Voices from Out of the Polish Woods

Our old/new friend Christophe Châtelot, correspondent in Poland for Le Monde, is back at work, with an interesting new article (pointed out to me by EuroSavant habitué Chris K.), Two Hundred Polish Personalities Are Ready to Sacrifice for Europe. The brief piece concentrates on the 23-year-old figure of Slawomir Sierakowski, editor-in-chief of the quarterly review Krytyka polityczna, or “Political Critique.” Mr. Sierakowski is against the “Nice or Death” approach to the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on the EU Constitution adopted by, according to him, “the [Polish] political and media establishment.” (For those coming in late, you can find €S background on “Nice or Death” here.) He says such an approach is likely to result in “a strong Poland within a weak EU,” a result he rejects. For good measure, he also considers unnecessary any explicit reference to the Christian faith in the Constitution’s preamble – not because he considers Christian values unimportant, but because he wants a Europe founded upon the widest base of values, and mentioning Christianity specifically could repel others or make them feel excluded.

To put these sentiments into action, Sierakowski drew up and publicized “an open letter to European opinion” (reproduced and discussed here, but in Polish; maybe I’ll translate it later, it’s not that long). He managed to gain the support (i.e. signatures) of around 200 other Polish intellectuals. And for many inside and outside of Poland, mainly those who earnestly hope that a final-form European Constitution can be agreed upon at the IGC, and who suspect Poland’s approach to that conference to be a mite unyielding and hard-core, this is a welcome gesture.

But will it have any true reverberations on the government, so that the Polish negotiating position is actually modified in some way? Or is just the combined voice of 200 Polish intellectuals crying out of the wilderness, so that “Nice or Death” is, so to speak, still alive and well? I went looking for an answer in the Polish on-line press.

Overall, things don’t look good for Mr. Sierakowski and his band of 200. Not when the current article on the IGC in the top nationwide daily Rzeczpospolita is We Won’t Give Up Nice for Two Commissioners. The report comes out of Luxembourg, where the latest round of EU-wide meetings in connection with the IGC took place on Monday, this time a meeting of the 25 foreign ministers (so that it looks like the presumed “near future EU members” – Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey – were excluded this time, probably to try to streamline proceedings at least a little). This was intended as a preparatory meeting for the full EU summit due to happen later this week (Thursday and Friday) at Brussels.

It seems that a new proposal (pushed by Germany and France) is circulating with the following logic: OK, we’re not getting anywhere with the attempts to keep Commission membership low – namely, to 15 active, voting members – to try to keep it a lean, efficient organization. If we’re going to allow the number of Commissioners to balloon, they why not remember that, under the status quo, the EU’s big countries each get a second commissioner to reflect their “bigness,” which has to do not only with population but with amount of money annually paid into EU coffers? Let’s give these big countries their second Commissioner back under any new system – and Poland, you could be a “big member” too. Now, why don’t you just be cooperative and drop your insistence on the Nice Treaty voting arrangements?

But Polish foreign minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz is having none of this, as he made clear to Rzeczpospolita. “For us it is not a matter at this stage of the discussion of [gaining] full agreement with our position. It’s a matter of having people understand that we are insisting on the Nice arrangements not only to have something to later trade for something else, such as two Commissioners.” Yep, that’s how he put it: “not only” (“nie tylko“); go figure.

Things are a little more encouraging over in Gazeta Wyborcza – although, again, no mention there of Sierakowski’s “open letter to European opinion.” Instead, the paper has published brief extracts of a debate – entitled Should We Die for Nice (no question-mark) – over whether it is really logical or desirable for Poland to be so intransigent about the Nice voting arrangements. Opinion is split; Adam Michnik and his Op-Ed editor Marek Beylin are hard-liners (and Adam Michnik, in addition to being current editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, was one of the top, legendary dissidents during Communist times): The voting arrangements established at Nice “arose from the conviction that, in the process of its expansion, the EU’s current nations should share power with the new members. The proposed allotment of votes under the European Constitution returns France and Germany to a dominating position with the Union. What is worse, it makes possible the marginalization of the EU’s new members.” On the other hand, according to former Warsaw mayor (“prezydent“) Marcin Swiecicki, “Despite general opinion, the Constitution gives us not less, but more voting power (although minimally more) in the EU. There’s no foundation for considering a departure in 2009 from the system established at Nice as any sort of national betrayal.” (Indeed, the Constitution provides for departing the Nice system entirely only in that year.) And joining the debate is also Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He’s not Polish, but he is at least a star figure for those into contemporary European history (and/or with long memories); he was a famous German student radical leader in the 1968 disturbances in Germany, although now he’s a member of the European parliament for the French Green Party. Naturally, he’s shocked at “Nice or Death”; his precise quoted words, in fact, include a “fevered request” to Poland that “the European Constitution not be buried in Warsaw.”

A related Gazeta Wyborcza article brings into this debate the very president of the Constitutional Convention, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on the Annulment of the Spanish Advantage in the Euro-Constitution). There will be no prizes awarded for guessing what he thinks; the article is basically written around his contention that, as for the advantage that Spain (and Poland, too, but it’s not mentioned here) gained out of Nice, “we are trying [with the draft Constitution] to change that rule and ensure that, when decisions are made in the future all [EU] residents are equal, that no one is in a privileged situation.” Giscard made these comments on French radio last week; in response, Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar noted that from Giscard’s words one could deduce that “one of the aims of the [Constitutional] Convention was to annul the advantage Spain gained at Nice” – i.e. why were we Spaniards singled out for such treatment?

Funnily, although Aznar’s comments made him sound sore about the whole affair, Gazeta Wyborcza this week featured a report (derived from accounts from the Spanish newspaper El Pais) that Spain is in fact ready to make the concession of giving up those privileged voting arrangement that it (and Poland) gained at Nice. But it’s not a total concession; what Spain wants is that the Constitution’s provision that measures can be passed by the European Council only by a vote of nations representing at least 60% of the EU’s population be changed so that figure is instead 66%. These percentages are not just chosen randomly, as the article explains, or because “66” sounds good. At 60% it would take three of the EU’s biggest four countries (Germany, France, the UK, Italy) to block any measure; at 66% it would take two of those plus either Poland or Spain. In other words, under a 66% regime, Poland or Spain have potential heightened importance when it comes to EU Council vote-gathering; if they want something blocked, then they just have to convince two of the four big countries; and if one of the big countries wants something blocked, it might well be interested in approaching either Poland or Spain in its attempt to form a blocking minority.

(By the way, I was willing to drag the old Spanish out of the closet and take a look at what El Pais actually said. But it turns out that El Pais is one of those “revenue maximizing” newspapers (another one is the Times of London) that keeps only its most-current articles briefly available for free on its website, before stashing them behind an access-wall that you have to pay to get through. Sorry, I’m not up for that.)

Also writing in Gazeta Wyborcza, Robert Soltyk comments on the Spanish move, recommending it to his Polish readers. It’s a clever compromise, he says, that gets the IGC away from the “Nice or Death” attitudes that have been poisoning negotiations, while still making Poland and Spain “players” at the EU table – and while still giving Germany and France, in particular, the greater influence on what is passed at the Council that they seek. Of course, it also makes it easier to block measures at the Council, and thus controverts the “making-more-streamlined” justification for the whole Constitutional process – but oh well. To embellish his point, Soltyk uses what I assume is a Polish proverb: I wilk syty, i owca cala, or “The wolf is satiated, but the sheep is also whole.”

The remaining problem, he writes, is that none of the sides is yet ready to introduce this compromise formally into the negotiations – so wedded is everybody still into their die-hard positions. Remember, it is assumed that the Polish public is into “Nice or Death” and doesn’t expect to see retreat or compromise of any kind. Still, Soltyk opines, if they only had heard of and understood this compromise proposal, they would find it satisfactory. The diplomats should be able to find some way to get it pushed through. However, keep in mind that, at this point, the Spanish compromise may be no more than a rumor. It’s just a report from El Pais, only, that has been seized upon by those Polish newspapers paying attention to these things (basically Gazeta Wyborcza) as a possible solution to the “Nice or Death” deadlock. It’s possible that nothing might come out of it.

In any case, it provides us with an answer to our investigation. The best we can offer you, Mr. Sierakowski, is a compromise proposal as precisely and cynically calculated as anything else to come out of country-to-country EU negotiations. With the plea from you and your 200 co-signers to stop the cynicism and just consider the enormous importance of the EU Constitution for the future of the European continent, you’re being very idealistic – but the politicians currently negotiating in your name in Rome, Luxembourg, and Brussels are hardly of a mind to listen.

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