Poland turns to experience in bid for breakthrough on enlargement

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Series Details Vol.7, No.46, 13.12.01, p16
Publication Date 13/12/2001
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Date: 13/12/01

The new Polish administration has shown political acumen in its accession negotiations - both in Brussels and Warsaw, writes Dick Leonard

FEARS that Poland was slipping dangerously behind the other leading candidates for EU membership have noticeably eased over the past couple of months. There is now little reason to doubt that if, as the EU intends, the first batch of countries is admitted by 2004 it will include the largest, and the first to make a decisive break with Soviet Communism, of the East European states.

Indeed, after the Commission's broadly favourable reports published last month, it looks increasingly probable that the 2004 enlargement will be a 'big bang' affair, with no fewer than 10 new member states admitted.

The newly felt optimism is partly due to the election, on 23 September, of a new Polish government, led by Leszek Miller, of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the reformed Communist party.

While having to depend on its coalition partner, the Peasant Party, traditionally lukewarm about the EU, it appears more united and determined than its Solidarity-led predecessor, which despite its earlier achievements had appeared increasingly ramshackle as it neared the end of its term.

A key figure in the new administration is Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, a long-term enthusiast for EU membership, who was briefly Prime Minister in 1996. He has acted swiftly to concentrate the Polish negotiating team, previously spread out among several different ministries and organisations, into the Foreign Ministry, and has put the highly experienced Jan Truszczynski, previously Polish ambassador to the EU, in overall charge.

The first major breakthrough came on 26 October, when agreement was unexpectedly reached on the very tricky environment chapter of the negotiations. Poland had asked for no fewer than 17 transitional periods before implementing various EU laws, but in the end settled for nine, far more than had been granted to any other applicant country.

The Poles then hastened to ease their negotiating stance on a symbolically important issue. At a meeting in Brussels, Cimoszewicz reduced from 18 years to 12 the Polish insistence on a transition period before land purchases would be open to EU citizens. This is a notoriously touchy question in Poland because of fears that large numbers of former German residents of the territories annexed to Poland in 1945 would attempt to buy up their former holdings.

In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that they will: by far the largest number of would-be purchasers are Dutch farmers seeking to farm in eastern Europe because of the acute shortage of agricultural land in their own country. Cimoszewicz's concession led to him facing a no-confidence motion in the Polish Parliament, tabled by the two anti-EU parties, the (strongly Catholic) League of Polish Families and the mainly rural Self Defence Party. He had little difficulty in seeing it off.

The government is, however, acutely aware of the necessity of keeping public opinion on-side, with the promised referendum, which Miller announced last week would be in 2003, very much in mind. Opinion polls, which once showed 80 per cent in favour, have gradually declined, and in mid-summer the pro-Europe vote fell below 50 per cent for the first time. There has since been some recovery, and the most recent poll shows around 55 in favour, 30 against and 15 don't-knows.

In a shrewd move, the government hastened to placate Catholic voters by attempting to enlisting the backing of Pope John-Paul. On 3 December, according to Polish radio, he assured Hanna Suchocha, the new Polish envoy to the Vatican, of his support in principle for his country's EU entry. It is right to aim at placing Poland within the political and economic structures of a united Europe, he said, but this should not happen at the cost of Polish tradition and national identity.

Somewhat less than a whole-hearted endorsement perhaps, but probably enough to forestall any Catholic crusade against membership. The government was further reassured, when the Polish primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp said during a recent visit to Brussels that Poland did not need to fear that it would lose its national identity. By joining the EU we shall merely lose our zloty without losing our identity, he said after meeting Enlargement Commissioner G√ľnter Verheugen.

Negotiations on free movement of labour and capital are still continuing, and the Spanish presidency, opening in January, will see the bargaining moving on to the two crucial chapters of agriculture and regional aid. The process will not be helped by the French presidential and parliamentary elections nor by the Spanish determination to hold on to as much as possible of the cornucopia of EU aid which has done so much to rejuvenate its economy.

The probability must be that Poland will secure far fewer financial gains under either the CAP or the regional aid programme than it expected when it first tabled its application for membership. It would be well advised, however, to settle for what it can get, without attempting to string out the bargaining.

It was the Greek government of Constantine Karamanlis which first drew the conclusion that its negotiating strength would be much greater once it was inside the European Community than when still seeking membership.

It accordingly completed its own membership negotiations in the late 1970s in record quick time, in the expectation that it could secure a better financial deal later` - which it certainly did.

The same logic applies to the Poles who, under the Nice Treaty, will enjoy considerable clout, with the same voting rights as the Spaniards, once they have secured membership.

They would then be able to participate, from the inside, in drawing up the financial perspectives for the years 2007-2012, and would have an excellent chance of recouping over the medium term the financial advantages which might elude them in the first couple of years of membership.

Major feature. Author analyses the new Polish administration's approach to accession negotiations.

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