Poland is warned not to block EU deal

Posted in Other | 20-Jun-07 | Author: Stephen Castle and Dan Bilefsk| Source: International Herald Tribune

Flags of the European Union member countries are seen at the entrance of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

BRUSSELS: José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, warned Poland on Tuesday to expect a backlash from other European countries if it blocks a deal later this week designed to make the EU more effective.

In a series of hard-hitting comments, Barroso also criticized British attempts to water down the treaty designed to replace the European constitution, which was rejected by the French and the Dutch in 2005. Britain is wary about the proposal to create an EU foreign minister and would prefer that foreign policy remain firmly rooted in national capitals rather than in Brussels.

Barroso's harshest criticism was reserved for countries that joined the EU in 2004 - including Poland - which have sometimes appeared to be reluctant members of the 27-member bloc. It was, Barroso argued, "in their interest to show that their membership of the EU is not making the life of the Union more difficult."

The comments are the closest indication yet by a top EU official that if Poland obstructs a deal at the EU summit meeting that starts Thursday it could find itself isolated when the bloc discusses its finances in 2008 and the biggest contributors to the budget decide how much aid to pump into poorer member states.

Germany, which is the biggest net contributor to the EU's nearly €100 billion, or $134 billion, budget, holds the rotating presidency of the EU and is determined to clinch a deal at the meeting of EU leaders this week. Poland and Germany have clashed over a series of issues, including Berlin's attempts to foster closer energy ties with Moscow. EU diplomats say Berlin could use its financial muscle to punish Poland if Warsaw blocks a deal, a move that would plunge the Union into crisis.

Germany would be the main beneficiary of a proposed change to the voting system that is at the center of a fierce rift with Warsaw.

The treaty would align voting rights more closely to population size, reducing Warsaw's power in relation to Berlin. Poland has proposed an alternative system based on the square root of population size.

Historical forces have caused tensions between Germany and Poland even at the best of times. "Germans are not very good at dealing with the Poles," one senior EU official said, requesting anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. "Even skillful and subtle Germans tend to lose it with the Poles."

One senior EU official said European officials are already bracing themselves for a "three-shirt" summit meeting - meaning that participants will need to pack several of changes of clothing to allow for a three-day gathering - which is now predicted to run into the early hours of Saturday.

In a thinly veiled reference to Poland, Barroso argued that it was "not in the interests of new member states" to be seen as hard-liners. People close to Barroso say he is irritated that after backing Poland in its disputes with Russia, he is getting nothing in return.

"All member states have the right to their objections," Barroso said in Strasbourg, "but please avoid appearing as blocking. This is not intelligent. This is not in their interests. It may be useful for national consumption for some time but not in the medium and long term."

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland said Tuesday that his country was only seeking equal treatment, Reuters reported.

Poland's position "will be defended with full ruthlessness," he said at a news conference in Warsaw. "There is no Plan B."

Barroso also dismissed British suggestions that a new EU foreign policy chief work outside the EU's executive, the European Commission. London would like this solution because it would underline the fact that foreign policy remains the sole preserve of national governments.

But Barroso said that this would cause a "significant problem" with the "institutional balance" of the overall agreement. It would, he argued, strengthen the inter-governmental arm of the EU, the Council of Ministers, which is already due to get a full-time president, at the expense of the European Commission.

He was, however, more positive about suggestions that London will gain an opt-out to measures that would scrap national vetoes on justice and home affairs decisions.

As the diplomatic tempo picked up ahead of the summit meeting, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, held a teleconference call with Tony Blair, the British prime minister. Blair's longtime rival and successor in waiting, Gordon Brown, also took part in a three-way conversation, though from a separate location to that of Blair.

In recent months, Poland, the largest of the former communist countries that joined the EU in 2004, has proved to be among the EU's most recalcitrant members. It is blocking an EU partnership agreement with Russia because Moscow refuses to lift an embargo on Polish meat exports. Warsaw's skepticism about the euro and the country's religious conservatism, which prompted it to lobby for a reference to Christianity in the now-defunct constitution, also appear out of step with some other EU members.