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20th Apr 2019

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Polish minister pledges loyalty to EU's Ashton

  • Sikorski and Ashton in Brussels. Who will stand out as the top EU personality on foreign affairs in the next six months? (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

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.

Sikorski made the pledge at a press briefing in Warsaw on Friday (1 July) as Poland took over the rotating EU presidency.

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Under the Lisbon Treaty, Ashton became the official figurehead for EU foreign policy. But she has found it hard to assert her role as big EU countries take the lead on major developments such as Libya and amid grumbling that she is not cut out for the job.

Sikorski in deference to Ashton on Friday declined to say if Poland would back the Palestinians if they apply for UN membership in September. "We [EU foreign ministers] have agreed to withhold our national positions to help Cathy Ashton reach a consensus. There is a need for the EU to speak on this with one voice," he said.

He also defended her against criticism that she is not active enough.

"She has an impossible portfolio. She has taken over the portfolios of two previous commissioners. She's trying to co-ordinate the positions of 27 countries on difficult issues such as the Middle East and she is trying to create her own ministry from scratch. On any given day, she should be in five places at once."

His deputised tasks are to include a trip in Ashton's name to Afghanistan and India. He will also help her put together EU aid for post-war governance in Libya and new ways of funding NGOs in repressive countries.

Minor tension has already emerged on the Middle East, however.

An EU diplomatic source said Ashton asked Poland not to call an informal EU foreign ministers' meeting in September in case ministers go off message on the Palestine question at a sensitive moment. But Poland called the meeting anyway, to take place one week before the UN event.

Meanwhile, Ashton's cautious approach to media could see the more flamboyant Polish minister put her in the shade over the next six months.

Reacting to press questions about Libya and Belarus on Friday, Sikorski could not resist making risque jokes.

On whether Colonel Gaddafi should step down, Sikorski said: "If he were to ask for transit over Polish territory to seek asylum in Belarus, we would be helpful ... I think he [Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko] and Gaddafi would get on like a house on fire."

With Ashton's attention on the Middle East, Poland is also likely to play a leading role on EU relations with post-Soviet countries.

Ukraine's EU ambassador recently complained that he has been asking Ashton to come to Kiev for several months to no avail. When asked by EUobserver about prospects for ending the frozen conflict in EU-aspirant Moldova, a diplomat in Ashton's service said: "Frankly, we don't care."

For his part, Sikorski on Friday noted that the Polish presidency is looking to clinch an EU association pact with Ukraine and to make progress on a similar deal with Molodva as two top priorities.

He also made clear that Poland wants to make a historic mark on EU affairs during its six-month tenure.

Looking to plans to sign an accession treaty with Croatia in autumn, the minister said: "The options [for a venue for the treaty ceremony] are Brussels, Warsaw and Zagreb. We like Croatia but we wouldn't mind the accession treaty for Croatia being known as the Warsaw Treaty."

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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.

A short guide to the Polish presidency

With Poland taking over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July, EUobserver presents a short non-exhaustive guide: Defence, the Eastern Partnership, and the Single Market Act are all on the agenda.

Eastern countries waiting for Poland's 'natural sympathy'

With events in north Africa having taken up much of the EU's attention over the last six months, the bloc's eastern neighbours are hoping Poland will put them back on the agenda when it takes over the rotating presidency.

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