Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Poland – not in the bag

Sources: Deutsche Welle and our own correspondent

Despite assumptions that Poland will come into line, alongside Spain, on the EU constitution, the indications are that this is far from certain. What should start alarm bells ringing is the extraordinarily ambiguous interview with the Polish foreign minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, published by Deutsche Welle today.

Cimoszewicz is saying that, although Poland "hasn't ruled out acceptance of the double majority system, it still wants a system closer to the Nice Treaty". He said Poland would consider whatever compromise solution the Irish government puts forward at the next EU summit in June.

But what is fascinating to Kremlin (oops, sorry) EU-watchers are these comments: "We still believe that it's possible to have the issue resolved by the end of June, before the Irish presidency expires… But I also don't want to create the illusion that it's going to be easy, or that the problem is already solved - it isn't."

This is very far from an unequivocal acceptance of the constitution, as it currently stands, with Ahern as yet not having made any new proposals on the contentious voting rights arrangements. Crucially, though, Cimoszewicz is talking about a possible agreement by the end of June, which is after the 17-18 June deadline, when the new treaty is supposed to be agreed.

No doubt, in making these guarded statements, Cimoszewicz is keeping a very close eye on domestic opinion. Although prime minister Miller has stepped down on 2 May, to be replaced by Marek Belka (Belka, loosely translated from the Polish as meaning "plank", as in "thick as two short Belkas"), the change is widely seen in Poland as a cynical game of musical chairs.

President Kwasniewski, Miller and Belka are all from the same social democrat party (SLD), and Belka moves over after failing, as finance minister, to get approval for an ambitious financial restructuring plan. Thus, he is no more popular than Miller – and that means very unpopular, with less than ten percent approval ratings. The fact that the Belka government has seven of the ministerial team that formed the Miller government also adds to the sense of disillusionment.

And, on 14 May, a mere three days before he is due in Dublin for the IGC summit, Belka has to face a crucial vote in the Polish Parliament on his new government’s plans to deal with a growing financial crisis. At the moment, he is 30 votes short of a majority. If he fails, he and his party could be facing a general election earlier than autumn 2005, when it is currently scheduled – something which the political elites are anxious to avoid.

With the more popular Eurosceptic Self Defence Party and the League of Polish Families snapping at his heels, now is not the time for Belka to be at all generous to the European Union.

This is especially the case as the accession referendum was fought on the Nice deal, and memories are long in Poland. Altogether, therefore, Poland could remain the "wild card". It is by no means certain that its vote is in the bag. And, from Cimoszewicz’s remarks to Deutsche Welle, it does not look as if he is expecting any final decision at the June summit.

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