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Europe Listened

Published on , , Sofia

In the end of 2010 Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski wrote a special article for the forecast edition of The Economist "The World in 2011", in which he asked: "Are you listening, Europe?". The context of the question was an old concept of Sikorski's, yet from the time before he became a foreign minister, that Europe had to unite its defence powers in order to have a stronger voice on global stage. What he wrote for The Economist was: "Indeed, given the defence cuts which the United States must eventually make, we should be prepared for the day when Europe has to take care of its own security - at least on its own periphery. We need greater specialisation and greater military coordination between European states: 2011 is an excellent year to begin".

It has to be noted that this text was written a little before the start of the Arab Spring that put to a test precisely the security of Europe's periphery. But almost a year later the Polish top diplomat said in a designated speech in Berlin on November 28: "The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland would be the collapse of the eurozone".

An unforgettable presidency

With the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009 a serious change has been introduced in EU's governance. Until that moment the Union was ruled by, aside from the executive (the Commission), but also by the Council of the EU, which on its part was ruled under the principle of rotation presidency. Each member state takes the helm of the Union for 6 months and leads it in a direction it deems important both for its own interests and those of the EU. With the Lisbon Treaty the structure got complicated and weakened the rotation presidency after introducing the permanent position of a president of the European Council, currently being held by the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy. The 6-month rotations turned into a formality and often raised the question - who needs them. Especially painful this was felt when it came from an external partner of the EU.

Such was, for instance, the reaction of President Obama's administration in 2010 when the American president cancelled a planned regular summit EU-US, which had to take place in the spring in Madrid, under the auspices of the Spanish Presidency. The explanation for the cancellation was that the White House did not know whom exactly it had to discuss the important issues with. The blow was huge, because this was a repetition of the famous remark of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, stated in times when the European community itself did not even suspect that it might have a common currency not to mention a common telephone number. Because it was the phone number that Mr Kissinger lacked, as he knew whom to call in the Kremlin, London or Tokyo, but he had no idea which is the number of the European Community.

Call Warsaw

After the last 6 months of 2011 I personally would call Warsaw. In the very beginning of the Polish Presidency, which started on 1 July 2011 it was evident that Poland would make a change. And indeed, the country from which the division in Europe started in the early 20th century, animated the rotation presidency and drew breath into it. In the end of the presidency from all corners of Europe could be heard exclamations "this is the strongest presidency", "Bravo, Poland", "we have never had a better presidency", etc. It is indeed very difficult to make a non-biased analysis of the Polish Presidency without using superlatives. Why?

Because Poland took the helm in a very difficult for the Union moment - when the debt crisis in the euro area not just deepened but started spreading with the force, speed and effectiveness of a Spanish flu. All this was unfolding in an environment of despondent economic activity and severe perspectives for global economic recession. The pressure over Europe to undertake measures, aimed not just at saving the single currency the euro but to protect the fragile global economic stability in times of unprecedented economic interconnectedness, was growing by the day.

Moreover, Poland had to keep the European Union intact, the eurozone too. And this, as it seems, was the biggest test, the moment when Poland made the difference. And all this happened without anyone even noticing that there were parliamentary elections in the country, which left PM Donald Tusk in power for a second term.

The three achievements of the Polish Presidency

Of course, everything that happened during the second semester of 2011 was important but there were three things, which for me were extremely important because they will have long-term effect on the Union. It was not just during the Polish Presidency but thanks to the compromise it offered an agreement was achieved on EU's economic governance, also known as the Six Pack, agreed in the beginning of 2011 with slight changes to the Treaty of the EU and envisaging strengthening of peer review, the control of the Commission and introducing tight fiscal discipline and economic coordination.

The big ambition of the package was to be endorsed before the summer vacation but this was impossible because of disputes between the European Parliament and the Council. The disputable elements were related to the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact with a focus on indebtedness and the introduction of severe sanctions, automatically, meaning they are first introduced and then with a qualified majority they can be abolished - the so called reversed majority.

The idea of these changes was to avoid the recent practise with the application of the Stability and Growth Pact - to evade the rules. Another disputable element was macroeconomic surveillance. Reaching a compromise with the Council was one of the greatest successes of the Presidency and the reformed economic governance is now in force as of mid-December. euinside followed in much detail the evolution of the package and held two discussions on the issues in Brussels and Sofia in the summer and another two in Brussels and Sofia in the autumn.

The second significant achievement of Poland was the holding of a postponed already once summit between the EU and the countries from the Eastern Partnership - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. From the perspective of the summit itself it could hardly be defined as successful, although it gathered together all the leaders with the exception of Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. Beside the fact that for Poland the region is of special significance, it is also important as a prelude in the relations of the EU with another strategically important partner - Russia. This is why the holding of the summit and the messages it sent were of significance. The biggest stake at the event was Ukraine, which was expected to make its choice - with the EU or with Russia.

Alas, this did not happen but, again, thanks to the efforts of the Presidency, the planned regular summit EU-Ukraine took place, in spite of the risks that it might be cancelled. And not only that it took place but it ended with an odd compromise - technically the negotiations on the Association Agreement were concluded but the condition remains the initialisation process to start if Ukraine fulfils certain conditions. So the wolf proved to be satiated and the lamb remained hole. Instead, the excellent performers in the group - Georgia and Moldova - started negotiations on a trade agreement.

The third biggest achievement of Poland was the beginning of the negotiations process on the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) of the EU for the period 2014-2020. The Commission made the proposal in the very beginning of the Presidency and, on its turn, it initiated very unseeingly well organised discussions of the proposal in all the possible formats - from parliamentary to national and inter-parliamentary, in the Council, with non-governmental organisations and the civil sector, with interested parties. The negotiations on the 7-year budget in the EU are always difficult and continuous. But not this time. Because of the danger the EU to fall apart, there was a great risk the topic to fall out from the agenda.

But Poland did the impossible to put it on its right place, although not first on the list. And this is important because, no matter how the events will unfold in the EU, the budget for the next 7 years is a leap forward, an investment in the future and has long-term consequences for everyone.

Although we cannot ascribe to Poland the merits for the conclusion of the accession negotiations with Croatia, I think that it was symbolic that during the Polish Presidency Croatia signed its accession treaty. Zagreb will become the 28th member of the EU on 1 July 2013. Symbolic because Poland indeed invested a lot of efforts, supported by the entire society in the country, to keep the EU intact and not divided into two or more speeds, the voice of the country was really listened to and the unity for now is a fact. Not only that the EU did not lose not even one member of its (the biggest threat was for Greece), but it started 2012 with a new member.

As Jacek Rostowski, the charming Polish finance minister, said during his last hearing in the economic committee in the European Parliament - the best thing last year was that the EU was ruled in that tough period by a non-euro country. Good, because a country, although outside the euro, has significant economic relations with the monetary union and in the same time it can approach euro area matters unbiased and objectively. This is what awaits Denmark, which has taken the helm on January 1st. The challenge is big because Poland for its 6 months managed to do something very important - it moved up to the next integrational level. We can no longer call it either new or old member state because this division is already irrelevant. Poland is a country from a new generation. The big question is whether the EU will succeed in reaching that level under the Danish Presidency in the first half of the year and the Cypriot Presidency in the second.

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