Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Guardian of Unity: Poland’s EU Presidency

Reflecting on the state of Poland today, I find myself thinking back to the country's Communist past. Having been forced during the Cold War to spend several decades on a very different path than their Western European counterparts, Poland and the other Eastern European nations missed out on European (and Trans-Atlantic) integration for nearly half a century. This pent-up desire to “get back to the West,” as Deputy Chief of Mission Maciej Pisarski put it, only became realizable with the fall of Communism. This return has been far from easy, but having joined NATO in 1997 and the EU in 2004, Poland has certainly had great success in overcoming the legacy of totalitarianism.

So it is surely a point of pride that since July 1st, Poland has held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This position does not carry with it much direct policy-making powers—it's not even remotely near a “presidency” in the sense of the US presidency—but it does give Poland the ability to set the EU's agenda. Perhaps even more important though is the symbolism of the position—that Poland, after several centuries divided amongst its neighbors, a brief interwar interlude of independence that was soon demolished by invasions and re-invasions by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and then the aforementioned period of Soviet-backed totalitarianism—is now not only a secure and important member of the EU, but also, at least symbolically, the Union's leader.

I think this sense of wanting to firmly secure for Poland the place in the West it had for so long been denied explains at least to some degree its policymakers' aversion towards the prospect of any sort of permanent divisions within the European Union. The idea of a “two-speed Europe” has repeatedly been floated in response to the euro-crisis, with the aim of those countries using the euro moving further in the direction of a deeper union-within-the-union. But while it is natural that eurozone members will coordinate more closely on some matters, Deputy Chief of Mission Pisarski noted that Poland doesn't want to be left out of the decision-making process. This is especially the case because Poland is obliged to eventually adopt the euro itself. As Poland's European Affairs Minister, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, argued a few months ago, “It is logical that countries who have a destiny to join the Euro meet.”

But I believe the opposition to a two-speed Europe goes deeper than these policy concerns. Having at long last regained their freedom and secured an equal footing with their Western European neighbors, I imagine that many Poles, and other Eastern Europeans, are quite reluctant to see the reemergence of any sort of dividing lines. Thus, as crucial decisions about the future of the euro are made over the next weeks, I fully expect Poland will finish the remainder of its Council Presidency continuing to act, as Deputy Chief of Mission Pisarski put it, as a “guardian of unity” within an EU in turmoil.

Michael Slana is a political science graduate student in the Civic Leadership Program at the University of Illinois. He completed his bachelor’s degree with a major in political science and a minor in history. During his freshman, sophomore, and junior years he interned for Champaign County State Senator Michael Frerichs, with responsibilities including constituent service and correspondence. In spring 2009 Michael studied in Austria as a participant in the Vienna Diplomatic Program, where he developed a strong interest in European and Transatlantic politics. During his junior year Michael began contributing to research on the impact of natural disasters on societal stability through a class at the Cline Center, and has continued this work first as an hourly research employee and later as part of a graduate assistantship. To fulfill his Civic Leadership Program residency requirement, Michael completed an internship in spring 2011 with the US State Department’s Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium.


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