Poland took over the rotating EU presidency last Friday. Despite the presidency’s diminished role under the Lisbon Treaty, both Polish politicians and European leaders have high hopes for Poland’s six-month stint at the helm of the EU—Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, even called it an “historic event.”
At a time when Euroskeptic voices are on the rise in most European capitals and the European integration project is going through its deepest crisis to date, Poland’s public and governing elites remain staunchly pro-European, and optimistic about the future. This pro-European energy, mixed with the ambition to be recognized as a leading EU country, is likely to make the Polish presidency more effective than its predecessors (Spain, Belgium, and Hungary) since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in December 2009.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk sees the next months as a test of leadership, and an opportunity for Poland to become a “new engine of the European Union.” This attitude contrasts sharply with other post-Lisbon presidencies that were limited in scope and ambition. Tusk’s pro-European attitude is not merely rhetorical. Poland’s national interest is closely aligned with the strength of European integration. Joining NATO and later the European Union has allowed Poland to escape its volatile history as a medium-sized country torn between ruthless empires, and to anchor itself firmly in the heart of Europe. A weaker EU would be a geopolitical blow to Poland. The country has also greatly benefited from EU solidarity in the form of structural funds. Poland’s public understands the stakes very well ; with 80% of Poles favoring EU membership, Poland is one of the most pro-European countries in the Union. Poles want a European Union that is internally strong, open to its neighbors—especially from the East—and able to influence world affairs. The Tusk government will use the next six months to push the European project closer toward this vision.
Poland’s key task will be to prevent Europe from sliding into a deeper political crisis, where narrow national interests take over and weaken the European project. Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski clearly identified the main challenge when he said that “helping to manage the euro crisis on the periphery is our top priority.” The Polish presidency will also work to keep the EU’s enlargement door open, by focusing on completing the EU-Ukraine association agreement, making progress on the association agreement with Moldova, signing an accession treaty with Croatia, and holding the Eastern Partnership summit in the fall. Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, along with Catherine Ashton, will also push for the creation of a European Endowment for Democracy, a flexible funding mechanism for supporting democratic transition processes in neighboring countries.
The style of this presidency is likely to be more hands-on than its predecessors. Prime Minister Tusk won’t be satisfied with standing back as the Lisbon Treaty would have him do, but will work to provide political leadership during the next six months. Foreign Minister Sikorski is also unlikely to stay in the shadow of Catherine Ashton. He pledged to be her “loyal deputy,” but is likely to play a much more visible role in the EU’s external relations than any other foreign minister since the creation of the post of the High Representative. He has already led a meeting of the EU-Kazakhstan Council on behalf of Ashton, and is said to be deputized to head several key EU foreign policy efforts over the coming months. Finance minister Rostowski recently declared that the “stability of the eurozone is as vital to Poland’s national interest as membership in NATO or the EU.” As head of the council of EU finance ministers, he will play a key role in managing the Greek debt crisis (even though Poland is not yet a eurozone member).
Of course, despite the best-made plans, rotating presidencies often end up focusing on the crisis du jour. The current challenges before the European Union are vast. Last week’s vote in the Greek parliament pushed back the possibility of Greek default, but few believe this will be a lasting solution. Several EU countries are reinstating partial border controls despite the Schengen agreement (which guarantees free mobility across intra-European borders). In the south, Libya has exposed divisions both within NATO and among major European powers. In the east, promising signs are coming from Ukraine and Moldova—but there is no broader vision for completing Europe whole and free. With a volatile situation in North Africa and the Middle East, the coming six months have the potential to be one of the more explosive periods in EU history. All in all, it is a huge challenge for the largest new EU member state.
Success or failure of the Polish EU presidency will depend on whether it is able to begin reversing the pervasive sense of doubt in the European project and to work out practical solutions to the many challenges standing before the EU. On a more mundane level, it will also be a test for the ability of the Polish administration to effectively manage the thousands of meetings and hundreds of work streams that make up the daily work of the EU. The Poles feel good about themselves these days, and a senior politician recently admitted that “the last couple of years have made us more arrogant.” But this arrogance comes with a deep concern for the success of the European project. This energy, desire to lead, and confidence might now be just the right thing for Europe.