Europe's problem, Poland's perspective

The still uncertain outcome of the eurozone crisis makes predictions for 2012 difficult. But its singular impact in the European Union's newer member-states could include a revived appreciation of the benefits of federalism, says Krzysztof Bobinski.
Krzysztof Bobinski
30 December 2011

Men of a certain age are rarely at their best at 3 o'clock in the morning. So it was that at the latest emergency summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, France's Nicolas Sarkozy snapped at Denmark's prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt: "You’re an out, a small out, and you’re new. We don’t want to hear from you".

The French president was objecting to the sight of the recently elected premier of a country outside the eurozone venturing to contribute to discussion of the ongoing euro crisis. But perhaps more significant than his abandonment of all pretence of gallic charm is the oddness of a situation where Europe's leaders are unable to suspend their talks at an earlier hour and return after a good sleep to try to resolve problems which affect millions of their own and the world's citizens.

Admittedly, the sheer difficulty of a summit of twenty-seven member-states finding common solutions to complex problems involving inevitable clashes of national interests means that even well-rested leaders might have proved incapable of agreement. After all, the eurozone has been in slow meltdown throughout 2011, like a disintegrating glacier succumbing to global warming; and as with climate change, politicians chosen by and vulnerable to national electorates have struggled to rise to a transnational challenge.

The Brussels summiteers were tasked with putting together a policy framework for the seventeen eurozone countries which would convince investors that these states would in future conduct prudent fiscal policies and contain sovereign debt. In the event, in those bleary-eyed late hours they did produce the outlines of such a treaty - albeit so vague that it requires further negotiation between the putative signatories and acceptance by national parliaments (and moreover with Britain outside the process). The investors whom the summiteers were seeking to impress paid little attention - but an effort was made and for the moment, le jeu se roule.

The Polish way

All this finds the "new" member-states - those that joined the European Union in the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 - in a bit of a muddle. When the former Soviet satellites plus the Baltic states entered (along with Cyprus and Malta) in 2004, they thought they had reached a safe harbour which would allow them to recuperate and grow after more than four decades inside or tagged on to the Soviet Union. Each dutifully added participation in the euro to their accession treaty, though so far only Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia have actually embraced the new currency.

But where does that leave a country like Poland, the largest of the entry "class" of 2004? A provisional answer is: appalled that it might be left outside a more integrated eurozone, yet fearful that the eurozone crisis might drag it down were it to get too close.

Since its accession, Poland has been a low-cost supplier of components to German industry, thus helping its western neighbour to keep down costs and remain competitive in world markets. Thanks to this and to a large domestic market, the Polish economy has been alone in the EU in continuing to grow throughout the entire financial crisis. But it has been deeply worried that the crisis might remove the export source of growth and reduce the country to the status of a "second-class member" of the union, outside the eurozone, and not consulted on regulations which will affect its future.

Poland has responded to these fears by seeking to stay close to Germany and France in the talks on resolving the eurozone’s problems. "If you are not at the table then you will find yourself on the menu" is a phrase the Polish premier, Donald Tusk, likes to repeat. Poland needs to keep Germany as a friend, as negotiations on the next EU budget (2014-20) are looming and Warsaw - a net recipient of funds - stands to lose without powerful allies. Hence the dramatic appeal in Berlin by Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Anglophile foreign minister, for Germany to do more to save the euro.

But Poland also realises that with France’s etatist approach to economic governance and Germany’s support for tax harmonisation, it would be good to keep the free-market-friendly United Kingdom at the table on talks about new arrangements in a eurozone Poland is likely at some point to join. That would explain the depressed tone of the Polish finance minister Jacek Rostowski as he emerged from the all-night session in Brussels. Poland will be rooting for those in Britain's governing coalition (namely the Liberal Democrat junior partners led by Nick Clegg) and foreign office who want to return to negotiation rather than sail off into the mid-Atlantic as Britain’s eurosceptics want.

A lot is riding on the outcome of the prolonged euro crisis. What is interesting though is that talk of closer integration of the eurozone has reminded some of the forgotten cause of European federalism. Even in Poland, the party led by (and named after) Janusz Palikot - a maverick grouping intent on modernising the country - has unreservedly espoused federalism, the first to do so since Poland regained its independence in 1989. The former communist Left Democratic Alliance (SLD) is also thoroughly pro-integrationist. This will in turn push the ruling Civic Platform, which has in the past wobbled in its support for the EU, further towards "ever-closer union".

Even an ill wind can blow the embers of a faltering flame. Whatever shape the euro crisis takes next, it has shown the newer member-states such as Poland how important a united Europe is for their security and well-being. And that is a lesson which is still - and always - worth repeating.

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