Poland’s EU Presidency

By Pawel Piotr Styrna l July 19, 2011


The logo of Poland’s EU Presidency

On 1 July 2011 the Republic of Poland assumed the Presidency of the European Union for the next six months. The institution is a rotating one, held previously by Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

The EU Presidency is a matter of tremendous prestige for the current coalition governing Poland, dominated by the mainly liberal Civic Platform Party (PO) and the small post-communist Polish Peasant Party (PSL). Apparently, many Poles view their country’s elevation to the EU Presidency as a boon – the grand coronation of Poland’s EU membership – as well. According to a poll conducted by the (Polish) CBOS Institute in early June, 71 percent of individuals surveyed opined that the EU Presidency will bolster Poland’s position and image in Europe and, indeed, throughout the world.

Historical Background

From an historical perspective, such expressions of optimism are quite understandable. From the Medieval era on, the notion of Poland as the Bulwark of Christendom (Latin: Antemurale Christianitatis) – defending the Latin West, of which Poland was an integral part, against waves of invaders from the East, including the Mongols/Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Muscovites/Russians, and later the Soviet Communists – exerted a powerful influence on Polish thought. Yet, following the partitions of Poland during the late eighteenth century, Tsarist Russia ruled most of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with a heavy hand for almost 150 years. Soon thereafter, following a short-lived period of independence between the two World Wars, during which the young Polish state was forced to resist a Bolshevik invasion, the “liberating” Soviets (the Nazis’ erstwhile allies, who divided Poland with Hitler in 1939) forced communism upon the Poles and occupied the country for half a century.

Although, such a statement is admittedly difficult to quantify since many Poles have viewed and continue to view the two centuries of Russian and Soviet rule as an Asiatic invasion and occupation of a part of Europe. From this perspective, Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004 was seen as the country’s reclaiming of its rightful place in Europe. The watershed was often described in terms of a liberating leap from the savage clutches of “Eastern backwardness” into the tender embrace of “Western modernity.” Not surprisingly, during the campaign leading up to Poland’s EU referendum, the EU-enthusiasts often claimed that no alternative existed to EU membership. The choices were either “the EU, or Belarus,” or “the EU, or Vladivostok.” Further, it is likely that fears of a resurgent Russia influenced the decision of the 74 percent of Polish voters who supported joining the EU.

The Agenda

Yet, Poland assumed the EU Presidency at a time when its significance has been greatly diminished. The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty as of January 2010 resulted in the creation of a permanent European Council President. In addition, the current economic crisis in the Eurozone has further marginalized the Presidency and other EU institutions in favor of the large and wealthy member states.

Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, declared that his country’s EU Presidency will focus first and foremost on security, particularly in such areas as food, energy, and defense. The objective is greater cooperation within the framework of the EU to counter the military threat of a rising Russia and its employment of natural gas blackmail and food embargos as reinforcing instruments of its resurgence enabled by the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. An effort in the direction of greater coordination between EU structures and the NATO alliance in the realm of defense policy is an important element of this strategy. Given the recent sales of advanced weaponry and training systems by German, French, and Italian arms producers to the Russian military, the Polish conception’s chances of success appear quite slim. The consolidation of the Visegrad Battlegroup – consisting of Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian forces – within the EU seems more promising.

The Eastern Partnership, a Polish-initiated, Swedish-supported effort to fund democratic institutions and facilitate the future EU membership of six former Soviet republics – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – may be utilized to counter-balance the Russo-German strategic partnership. Warsaw’s drive to establish closer ties between the EU and Ukraine functions as a part of this plan. Yet, the Partnership has failed to prevent the rigging of presidential elections in Belarus in December 2010 and suffers from a shortage of funds. In these circumstances, according to one analyst, Warsaw’s strategy is apparently to maintain the Eastern Partnership as an “ongoing conversation” within the EU about neutralizing Moscow’s resurgent influence.

Last but not least, the Polish government stated that it will fight against proposed conditions and cuts to the EU Cohesion Fund, a program funneling financial support to the poorer EU members in Central and Southern Europe. Poland is a major recipient. However, the debt crisis plaguing the EU spells trouble for the Cohesion Fund.

The Polish Opposition Speaks

Meanwhile, the main Polish opposition party, Law and Justice, has criticized Tusk’s Civic Platform government of insufficient determination to defend Polish interests within the EU. The leader of the center-right opposition party, Jarosław Kaczyński, addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Tusk, reminding him that “the Presidency is not a carnival, but should be a period of hard work.” This sentiment echoes the opposition’s concern that the government treats the Presidency as a public relations spectacle, in view of upcoming October parliamentary elections, rather than an opportunity to address issues of utmost concern to the Polish nation. Kaczyński’s words may be interpreted as campaign rhetoric, though this does not necessarily deprive them of a solid basis. Fears that a government whose handling of the Smolensk air disaster of April 2010 – characterized by timidity and docility vis-à-vis Russia’s haphazard and unilateral investigation along with its unwillingness to return the black boxes to Poland, their rightful owners – may also lack the assertiveness necessary to fight for the country’s national interest in Brussels, are not irrational.

A potential Law and Justice Party victory in October would most likely involve a shift toward a soft EU-skepticism and a lesser unwillingness to incur the displeasure of Brussels and the capitals of the larger member states (Berlin in particular). A more pro-U.S. course is also to be expected. The party has announced that its priorities for the EU Presidency would emphasize a common EU energy policy; equal subsidies for Polish farmers within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy; and, EU expansion towards the East and Southeast. Another important element would consist of a focus on pro-family policies and Christian values.

Prime Minister Tusk’s EU-Enthusiasm

Prime Minister Tusk’s July 6 speech in the European Parliament sent an unequivocal signal to both EU-skeptics and EU-enthusiasts that he was siding with the latter. Tusk argued that “the reduction of Europe cannot be the answer to the current crisis in the EU. The answer should be more Europe.” Of course, in the parlance of EU-enthusiasts, “Europe” is synonymous with the EU. Not surprisingly, the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, along with other EU-enthusiasts, applauded Tusk’s attitude. The leader of the EU-skeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Freedom and Democracy faction Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Nigel Farage, presented an alternative viewpoint. Farage criticized the EU-enthusiastic Polish prime minister for trivializing the predicament of the Greeks and for ceding his country’s sovereignty to the European Union soon after it had regained its independence from the Soviet Union. “So what are you saying?” asked Farage in response following Tusk’s speech, “That this isn’t quite as bad as the USSR? Is that really good enough for your people?” Tusk was also confronted by a former Polish Minister of Justice, and current MEP (Conservatives and Reformers faction), Zbigniew Ziobro (Law and Justice), who accused the Polish prime minister of hypocrisy. Tusk, according to Ziobro, was praising freedom at the podium in Brussels while curtailing it at home. Such a mixed reception underscores significant tensions – both within the EU and Poland – which presents a challenge to the EU Presidency.

One may pose the question whether Tusk’s enthusiasm is an expression of sincere zeal, or merely an attempt to smooth the way for the implementation of the stated Polish agenda under the PO-PSL coalition government, which calls for greater European cooperation in several areas. Ultimately, we will only be able to answer with any degree of certainty once Poland’s EU Presidency expires in December 2011. At this point, given the government’s eschewing of assertive moves abroad and difficult reforms at home, we may only speculate that the presidency will most likely fall short of attaining its stated objectives.

Poland and the EU: Quo Vadis?

Enthusiasm for the European Union – both among the political class and society at large – remains strong in Poland. Yet, it appears that Poland’s presidency coincides with a decisive period in the grand project’s history, which may develop along two possible paths.

The economic crisis has exacerbated old tensions and unleashed new ones within the EU, which could generate a political ossification, if not outright and immediate implosion, of the Union. This means diminished funding for Poland and de facto irrelevance of the country’s EU membership.

Alternatively, supporters of European federalism in Brussels and other member states may utilize the crisis to push for increasing EU integration in the direction of a European super-state. This centralizing drive has found a recent expression in a proposal by a Spanish MEP – and supported by the European Commission – to replace national colors with the EU emblem on the shirts worn by athletes representing member states. A further example of this tendency is the fact that institutions receiving EU aid, but failing to display the Union’s flag or otherwise advertise the EU, are subject to fines. This signifies that EU funds are not free of attached “strings” and are treated by Brussels as instruments to erase the national identity and challenge the sovereignty of member states. In the Polish context, this places the EU-federalists on a collision course with a nation boasting of a long history of struggles for independence.

Currently, these traditions appear somewhat dormant in Poland. Perhaps due to half-a-century of subservience to Moscow, a large share of post-communist Poland’s political elite appears incapable of producing a leader of its own political configuration. This phenomenon provides a stark contrast to interwar Poland’s elites, which envisioned a fully sovereign state leading the region and blazing its own independent path through the treacherous jungle of international politics. Yet, this certainly did not make them parochial “isolationists.”

Keeping in mind these two scenarios, but regardless of developments in the EU, the new Central European member states, as well as potential members in Southeastern and Eastern Europe, might conclude that betting all on the EU card game limits their room for political maneuvering. They may prudently consider alternative strategies. An obvious one would entail a Polish-led regional bloc of federal states in the greater Intermarium area between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas, with a strategic foothold in the Caucasus. With the Visegrad Group serving as a strategic defense core, the alliance might include the Baltic countries, Ukraine, the states of former Yugoslavia, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, and even Georgia. For the United States this means a likely strategic partnership, since this constellation would likely seek to enhance its power by seeking closer ties with Washington. Such a grouping in the lands between Germany and Russia offers significant political and economic potential.


Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.