Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Piggy in the middle

Flagged up by The Daily Telegraph yesterday was a report that Britain and France are in a race to woo the Poles, both seeking to enlist the support of the largest of the recent accession countries in the coming negotiations on the budget.

British and French ministers, the DT said, "will arrive in Poland today for the start of a week-long race between London and Paris to sign up eastern and central European nations as allies in the battle over European Union reform." By the end of the week John Prescott (are they mad?) and Douglas Alexander, the Europe minister, will both have visited Poland, and between them added the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and as many Baltic states as Mr Alexander can cram in.

But it was yesterday where the real action was. Douglas Alexander, less than impressive as a Europe minister, was in Warsaw, gatecrashing on a meeting of the so-called "Weimar Triangle", the informal grouping of Poland, France and Germany.

It is a sign of the times that Alexander was kept well away from the new French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, the latter refusing to speak unless the British Europe minister was out of the room. So much for entente cordiale.

But, with Poland uneasily entertaining the various suitors, it was perhaps easy to overlook the contribution of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, recorded by Deutsche Welle, with a little help from Reuters.

As one of the "Weimar three" told his audience of Polish diplomats that the EU must continue with further expansion of the bloc even in the face of growing popular opposition to enlargement. "In my view, we must carry out commitments, even if they are unpopular," Fischer said. "The EU must do what it promised to do. However, if we think we can enlarge without deepening integration and closing ranks, then from this crisis we can tumble into a bigger one." "If we were to heed the populists, then we would be guilty, we would be amiss, we would make a great mistake," he added.

Albeit from a politician who is on his way out, this underlines the essential divide between the people and the European √©lites. Firstly, it does not matter what the people want – "the EU must do what it promised to do" – even if it had no mandate to make promises. Secondly, the integrationalist egenda is still there, unchanged: "deepening integration and closing ranks…". But, if Fischer thinks that will avoid a crisis, he is sadly mistaken.

However, there was no meeting of minds between Fischer and the French Interior Minister, temporarily Nicolas Sarkozy, until Chirac can find an excuse to get rid of him. Said Sarkozy, the EU should suspend enlargement after letting in Bulgaria and Romania. That, of course, means a big "no" to Turkey, a move that would be highly popular in France. But hey! We mustn't do what's popular, must we?

Anyhow, that aside, Poland is now keen to play the role of a mediator in the conflict concerning the budget, and the generally vague plans for reform. But France has the edge here, as Both France and Poland have a keen interest in maintaining the CAP. Already the poison is being injected, with an unnamed French diplomat stating: "These countries are used to language from Britain that is very pro-enlargement, but when it came to putting hands in wallets they weren't there." He added, archly, "The new members won't forget that."

According to the International Herald Tribune, Adam Rotfeld, Poland's foreign minister agreed that enlargement must not stop. He then lambasted western EU nations for a return to "national interests and egoism" and "a fear of foreigners and aliens." Charging that there had been "a revival of stereotypes of people living beyond the former Iron Curtain," he said Poland had a right to play a central role in the EU.

While this is clearly a dig at France, the IHT says it remains unclear whether Blair may have alienated Poland and the other accession states by blocking the budget deal. In a sign that Poland's patience for a budget deal may be thin, it says, Rotfeld called for solidarity among EU nations and said the point of the EU was not to help rich nations become ever richer but to help poorer regions catch up.

The Financial Times puts this in perspective. "Poland's main interest is to steer a course between Britain and the continental powers to ensure that its own goal is met as much EU money as soon as possible to try to make up for decades of communism," it says - something rather affirmed by my co-editor's post.

Illustrating how sensitive the issue is, the FT cites Jaroslaw Pietras, Poland's European affairs minister, saying: "If Britain does not want the odium of slowing preparations for the payment of cohesion funds to the new member states they have to do something."

However, while Poland's main interest is clear, Rotfeld says Warsaw is trying to wield influence without being forced to join any of the EU blocs. "I cannot imagine building a European Union which would ignore or marginalise Great Britain," he said at a news conference after his Weimar meeting.

Like it not, though, Poland is in the unfortunate position of being "piggy in the middle" between powerful rival factions. That in itself gives Poland some power, but also makes her vulnerable. If it plays its hand badly it could be in trouble, and Poles need no reminders of what happens to piggies when the big bad wolves come out to play.

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