Polish EU vision breaks the mould

July 22, 2009

At last — a Polish vision of the future of the European Union that does not involve refighting
World War Two or dying in a ditch for outsized voting rights.

In a thoughtful report entitled “Europe can do better”, a group of eminent Poles, including two former foreign ministers and a former central banker, offer a blueprint for Poland to partner EU heavyweight Germany in advancing European integration.  Even if some of the proposals look unrealistic, Berlin would do well to grasp the outstretched hand from Warsaw and explore common ground.

The authors advocate a more free-market, open Europe that ought to appeal to many Germans at a time when their historic partner in European leadership, France, is promoting a more protectionist, closed-door agenda for the EU.  Their key messages that the EU is in danger of exhaustion or
even deconstruction after the failure of the federalist dream, and that Poland can help promote a pragmatic, market-oriented, incremental European integration, make sense.

They are right to focus on policies rather than institutions and on applying the EU model of multilateral governance to the big global challenges of combating climate change and rebuilding
a rules-based form of globalisation after the crisis.  And they are right to surmise that France seeks a different kind of Europe — with a state-directed economy and an end to enlargement — and that the next British government may become “the main show-stopper in the EU”.

But they are almost certainly too optimistic about the commitment of Germany to deeper European cooperation, especially where that would require Berlin to relinquish some control over economic and budget policy, or immigration and the labour market. Last month’s German Constitutional Court ruling on the Lisbon Treaty on EU reform drew strict limits on any further sharing of sovereignty, which will make the Germans resist any step that requires treaty change or is open to legal challenge.

The report calls for improved macroeconomic management in the EU with a greater role for the European Commission in the governance of the euro zone. Yet while Berlin may want more say
over its European partners’ economic and budget policies because it fears they are trying to pick its pocket, it will not tolerate Brussels’ hands on its own fiscal rudder.

Nevertheless, a Poland that sees Germany as its main partner in making Europe work, rather than as a revanchist adversary seeking to diminish Warsaw’s voting power, will make friends and influence people, in Washington as well as Brussels, if the Germans reciprocate by taking Polish initiatives seriously.

By contrast, the conservative Kaczynski twins who governed from 2005 to 2007, isolated their country, even from central European friends, by treating European politics as a zero-sum game in which any gain for Germany or Russia was automatically a loss for Warsaw.

Since Poland spent the 19th century erased from the map of Europe and was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th, the lingering sense of insecurity it has displayed
since joining the EU in 2004 is comprehensible. That feeling may have been aggravated by losing a battle to keep the disproportionate voting weight it gained under the 2000 Treaty of Nice. But Warsaw’s instinct to look to the United States rather than the EU as its top partner has been diminished by disenchantment with the Obama administration. The Poles took a political risk by agreeing last year, in return for military assistance, to host part of an anti-missile shield, which the
new U.S. government is no longer sure it wants.

The main risk for a more mature, less insecure Poland seeking a new place in the vanguard of Europe is that Germany turns out to be a much less willing partner than the report postulates. That could lead to a relapse into fear and loathing in Warsaw.

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