The European Union Council Presidency and National Parliamentary Elections – Poland on the Brink of a Double Challenge - European Integration

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Wolfgang Templin
Copyright: Tomasz Kawka

This year Poland will not be able to look forward to a long, relaxing summer vacation. Starting on 1 July the country will take on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, an office which it is approaching with great ambition. So far other new Member States of the EU have failed to convince: during the Czech Presidency there was a government crisis and a major political bust-up whereas Hungary is currently in the process of dismantling its democracy. Poland has set itself ambitious goals, determined to present a different image. After a phase of isolating itself from Europe under the government and presidency of Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and subsequent cumbersome corrections to this course by Donald Tusk’s government, Poland wants its Western and Eastern neighbours to experience the country as a constructive and active partner in shaping policy. The summit of the resuscitated Polish-German-French “Weimar triangle” on 20 May in Bromberg/Bydgoszcz and the German-Russian-Polish summit in Kaliningrad immediately thereafter were supposed to provide proof of this renewed purpose. The German-Russian summit held in Kaliningrad in 2006 excluded Poland, despite its decisive influence in this region especially, awakening the old trauma of a German-Russian agreement behind Polish backs.

The emphases Poland has selected for its Council Presidency are the further development of the Eastern Partnership, questions of national and European energy security and the upcoming re-weighting of the EU budget. Moreover, the issues of the aid packages required for the weaker European candidates and the dynamics of developments in the Arab world are likely to determine the agenda.

Poland intends to accomplish the feat to prevent that the attention for Europe’s southern flank and the stronger support required for this region will coincide with neglect for the Eastern dimension and the programmes of the Eastern Partnership. Both sides should be joined in a “democratic agenda” that lets Poland and other partners retain their important role in the Eastern region. The coming months will show whether this feat can be pulled off, for the markedly heterogeneous countries participating in the Eastern Partnership are drifting ever further apart. Currently Moldavia is making the best impression as a reformer, while Ukraine under President Yanukovych speaks of Europe, but in practice is stagnating and falling ever further back behind the standards of liberty it had once achieved. Europe’s last dictator Lukashenka is on the brink of bankrupting the country and, despite pressure and sanctions, unwilling to desist from his course of repression. In late September a summit of the Eastern Partnership in Warsaw will have to scrutinise this situation and may decide to set a new course.

In terms of energy policy, Poland is entering dangerous territory. The government has reversed the haltingly initiated support for developing renewable energy sources in favour of a strategy that relies, once more, on nuclear energy. Unmoved by the Japanese reactor catastrophe and the voices of Polish experts who characterise this strategy as uneconomical and irresponsible, locations for nuclear power plants are being selected and tenders prepared for operating companies around the world. The latest lifebelt are deposits of shale gas, which, according to estimates by American exploration teams, are among the largest in all of Europe. Gigantic numbers are being circulated, promising Poland energy autonomy and magical profits. Here, too, the government has turned a deaf ear to all national and international voices that point to the massive environmental hazards accompanying the extraction of shale gas and the insecurity of prognoses offered to date.

Serious reports document that Poland certainly does have the possibility of achieving a much higher share of renewable energy sources in the medium term and should do without nuclear energy. At this time the course appears to be heading in the other direction, as the political opportunities and instruments to prepare a turning point in energy policy pass unrealised.

Poland will host many international conferences and coordination meetings during the coming months and in the midst of all this, presumably in late October, parliamentary elections will take place. Tusk’s administration hopes to pass muster in dealing with the double burden of proving Poland’s maturity as a democracy and as a member of Europe but it faces a much less stable political situation domestically than it has optimistically declared.

Poland’s place in history

After the airplane crash in Smolensk, shock and mourning suffused the entire nation, heavily influencing the character of the presidential elections it made necessary in July 2010. Hopes for a normalisation of political life thereafter have been disappointed. For the party edged out in the presidential election by a narrow margin, nationalist-conservative “Law and Justice” (PIS), and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Smolensk and the death of Jaroslaw’s twin brother President Lech Kaczynski set the scene for a fanatic battle of views and power. In their interpretation it was not a tragic accident that took the lives of the president and over ninety other members of the country’s political, military and intellectual leadership, but an attack. Although all research and inquiries by the investigative commission have confirmed that the crash was an accident, the PIS and “specialists” and journalists associated with the party planted a whole series of horror stories: artificial fog on the airfield, a bomb hidden in the aircraft, purposely incorrect information about the landing. The Russian secret services were supposed to have been behind the attack, working with the authorization or even support of Tusk’s government; other fantastic accounts, of course, entail German involvement. The Russian side is indeed withholding important information, but probably only in the interest of covering up the chaos and sloppiness at the military airport in Smolensk. This continues to feed all kinds of conspiracy theories. Whatever Jaroslaw Kaczynski really believes – insiders judge him to be a cool calculator – he uses this mood to drive his own clientele into irreconcilable conflict with the government camp. For at least twenty percent of Poles, estimated to represent the hard core of the PIS, Lech Kaczynski was not the victim of a tragic accident, but fell in battle for a Poland that would like nothing better than to obliterate the current government. A Poland that exists as a Catholic island in the sea of Western decadence and adheres to traditional values that other countries have let slide; they believe that its rejection of homosexuality and other “degenerations” will grant the country a unique place in history. Membership in the European Union is accepted by this camp as a necessary evil as long as it offers advantages for the country and only if Poland retains all possible veto rights. Relations with the countries next door are also dictated by the national interest in the narrow sense, with any partnership extending beyond calculated interests barricaded by negative historical experience. The first anniversary of the air disaster in Smolensk was transformed into a signal for PIS supporters to dispute the very legitimacy of the elected president Bronislaw Komorowski and the government of Donald Tusk, to revile them as traitors to the nation and as accomplices to foreign powers. Not until their leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski returns to power will Poland take the special place in Europe to which it is entitled to.

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Born in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949, Wolfgang Templin studied philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin. From 1970 to 1983 he was a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). As a result of his contacts to opposition groups, among others Polish, and critics of the communist regime from both GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany he abandoned Marxism and left the SED. Because of his commitment to democratic movements, he was deprived of continuing his academic career. Wolfgang Templin became one of the leaders of the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights as a member of which he took part in the East German Round Table Talks. From 1994 to 1996 he was a researcher at the Berlin Wall Museum. In 1996 he became a co-founder of the Federal Foundation for the Reconciliation of the SED Dictatorship. Wolfgang Templin is a publicist, concerned mainly with the history of the GDR, the former Eastern Bloc and the German reunification and an associate of many institutions of citizen education. Since July 2010 he has been director of the Warsaw Office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. In September 2010 he was awarded the Medal of Gratitude from the European Solidarity Centre which was presented to him by the Polish president Bronisław Komorowski.