Poland: the EU's new awkward partner

Poland: the EU's new awkward partner

Bulletin article
Heather Grabbe
02 February 2004

As a former member of Poland's communist Politburo, Leszek Miller has little in common with Margaret Thatcher or John Major. But the Polish prime minister has adopted very similar negotiating tactics in the EU. At the Brussels summit in December 2003, Miller stubbornly refused to give up any of the votes allocated to Poland in the Nice treaty, although they give Poland nearly as much weight as much larger Germany. In a style reminiscent of Britain's Conservative prime ministers, he presented himself as his country's defender against a Franco-German plot. Yet most EU governments saw Poland's refusal to negotiate as indefensible, and it denied the EU a fairer system of voting that gives an equal weight to every EU citizen.

Miller's obstinacy was not the only reason for the collapse of the negotiations on the EU's new constitution - France, Germany, Spain and others share responsibility. But it showed how domestic politics in the new member-states will affect their behaviour in the EU. The new members will not be pushovers, and Poland could be extremely vociferous, especially in the fight over the EU's budget later this year.

The danger is that Poland could become awkward for the sake of it. Europe needs Poland to be a constructive partner. In addition to being by far the largest of the new member-states, Poland has an active foreign policy and a commitment to both NATO and European defence. Warsaw could play a significant role in forging a better relationship between the EU and its eastern neighbours, particularly Ukraine and Russia. But if Poland behaves unreasonably, it will punch below its weight in EU policy-making.

Awkward behaviour looks likely, at least for the first few years after Poland's accession in May. While the EU was assessing the fallout from the collapsed constitutional talks, Leszek Miller was greeted with applause on his return to Warsaw. With his government gravely weakened, Miller found his tough EU stance to be the only area where he enjoys the support of all political parties. It was his main opponent on the right, Jan Maria Rokita, who coined the slogan "Nice or death". But short-term political gain was not the only reason for Miller's hard line. Many Poles were pleased to see their prime minister say no to Germany and France because they resent how the EU has treated Poland in the last few years.

In December 2002, Polish hopes for generous help from the EU budget were bitterly disappointed in the last stages of the accession talks. A few months later, during the run-up to the Iraq war, French President Jacques Chirac berated the EU's members-to-be for supporting US policy, chiding them as if they were small children. Then came Poland's problems with Germany. Some of the descendents of Germans forced to leave lands that became Polish after the Second World War have called for a memorial for the expelled populations. The German government has publicly distanced itself from this call, but the issue has stirred up anger in Poland about the country's treatment during the war.

This sequence of events has given many Poles the impression that they need extra votes to defend their interests. It reminded many of the times in history when great European powers rode roughshod over Poland. When Poles talk about their country's voting weight in the EU, much more is at stake than how the Council of Ministers works, because old resentments and recent insults are mixed into the debate. Like the British, Poles are often mistrustful of the intentions of the other member-states - albeit for very different reasons. Rather than fearing a federalist plot in Brussels, as the British often do, the Poles worry that the large EU countries will simply disregard their interests.

Poland will again become an awkward partner in a few months time, when the 25 members start debating the next EU budget for 2007-13. Few Poles understand the details of the current budget settlement, but many know that this year Polish farmers will get only a quarter of the subsidies going to their counterparts in France and Germany. The country is determined to do better in the next round of budget talks. Polish demands for more money will clash with Germany's main objective of keeping the overall size of the budget in check. Some German politicians want to make Poland pay for its intransigence over voting weights by giving it less money.

This battle arrives at the wrong moment, just when Germany and Poland need to find ways to overcome their differences. Their bilateral relationship is central to making the enlarged EU work, because it is the bridge between old and new Europe, and between east and west. Moreover, Polish intransigence plays into the hands of those who argue that enlargement will result in gridlock, and that a 'core Europe' led by Germany and France is the only way forward.

In the 1990s, Germany and Poland enjoyed an unprecedented period of reconciliation and co-operation to overcome historical grievances. But relations have worsened over the past two years - diplomats claim that they are now at their lowest ebb since 1989. Many Germans feel betrayed by Poland's opposition in the constitutional debate. It was Germany, after all, which was Poland's strongest supporter in the accession process. Poles, meanwhile, resent what they see as Germany's ungenerous welcome to the new members and fear Germany's renewed partnership with the French, who eye enlargement with suspicion.

If Poland is to be a constructive member of the EU, it needs a more comfortable relationship with Germany. Then Polish leaders will be able to make concessions to their European partners without being accused of betrayal. Poles need to gain a sense that the EU works through compromise, and that they are better off with a Union in which countries seek to accommodate one anothers' interests. The danger is that Poland will habitually adopt a stance of 'no compromise' - and thus have as little influence on the EU's development as Britain often did.

Heather Grabbe was deputy director of the CER (2000-2004).

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