open accession discussions, Truszczynski says the majority of his time as negotiator was spent in persuasive talk, trying to convince sectoral interests, in Poland's case farming and fishing organisations, to agree to the changes that were coming.

Mostly, also, it was a case of trying to balance the demands of back home with the realities of the negotiating table: "In Brussels, you will hear you are the negotiator who doesn't take sufficient account of the realities of EU integrations. In Warsaw, you will hear you are a softie who is out to sell out key interests."

Much of it is a game. The member state wanna-be is always trying to assess whether a No is ironclad or whether there is room for compromise. Recalcitrant deal-makers are told they are being "particularly difficult" and that accession negotiations are falling behind.

Noting the somewhat "patronising" attitude of the 15 member states of the time towards the potential newcomers, Truszczynski told EUobserver that future newcomers should be aware that while EU talks cover technical details such as transposing EU law, abiding by certain standards and setting up regulatory controls, "there is much less about the cultural developments that accompany such a process."

He also dismissed the idea that those looking to get in have special allies on the inside as "wildly exaggerated". Germany might have been touted as the country that stood to gain the most from having Poland as a stable member of the club, but it remained a hard taskmaster.

Currently director-general in the European Commission's education department, Truszczynski's message to future negotiators is that "90 percent of accession negotiations have to be done at home."

But he admits that Balkan governments are at risk of becoming demotivated because "the waiting time [for membership]" is longer than most political lifetimes: "This is a very big dilemma that nobody has been able to solve."

Once their countries get in however, negotiators and those around them may feel nostalgic about the white nights spent haggling over the minutiae of EU membership.

"Not that they would like to repeat it but they have the feeling that they were part of something rather big and overall rather good. And that doesn't happen in every individual's professional career," Truszczynski noted.

The article was previously accompanied by a photo depicting Jan Kulakowski, a former member of the European Parliament, rather than Jan Truszczynski. We apologise for this error.

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