Sunday, March 12, 2006

Meanwhile behind the scenes

While the Polish President has been making vaguely eurosceptic noises, his ministers have been busy building an unlikely alliance, as the International Herald Tribune reported on Friday.
“In the third meeting of the countries in little more than two years, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain and the new prime minister of Poland, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, said that their common interests as large frontier states on the eastern and western edges of the European Union presented numerous opportunities for cooperation.”
Their common interests are not that great actually, though the Poles have worked out very quickly the advantage of working with a. n. other member state in order to get a bigger slice of the pie. Even the Spaniards seem a little surprised at the speed with which this has happened.

“The aide to Zapatero also echoed critics of the new Polish government who say its approach to EU politics is dominated by a desire to maximize the benefits for Poland rather than for the union as a whole.”
It would never occur to, say, the Spanish government to maximize the benefits for Spain rather than for the union as a whole.

One of the problems is what we can define as the Polish Plumber Question. This is being solved. Spain has agreed to lift the restrictions on workers from the new member states. This may not be entirely popular, as unemployment in Spain remains stubbornly high while the various social legislation makes it impossible to reduce it.

Then there is the question of Germany. Rightly, the Poles are looking for allies that will remove them from the German sphere of influence. At the same time, Angela Merkel’s election has removed Prime Minister Zapatero’s strongest ally from the picture. The possibilities of an anti-German alliance (possibly though not necessarily with French support) are clearly there.

The two countries see themselves as the borderlands, once again fighting Europe’s battles against the outsiders. Well, that is the romantic version. This is the true one:
“The two countries also vowed to work together on developing a coordinated EU policy for controlling flows of illegal migrants into Spain from North Africa and into Poland from Ukraine and Belarus.”
In fact, the problems the two countries face are so different that a “co-ordinated policy”, which, most of us thought, already existed, is unlikely to do any good at all.

Spain’s border is a long coastline; Poland’s is exclusively on land. Spain is dealing with immigrants from a different continent, who may well exacerbate existing social and political difficulties; on the Polish border there are Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians on all sides (that this would be a difficulty was clear during the negotiations but was carefully swept under the carpet).
Poland is also eager to learn from Spain about a very important matter:
“One area of particular interest is Spain's handling of subsidies from the European Union, which Spain is widely credited with investing effectively to help modernize its economy. Starting in 2007, Poland is scheduled to receive billions of euros in aid. "We are willing to put all of our experience at the disposal of Poland," Zapatero said.”
I expect they are at that. What they are not willing to do is give up any of their own bounty and the Spanish government, rightly, sees Poland less of an ally and more of a competitor for the ever dwindling funds that are handed out.

Incidentally, while it is undoubtedly true that Spain has been modernized since the demise of Franco (whether as a result of EU membership or not), the success of its economy is doubtful. It may have been modernized but it is still, twenty years on, reliant on a large hand-out in the shape of various structural and other funds, while unemployment remains, as I said above, stubbornly high. May not be the way for Poland to go.

The real problem is the position of the Polish and other East European governments. They (or their predecessors, though the differences are not that great) campaigned for EU membership on three basic issues.

One was a negative one: in most places the opponents were either unreconstructed Communists or rather unpleasant nationalists and the majority of the population wanted to support neither.

The second one was emotionally powerful but practically vague: this appeared to be the way back to Europe. Of course, by the time of the referendums most East European countries had made their way back to Europe but the fear of dropping out again was there.

Finally, and most practically, there was the promise of financial help in spades. That is proving to be the most difficult part. As some of us pointed out at the time (from 1998 onwards in my case) the cost of implementing the acquis and the economic turmoil that might bring about will not be balanced by the amount of money handed over, particularly as the present recipients are unlikely to give up a single euro.

In the end, those referendums were won on very small turn-outs indicating something less than total support for the project.

The Polish government is not the only one that fears potential trouble if the economic promises are not fulfilled while the economic problems multiply. A combination of possibly astute political deals and vaguely phrased but menacing eurosceptic statements might well appear to be the best way of getting more out of the EU. It’s just that the well is drying out.

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