A stork's eye view from Poland

Krzysztof Bobinski
24 May 2001

Dear Reinhard Hesse,

I have sat down to write my response to you straight from a meeting of think tankers devoted to putting together a position on the future of (our? enlarged?) European Union. Soon foreign ministry officials and advisers from the member and the applicant states will also be meeting for a day in Warsaw. The local office of your German Adenauer Foundation is at the same time organising a conference about Poland and Germany in 2012.

In a word we all seem to be very busy thinking about the future.

We dip for inspiration into Romano Prodi’s eu/futurum website, where the debate is picking up steam. We feel that maybe we should be putting our oar in there too, just to show our flag. Even though Christoph Zopel, your deputy foreign minister, recently warned me in an interview that “you will only be able fully to engage in the debate about Europe when you are inside and know the inner workings”, we don’t care. We know Europe expects us to have a point of view on its future. We are ready to do our duty.

Some of us are genuinely interested in the debate. Others are getting involved because “Europe” wants to know what we think. Europe promised us those votes in the council and the parliament at Nice. Now Europe wants to know how we’re going to use them.

Well, we’re trying to work on our positions and our visions, but I can tell you it isn’t easy in a position like ours. Perched (metaphorically) outside on the ledge, on a cold night, peering through a window into what appears to be a comfortable room, full of people who look rather pleased with themselves. “Will they let us in?”, we think.

We’ve been out here for so long that, deep down, that is what really absorbs us, not thoughts about the future of the EU. That – and the fear that the people inside might let in that cluster of freezing watchers at the next window, before us. “Think of the indignity of it, they let in the Hungarians and the Estonians, leaving us Poles outside. And what’s worse, they will be inside, deciding on how long they want to leave us out here on this narrow ledge.”

So when think tankers meet, the conversation keeps returning to why they should let us in, and soon. And once we’re in, we have to make sure that there is no second-class citizenship, no inner and outer circles, no hard cores. Finally, we decide to call the paper “Doing Away with the Division of Europe” – that way, we’ll put in all the arguments for why they should admit us, and get some thinking about the future in on the side.

But this is where we meet, Mr Hesse. You say the main challenge for our generation is enlargement. We agree. After all, what were we doing for all those years listening to Radio Free Europe, over the buzz of the jamming stations, telling us that we belonged over there with you rather than over here with them?

So, naturally, when the Wall came down and they went home, we thought that belonging wouldn’t be as difficult as it’s turning out to be. That’s because Free Europe tended to keep the message simple. They didn’t tell us about the acquis communautaire.

Loose ends and woolly jumpers

As you are aware, the acquis is the EU’s body of law, which has been put together through an infinite series of deals between the member states and the European Commission. The deals were often complex, requiring compromises by member states, and were sometimes sweetened by financial arrangements that enabled those who felt they needed to, to adapt. The acquis has, over the years, acquired a sacrosanct quality for those who put it together. These are mainly Commission officials and people in the member states who specialise in the EU. They know how much effort constructing the acquis requires. They also know where the loose ends are. And they know that, if someone pulls one of those loose ends, then the whole thing could unravel, like a woolly jumper.

That is why, if you want to join the EU, you have to accept the acquis in its entirety. The officials are insistent because they’re terrified that someone might pull on the loose ends. The problem is, that you join without being able to extract any compromises out of the EU, or getting any of the sweeteners which went to the member states. It’s take it or leave it.

Our negotiators know that. They accept that. They know they have to stick to the acquis. All they can hope for is to negotiate a transition period for, say, getting Polish roads up to the standard where mega trucks will be able to use them.

Mega trucks and storks

This is where the think tankers begin to ask questions. The environmentalists, for example, are asking why billions of euro should be spent on strengthening Polish roads (as required by the acquis) and not invested in developing railways, so that the big loads can go by rail. Does Poland actually want mega trucks like the ones that are threatening to flatten Austria? Why not make common cause with the Austrian government on this issue?

Storks are a good example. Each spring, a major part of the world stork population migrates to Poland. They like the extensive farming system that leaves lots of land in a more or less natural state replete with a diet of mice and frogs. Nevertheless, Poland is going to have to implement the bird protection directive, which is written for Belgium where storks are very rare. When a stork makes it to Belgium, elaborate and costly measures have to be implemented to protect it. The cost is high. So high that when Poland gets into the Union, any Polish farmer seeing a stork will strangle it, shoot it or shoo it away for fear of the cost of implementing the directive. Result: no storks in Poland.

The problem is that no one has really faced the question of what comes first: protecting storks or protecting the acquis? Or – whether economic growth should come first, or enforcing single market rules that mean that Poland should close down its tax attractive special enterprise zones, designed to entice much needed foreign investment.

For that matter, the question of how much the present member states are ready to spend on raising living standards in the applicant countries, and how much the applicant countries are going to expect the present member states to provide, still remains to be answered. Protecting storks and gaining economic growth – they are really part of the same question. How are countries with significantly different levels of economic development going to live together in one organisation, where critical decisions are taken together by all, with each member state – rich and poor – holding the power of veto?

For the moment, both sides are trying to shoehorn the problem into the structures of the acquis. That’s why the negotiations aren’t going smoothly. They could go better if political leaders on both sides were to sit down together and try to establish a consensus vivendi for our future, larger Europe.

Closeness of thinking

You might recall that the breakthrough in Great Britain’s second successful attempt to join the European Community came when President Pompidou and Edward Heath met in May 1971. The British ambassador in France, Christopher Soames, later wrote: “the two heads of government discussed the future of Europe in all its aspects and established the closeness of their thinking on many points.” After that, Soames intimated, there remained “the question of strategic timing – for how long should our two negotiating teams conduct their war of attrition in Brussels so as to show public opinion that the utmost had been done to defend each country’s special interests?”

That’s the kind of agreement we need now. Top people from both member and applicant states sitting down for a few days to establish a “closeness of their thinking” on how they’re going to arrange things for the next decade or more. It won’t happen, you say. Maybe not.

So in the meantime, our think tankers are beginning to kick around the idea of a “soft” acquis. This would be an arrangement under which the member states recognise that different conditions in the two parts of Europe mean that it’s silly to try and impose the same rules everywhere. Sometimes there has to be some give. In exchange, the applicants would declare that, for them, the unity of the EU would be of paramount concern. In other words, even if more loose ends appear in the woolly jumper, they will make sure it doesn’t unravel.

The Polish vision

Which would about wrap it up. I haven’t told you much about our vision of the future of Europe. It’s pretty conventional so far. Not much support for the intergovernmental method, and official backing for a strong Commission working with the European Council – ie the traditional way. Like Finland and Sweden, Poland at least will want the EU to conduct a clear policy towards Russia. Poland will also want a policy that keeps the Ukraine independent, steers Belarus towards democracy, and maintains contacts with citizens in all three countries across friendly borders. On defence matters, Poland will go along with the EU’s nascent military force. But its military men will always look to the US and Nato for defence of its borders.

Oh, and one thing is clear. For the first few years at least, the Poles won’t take the EU for granted, as you imply so many of its present citizens do. That’s because for many Poles, getting in will be too much like coming home.

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