Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk summed up his country’s six month EU presidency by claiming Europe stood at a crucial crossroads. Addressing MEPs in Strasbourg earlier this month, he argued leaders had to decide between “a community path or one of national egoisms.”
“Leadership cannot be controlled by one or two countries, even the strongest ones. It has to be based on the European institutions. If we are unable to do this then future generations will not only curse this crisis but curse us as well,” Tusk said.
But, despite that desire for a community based approach to solving Europe’s debt crisis, some experts say the Polish Presidency had little sway over the bloc’s big beasts, France and Germany, mainly because Poland still remains outside the euro.
Piotre Kaczynski from the Centre for European Policy Studies said: “They (the Polish government) didn’t participate in the euro-summits in July or October. And it (Poland) was just instrumental in implementing the decisions of the summits: the adoption of the six-pack (rules coving deficits, public debt, government expenditure, macro-economic imbalances and related standards) is the coronation of this process. It’s a very important decision and it was very important work that they (the Polish government) have done on the six-pack. But they were not at the table when those decisions were taken.”
Even so, the country’s economy remains in pole position.
German MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff told euronews: ‘‘It’s the only country in the EU that hasn’t suffered any set-back during this debt crisis, during the euro crisis, but that has had a continuously growing economy.”
That economic power brings political influence and while Poland’s growth is expected to slow down next year, compared to the rest of Europe the Polish economy is projected, on the whole, to ride out the current financial storm. That seems sure to strengthen its growing political clout even as this Polish presidency draws to a close.
Poland’s increasing influence in the EU
Poland’s decision to back treaty change at the last Brussels summit arguably epitomises one of the cornerstones of Polish foreign policy in recent years - better relations with Germany.
Since Prime Minister Donald Tusk came to power in 2007, Warsaw’s ties with Berlin have gone from strength to strength, a clear break with the past.
“Polish-German relations have traditionally rather been tense, particularly under the government of the Kaczynski brothers. But with the advent of Donald Tusk as prime minister of Poland and the new German government there was a clear ‘detente’, there was much more than a ‘detente”, there was a constructive joint engagement for European projects and it has been an excellent relationship for a long time now,” Liberal MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff said.
Despite Warsaw’s increasingly good relations with its western neighbour, many Poles still distrust Germany and Europe, as this recent protest showed. The opposition also argues Poland’s EU Presidency over the last 6 months has been a waste of time.
‘‘Nothing happened, as we expected! Nothing really happened in which you could see the action of the Polish presidency,” Ryszard Antoni Legutko MEP, from Poland’s Law and Justice party said.
But in a remarkable speech given by Poland’s Foreign Minister in Berlin ahead of the recent summit, Radoslaw Sikorski urged Germany to save the euro, claiming he feared German inaction more than German action.
“The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland today would be the collapse of the eurozone. And I demand of Germany that for your sake and for us you help it to survive and prosper,“ Sikorski said.
Such a speech would once have been unthinkable a few years ago. Is it a sign of Poland’s growing international influence both in and outside the EU?
Dominika Cosic, a Polish political correspondent in Brussels, thinks so: “The six month presidency was a good opportunity to explain to Polish citizens what the European Union means, how it works and where Poland’s place is, inside the EU.”
Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Since then its economy has seen rapid growth being the only EU country not to have experienced a recession in the last 20 years. Evidence suggests growth may continue (although slower) despite the fact that the rest of Europe looks almost certain to fall back into recession. Such increasing economic clout is sure to buy political influence, something Poland is beginning to get used to.
Poland’s elusive eastern promise
Poland had high hopes for the Eastern Partnership during its six month EU presidency working on a number of trade deals with Europe’s eastern neighbours. Some feel success on this front delivered a mixed bag.
‘‘The last six months saw the completion of a commercial agreement and political association deal with Ukraine. There was no positive change in Belarus. There was talk in the EU parliament of free trade with Georgia and positive developments in Moldova,’‘ Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski said.
But the pact to bring Ukraine into Europe’s mainstream fell apart earlier this week (December 19th 2011). The EU has refused to sign the landmark trade and political deal until Kiev resolves the case of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Brussels claims the case against her is politically motivated.
Michael Emerson from the Centre of European Policy Studies, a Brussels based think-tank, says the political situation in Ukraine is worrying:
‘‘Ukrainian democracy has taken a step backwards under President Yanukovych. And other indicators are rather unfavourable. For example, international corruption indices show Ukraine to have gone even further.’‘
If the EU’s relations with Ukraine remain tense, they have gone from bad to worse with Belarus.
Zhanna Litvina, from Belarus’ Association of Journalists told euronews: ‘‘Throughout this year, starting from January, a whole arsenal of tactics have been used against independent journalists. Regrettably, journalists in Belarus, independent journalists know what it’s like to be detained, what it feels like to be in prison for doing their job.’‘
Given that peoples freedoms have deteriorated in the former Soviet republic since the crackdown which followed last year’s election, there seems little hope of the EU bringing Minsk in from the cold any time soon.
Poland pushes the possibilities of shale gas exploration
Poland has one of Europe’s biggest reserves of shale gas. With such fuel prospects, Warsaw has been pushing hard during its European Council Presidency for a common EU position on the controversial energy source.
Shale supporters say it will bring an energy bonanza and also help cut carbon emissions. But environmentalists are deeply worried about the consequences of fracking, the process used to extract gas from shale rock deep underground.
Lisette van Vliet from the Health and Environment Alliance said: “What we see is that very high risks both for the environment and for human health because of climate change contributions, because of ground water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, land use issue, workers health.”
Twenty-five percent of natural gas in the US comes from shale. In Europe it is a lot less but in Poland energy firms like Exxon, which have drilling licences, say that needs to change.
Heinrich Herm Stapelberg from ExxonMobil said: “Europe needs more natural gas. It’s the cleanest fossil fuel source. It emits a lot less Carbon dioxide.”
Brussels has also not closed the door on shale. The European Commission is pushing for common EU wide rules with the bloc’s future gas needs expected to rise substantially.