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1 August, 2011  ▪  Paweł Pieniążek

Europe is Facing the Other Way

Poland has the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) since July. Will Ukraine benefit from this?

1 July is a symbolic day for Poland: despite limited opportunities, the presidency of the Council of the EU is the biggest challenge for the country since it became a member of the EU in 2004. Polish politicians and officials are attempting to help resolve very challenging tasks that the EU faces as it is in deep crisis. For the first time since the establishment of the Schengen Zone an idea is being floated (which already enjoys some support) to restore temporary control over the EU’s internal borders. Revolutions and uprisings in the Arab Maghreb spurred nearly all EU members into undertaking coordinated action on this question. In the light of these crises, will Poland be able to again attract the interest of other EU members to the Eastern Neighbourhood?

Ukraineis Not in the Spotlight

The situation is quite complicated. Today the EU is focusing on its own internal problems because if they are ignored they may soon lead to the demise of the Eurozone. The likely cause of this development is the looming default of Greece with Spain not faring much better. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barrosohas already made a statement to the effect that the EU will aim to invest in Europe's regions as part of the EU’s cohesion policy and transform these regions into centres of economic growth and creators of jobs.

Uneven development, which is especially evident during and after the global financial crisis, makes Europeans think in different ways that a common project for all of Europe is now impossible. The growth of nationalist and populist trends reinforces this attitude. Such trends can be observed, for example, in Hungary where the opposition is raising the issue of the curtailment of freedom of speech or in France where Romanian Roma have been deported. A logical continuation of this “fortress Europe” mentality (among its individual members) is the demand to restrict free travel in the Schengen Zone over fears of a mass influx of migrants from North Africa.

In 2004, when the Orange Revolution took place, Ukraine was at the centre of attention of the entire world. Leading European politicians supported changes in Ukraine and a peaceful struggle against the former regime. Today, a similar situation can be observed towards the Arab “Spring of Nations.” In this international context Poland will find it difficult to propose and realise any special foreign-policy projects. During its presidency Poland will not pursue its own policy but will build policies through consensus with High Representative of the EUfor Foreign Affairs and Security PolicyLady Catherine Ashton, who is de facto in charge of the EU’s external relations. After all, the current Polish government views Ukraine from a totally different angle than what it did under Aleksander Kwaśniewski, while the new Ukrainian government is guided by priorities that are also different from those of its predecessors. Thus, with regard to the Ukrainian question there is no reason to hope for more than the completion of negotiations on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement which could be, signed no sooner than in the second half of 2012. Moreover, the document has only symbolic meaning because it will not include the possibility of EU membership, which means, in essence, that the issue is postponed indefinitely.

How productive the visa-free talks between Ukraine and the EU are is another big question. European politicians are apprehensive of a possible avalanche of “foreigners,” which suggests that waving visas for Ukrainians – something President Viktor Yanukovych is never tired of raising – may be impossible. Further proof of this is that the EU will block free travel in the Schengen Zone during the Euro 2012 championship.

Expecting Fair Play

Therefore, in the current situation the Polish presidency of the Council of the EU is not the way to promote someone's interests. However, attention, no doubt, should be paid to issues that are important for each individual country. Senior Polish politicians keep emphasising that their country has to do everything possible to become  a true regional leader. This requires, among other things, to explain to other EU members about the real problems, expectations and needs of the Eastern Neighbourhood countries. In order to accomplish this, the Polish government needs to stop telling  small lies in order to embellish the situation. It is unacceptable for Polish President Bronisław Komorowski to say, as he did, at the June 2011 Wroclaw Global Forum that after the new president came to power in Ukraine the situation on the democratic front has constantly been improving. Such a view is loudly proclaimed by Moscow and is contrary to that expressed by international  human rights organisations. –

It is also in Poland's interests to ensure an honest EU-Ukraine dialogue: if the parties become aware that the Association Agreement does not mention membership prospects why would one side not openly raise this question? Furthermore, the Polish government has long participated in this virtual dialogue. It was only in the last months of the negotiations when Polish Foreign Minister Radisław Sikorski admitted that the issue of membership would be absent from the text of the Association Agreement. If this is what “honest” European dialogue amounts to it is no wonder that similar “democratisation” processes lead to the pacification of the opposition in Belarus.

We need to remember that the responsibility for these negotiations rests, above all, with the Ukrainian leadership and Viktor Yanukovych personally. In the first half of 2010, Kyiv pretended not to care about the country’s integration into the EU. Now, despite  certain adjustments in its foreign-policy course, we continue to see a selective approach to introducing European values. After all, Party of Regions representatives admit they are primarily interested in economic cooperation while none of them acknowledge any curtailment of democratic freedoms in Ukraine. Using this approach means that full integration into the EU is out of the question.

Jan Lityński and Henryk Wujec, two of the founders of Solidarity and the Workers Defense Committee (the latter also heads the Polish-Ukrainian Forum), wrote to Gazeta Wyborcza on 1 July saying: “It is often worthwhile in politics to focus on long-term tasks which, if un-resolved, will make it impossible to resolve current affairs. Therefore, contrary to many first-priority challenges we need to turn our eyes and look into the future from a different angle.” If during its presidency (of the Council of the EU) Poland manages to look beyond “current affairs” then more will also be undertaken for Ukraine. However, this is very unlikely because internal EU issues are likely to dominate the agenda. Moreover, Poland’s presidency comes at a time when the ruling Polish party, Civic Platform, will be preparing for parliamentary elections and will need to find success stories. It is now the time to work on the 2014-2020 EU budget, save the Eurozone and seek ways to assist North Africa. This means that the EU may not have enough capacities and opportunities to address issues in the Eastern Neighbourhood. This region and, above all, Ukraine can only attract attention through its own efforts.

As defined by Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry the priorities of Poland's presidency of the Council of the EU are as follows:

  • European integration as a source of economic growth (further developingthe internal market, improving conditions for small and medium enterprises and formulating a new EU budget)
  • A secure Europe (strengthening the EU’s external energy policy, strengthening military and civilian EU capabilitiesand border security)
  • A Europe benefiting from openness (signing an accession treaty with Croatia; progress in accession negotiations with Icelandand Turkey; support for democratic transformation in Southern Neighborhood countries and stepping up cooperation with the EU’s Eastern neighbours).

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