There’s nothing like a soothing hand to calm a fevered brow. This is what in effect Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, offered when in the European parliament on 6 July 2011 he introduced his country’s programme for its six-month presidency of the European Union. During this period, Warsaw will be coordinating much of the work of the European council (the complex of member-states's gatherings, which - along with the parliament and the European commission - is one of the EU’s three governing institutions).
How refreshing to hear a national leader say that the EU was “the best place on earth”, one to which people seek to migrate to and not escape from. How refreshing to hear a national leader say that the response to the current economic crisis in the EU should be more Europe and not less, at a time when so many European leaders are pandering to powerful nationalist and populist sentiments and stressing national interests above all.
The speech was praised by the leaders of the main political groups in the European parliament - the pro-business Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Liberals, as well as the Greens. In the reaction was a touch of relief: at a time when the peoples of western Europe are increasingly wondering what the European Union is for, Tusk’s address showed that the member-states of the big enlargement of 2004 can bring a degree of uplift to a battered continent.
It is a mere seven years since that day in May 2004 when the Poles and nine other east-central and southern European states joined the EU. The majority (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, as well as Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus) were recent escapees from the Soviet bloc; their entry marked the fulfilment of promises of membership made by the western European when the “iron curtain” was still in place and expansion to the east seemed an unlikely prospect. At the time they entered the fold - to be followed in January 2007 by Bulgaria and Romania, taking the union to its current twenty-seven members - the new arrivals were seen in western European capitals as a risky prospect. Would they cope with the single market, would they respect EU rules, would they disrupt the governance of the project?
Only the most gifted of prophets could in 2004-07 have predicted that by 2011 the union would be consumed with worry about Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland (and now, Italy); and that it would fall to Poland’s prime minister to reassure European representatives by putting current troubles into historical perspective and declaring that the European project does indeed have a future.
The real division
A speech is of course only that, and it remains to be seen how the Poles will deliver on the hopes which Donald Tusk raised. But rhetoric can be important, and his proposals suggest that the (now) not-so-new member-states are becoming the anchors for a European project once determinedly promoted by the Germans and the French above all.
For it is the economies of the new member-states which have proved more resilient in the face of the crisis, and their peoples have been more willing to make sacrifices to avert economic disaster. Anders Aslund has written: “All the crisis countries in eastern Europe undertook heroic fiscal adjustment programmes. They cut public expenditures, public wages and social transfers while launching difficult structural reforms in health care and education. Many Western observers claimed that such big expenditure adjustments would be politically and socially impossible. They worried about regime change and collapse of democracy…” (see The Last Shall Be the First: The East European Financial Crisis [Peterson Institute for International Economics, October 2010]).
It seems that a cleavage inside the EU does persist following the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 - but that that the core division is not, as it was expected to be, between developed and underdeveloped states. Rather, it is between those who feel that being in the EU is worthwhile and those who are decreasingly aware of what the union means and was intended to achieve. If Latvians or Hungarians (for example) have been ready to accept cuts without serious protests, the implication is that this is largely attributable to the collective memory of the chaos and the debilitating shortages in the shops which the communist economy actually delivered.
The schism is reinforced by the differential attitudes of western and eastern Europeans towards security. The European Union, along with Nato, brought security to western Europeans before 1989, but the removal of the Soviet threat leaves citizens in the west unclear about why these institutions are still needed. But for their eastern counterparts, Russia remains unpredictable and the EU as much as Nato is seen as the best insurance policy against any reruns of the past (see Katinka Barysch, "Eastern Europe's great game", 20 July 2010).
The value of the EU is felt in eastern Europe in the domestic as well as the international arena, for it is seen to represent the final stage of processes - the modernising of governance and the completion of market reforms - which put a definitive end to the old communist system. There is a substantial financial interest here, in that significant amounts of EU aid funds have (especially where Poland is concerned) consolidated pro-union sentiment. This is a region where Brussels is seen as a force for modernisation, and the EU as bringing (as Donald Tusk told the European parliament) freedom, prosperity and a better life.
The Warsaw concerto
A European presidency has to balance a range of interests, now too in the context of the EU’s reformed institutional framework where foreign-policy responsibilities are shared with the European council’s president (Herman van Rompuy) and foreign-affairs high representative (Catherine Ashton). In this respect Donald Tusk was artful in expressing Poland’s national concerns in a European frame of reference rather than via special pleading for Warsaw’s interest. For example, Poland has a vital stake in maintaining the flow of EU aid under the union’s regional policy, a policy Tusk defended as a system where countries get aid now so that they will be able to contribute to the development of others in the future.
The prime minister was also clear that any dismantling of the visa-free Schengen travel system - presaged by Denmark’s decision to re-establish border controls - endangers the single market which Poland during its presidency will want to underpin and extend. In addition he talked more of the promise of democracy in north Africa and the middle east than of the EU’s neighbourhood policy in the east, even though the latter is a pet Polish subject; this was a signal to southern Europeans such as Italy and Spain of Poland’s intention to pursue an even-handed approach. And he skipped any mention of the issue of climate change, where Poland is determined to fight for what it sees as its national interest in limiting costly and damaging measures (see "Poland and climate change", 14 December 2010).
Again, there is only so much that an EU presidency can do, especially when it lasts only until 31 December 2011 and the first two of those (the eurozone crisis permitting) will coincide with summer holidays across the continent. There is no shortage of political voices (such as among Britain’s eurosceptics) chanting the mantra that the EU is a “failed project” and demanding that integration be rolled back rather than extended, or journalistic ones cautioning Poland (“which sees its first-ever presidency as a step in the renaissance of a martyred nation”) against excessive ambition (see “The view from the Vistula”, Economist, 7 July 2011).
Whatever the outcome, there is every chance that the organisation of the presidency will be handled smoothly by the Poles. The entire programme has been prepared by a team of young officials headed by Mikołaj Dowgielewicz, a deputy foreign minister who has worked in the European parliament and was originally talent-spotted by the late Bronisław Geremek during his term (1997-2000) as foreign minister.
The team is composed of people who have been involved with EU affairs since before Poland joined in 2004. They are the advance-guard of a forward-looking generation which should soon be running the country. In the shorter term, they are well equipped to represent a pro-European Poland which will represent the Euro-optimists in a currently dispirited EU. And if Europe needs anything in the second half of 2011, it is surely optimism.