Poland: EU Presidency as an Incentive to Reconsider Polish Identity?

Tr@nsit Online

In August 2011 Alexander Rahr, one of Germany’s key experts in post-Soviet affairs, claimed that Poland as the then EU presiding country had to get more involved in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus . His stance presumably expressed the prevailing expectations in the German political class. The logic of his “Go East” appeal was quite obvious: Due to the emergency situation in North Africa and Greece, Germany will not be able to streamline the EU’s efforts at “Ostpolitik” in the near future. Poland, Germany believes, should shoulder this function in its place given Warsaw’s co-authorship of the Eastern Partnership program.

The reaction to Rahr’s appeal was quite cautious. Polish experts (like Jaroslaw Cwiek-Karpowicz) warned against lofty anticipations about the role their country may play in reshaping the EU’s Eastern policy, especially in the South Caucasus with its complicated security dynamics. German analysts (like Stefan Meister) proposed putting a stronger accent on the German – Polish co-management of the Eastern policy by using already existing institutional playgrounds such as the Weimar triangle.

Yet it turned out that with the deepening crisis of the Eurozone Poland has not only become increasingly hesitant to link its European identity with neighborhood policy, but also views the Berlin – Warsaw “special relations” as focused on rather intra-European than external affairs. The new Polish policy found its ultimate expression in the “Poland and the Future of Europe” speech by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski presented in Berlin on November 29, 2011. In his speech he hardly ever mentioned the Eastern Partnership (EaP) – a revealing omission. The implication being that by the end of the six months of Poland`s EU Presidency in December 2011, Polish diplomacy could not give any convincing proof for advancements in the Eastern partnership.

Indeed, it is difficult to come up with success stories on the basis of developments in the six Eastern Partnership countries. Belarus was bracketed out of the project for political reasons at the EaP summit in September 2011, the Timoshenko trial in Kyiv alienated the Ukraine from Europe, and Moldova is struggling to overcome its prolonged political turmoil. The political landscape in the Sout h Caucasus is even more complicated. The relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are at a standstill with no solution in sight, while the government of Georgia – which was almost unanimously perceived as the most pro-Western throughout the post-Soviet space just a few years ago – is gradually losing its reputation in Europe.

Against this background, it has been extremely difficult for Poland to “sell” the EaP program to the European political market. And that, in turn, made Warsaw reconsider its identity by drastically reducing its role of a bridge between the EU and Eastern Europe and strengthening the image of an inward-looking country striving for more institutional unity within the European Union and a stronger financial power for the EU authorities instead, while fully accepting the German leadership.

The surprising Polish skepticism about the EaP seems to be paralleled by political discourses in many other EU countries. One of the most telling examples is Austria. Although in this country one can notice a rising interest in some EaP countries located primarily in the Black Sea region, Vienna does not seem to be strategically relying on a long-term cooperation with Poland within the EaP framework. On the whole, there are quite skeptical sentiments about Poland`s ability to deal with external affairs effectively, and no major breakthrough was really anticipated – even if Lady Ashton does not show much success in Eastern policy either.

Without high expectations how the EaP would perform, the Austrian discourse on the Polish EU Presidency is focused on issues that are considered fundamental for the European Union, such as the financial management of the Eurozone and the whole EUrope, the general prospects of the EU in crisis, and environmental protection. Needless to say that the two countries have shown completely different approaches to the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Meanwhile, Poland`s call for solidarity voiced by Finance Minister Jan Vincent-Rostowski and later by Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in the above mentioned speech, in fact, have been noticed. And the praise for Poland`s conduct was mostly about facilitating connections between members and non-members of the Eurozone. It is not surprising that the criticism of Poland`s EU Presidency deals first of all with economic and environmental matters. At the same time Sikorski`s speech seems to be perceived in Austria also as a confession that Poland does not live up to the challenge to handle significant EU issues, in other words, that it is not the big EU country that it claimed to be – probably not quite the message the Polish Foreign Minister wanted to convey. This perception resulted in an unexpectedly fierce criticism stressing inter alia that Poland is incapable of achievements in Eastern Europe without a great power`s support.

Thus, Poland, though not very consistently, seems to concentrate more on the team play within the European Union – which may look a bit disappointing for some East European countries. It appears that in the long run the future of EaP will depend mostly on the efficiency of those institutional platforms within the EU of which Poland is a part, including the Weimar triangle and the Visegrad Group.

Andrey Makarychev is currently Professor and Research Fellow at the Institute for East European Studies, Free University, Berlin.

Victoria Vasilenko is a Alexander Herzen Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna.

Tr@nsit Online, 2012
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