The Polish confusion

Krzysztof Bobinski
28 June 2007

Partners behave better towards each other during the courtship than they do after a year or two of marriage. Poland's ruling Kaczynski twins - Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, prime minister - are currently reminding the European Union of this self-evident truth. Candidates for EU membership tend to say and do the right things. Things begin to get tense after they get in.

After the debacle of a debate on the outlines of the new "reform" treaty at the Brussels summit of 21-22 June 2007 (which snatched a last-minute working agreement from potential disaster), more than a few leaders in the EU must be asking themselves: do we really need many more new member-states like this? This is a pity for Warsaw, because - Eurosceptic as they are - even the Kaczynski twins acknowledge Poland needs an EU ready to countenance further enlargement to the east and sensible policies towards Russia. The Balkan countries are also going to have to be taken in if the region is to stay stable. But the way the Polish leaders are behaving, the present member-states are going to think long and hard before they countenance the prospect of ever smaller and ever more distant states being accepted into the club and given the opportunity of displaying a petulant, suspicious or disruptive attitude to collective decision-making.

Also on the European Union's Brussels summit in openDemocracy: John Palmer, "Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: a new single act" (21 June 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

"The problem is that we see the veto as a conventional weapon, whereas the old member-states see it as a nuclear weapon." Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian intellectual (and openDemocracy contributor) succinctly and intelligently summed up the problem of differing political cultures which threaten to dish the prospect of further enlargement once and for all. In Brussels, it must be acknowledged that the Kaczynskis in the end drew back from hitting the "nuclear" button to do a deal with their European partners, one they were able to present back home as a success. But they exasperated these partners in the process - and the emotional bruises will remain.

The whole incident shows that the present Polish government and, unfortunately the larger part of the Polish media, are labouring under a series of misconceptions. The opposition led by the pro-business Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO), fearful of appearing less nationalistic than the twins, are doing little to clear up these misunderstandings. They are, unfortunately, going to make relations between Poland and the European Union worse before they get better. The least that can be done at this stage is to itemise the five elements of this Polish confusion, to clear the way for an eventual more enlightened policy.

A fivefold misunderstanding

The first misconception is that Europe is fated to be perpetually stuck at the end of the second world war in 1945, facing the problem is how to arrange the affairs of the continent in such a way as to counter a resurgence of German might. In fact the rest of Europe has moved on leaving the Kaczynskis in a time-warp. Europe is currently struggling to resolve the problems of the end of the cold war when the key issue is how to knit together a divided Europe, with its differing political traditions, economic potential and historical traumas; and, as part of that, how far to continue with incorporating the east and the southeast of the continent to construct a secure and politically and economically viable European project.

Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland" (May 2001)

"Poland's nervous ‘return' to Europe" (April 2004)

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui!" (May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

The second misconception is that the European Union has become or is becoming an instrument of domination over Europe for an increasingly self-confident Germany, a country which (so the argument runs) is ever less inclined to remember its past and, ominously, is determined to pursue its national interests. The Kaczynskis forget that the European Union is part of the post-1945 settlement which aimed at integrating Germany and thus removing the threat of domination by force once and for all.

If you assume, as the Kaczynskis do, that the EU is an instrument of German domination then it makes perfect sense to do everything in your power to weaken the organisation, which is what they're out to do. They forget though that it is the EU, largely thanks to Germany, which will be providing €60 billion ($80 billion) of development aid to Poland up to 2014. They forget that the EU is part of the solution of "Europe's German problem". It follows that, if you really are worried about Germany, undermining the EU only makes things worse. It also undermines the body which is best suited to face in a united way the challenge of a newly self-confident Russia. Indeed the EU removes that age-old Polish nightmare of being left alone to face simultaneously a hostile Germany and Russia.

The third misconception is the mixing of Poland's bilateral relations towards Germany with the country's European policy. Thus in present-day Warsaw any look at future institutional arrangements for the EU neglects any consideration of how the organisation will work as a whole - from Lisbon to Tallinn, Dublin to Athens; instead, the exclusive focus is on how the system might affect the Polish government's prospects of prevailing in the arm-wrestling match it now sees itself conducting with the Germans.

The fourth misconception is that the voting system in the council of ministers serves to help countries block rather than to arrive at decisions. Thus prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, now accepted as the cannier of the twins, defended the decision to drop Poland's proposal for a square-root-based voting system ("we realised we had absolutely no chance of getting the EU to accept it", he concluded - after earlier threatening to defend the system to the death) by saying that the deal arrived at Brussels made it easier for Poland to block decisions. In fact the aim of the exercise was to streamline decision-making as the EU gets bigger, and to make sure that the big states retain a voice concomitant with their size and status.

During the summit Poland's foreign minister Anna Fotyga said that Lech Kaczynski was a good historian and therefore he and his brother were entitled to remind the Germans of Poland's 6 million war dead. Therein lies a fifth misconception. If the Kaczynski's were good historians and not merely anachronistic politicians then they would remember their wartime forbears, who in London planned for federal solutions in a post-war Europe as a way of avoiding the de facto isolation which led to their country's downfall in 1939. Now Poland under the twins finds itself enjoying poor relations with Germany and Russia and faces the prospect of that very same isolation. Thankfully for the rest of us the situation isn't as serious as it was almost seventy years ago. After all Poland is, still, in the European Union.

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