Countdown to the Brussels Summit I: Irritation at Poland

Last week, while we here at EuroSavant were obsessing over the previous Sunday’s draw for the European Football Championship next summer, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller and several of his entourage were victims of a helicopter crash while returning to Warsaw from a visit to Silesia (the southwest part of Poland). No one was killed, but Miller himself sustained serious injuries to his back, and Polish newspapers all ran a photograph recently showing him lying in a hospital bed, all bandaged up although otherwise looking as hardy and self-composed as usual, with President Aleksander Kwasniewski sitting alongside.

According to Miller, his injuries won’t prevent him from attending the climactic EU summit in Brussels over the draft Constitution coming up this weekend, even if he has to show up there in a body-cast. In a recent analysis entitled The Poles Are Europe’s New Nay-Sayers, the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende points out that what is likely to be waiting for him there, at the least, are marathon negotiating sessions stretching long into the night “which can force even healthy politicians to their knees.” And that even means “healthy politicians” whose member-states have mainly stayed on the sidelines during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), remaining above the acrimony. For the main protagonist in the process that the Poles have become, on the other hand, the coming days can be expected to bring not only long nights but also intense pressure.


According to this analysis by Ole Bang Nielsen, Poland is now considered the number-one obstacle to agreement being reached next weekend in Brussels over a new Constitutional Treaty. The main problem is of course the unresolved issue of voting arrangements in the European Council. Yes, both Poland and Spain have been standing firm together against a large part of their fellow member-states in insisting that voting arrangements brought in with the Nice Treaty of 2000 not be superseded by a simpler “double majority” scheme proposed in the Constitution (although they’ve recently won some support for their stand, see my earlier treatment here). But ultimately everyone expects Spain to give way, at least at the last minute, Nielsen writes, because Spain (and specifically Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar) has given way like this at earlier EU summits to enable agreements to be reached.

With Poland, no one can be quite so sure. The Poles themselves have certainly put up a brave face that they don’t intend to give in, no matter what. And they might very well be serious; Prime Minister Miller’s SLD (leftist, post-Communist) government is seriously weak and unpopular, enjoying only minority support in the Sejm (the Polish parliament) and suffering from a number of corruption scandals. It could very well be true that that government has taken a much harder line in the IGC negotiations than it would have otherwise preferred in order to try to win back political support – which means that failing to get its way over the issue of the Nice voting arrangements (which has received such extensive coverage in the Polish press) could constitute a political blow which could tip it over the edge.


An aside here to take advantage of Berlingske Tidende’s own side-column, on the right-hand side, explaining the two competing voting arrangements in greater detail. Here we are reminded of what the arrangement is now – and until 2009, no matter what happens – for measures to be passed in the European Council by “qualified majority.” (We reviewed the proposed “double majority” arrangement in this €S entry.) That means that a measure must gain 70% of the total number of votes parcelled out to member-states at the Council. These votes are parceled out in proportions which have rather little to do with actual relative population – the most commonly-cited objection is that Poland and Spain get 27 such votes, while Germany, France, the UK, and Italy each get 29, and for one thing the populations of Poland and Spain each are half or just-over-half that of Germany’s. (Germany’s population is rather more than that of France, the UK, and Italy, for that matter – I guess that’s just another “can of worms” that nobody wants to open up right now.)

But the more-important matter is just how easy it should be to get something passed in the Council. That is hardest when the vote has to be unanimous, which is indeed the case still for many areas of policy, but not all. Perhaps you’d think that, if something doesn’t have to be decided unanimously, then let it pass if just over half of the member states (so 13 in the soon-to-be 25-member Union) agree, or if states representing at least half of the Union’s population agree. But that won’t happen, because then it is simply too easy to let a measure pass which perhaps a significant bloc of EU member-states (if not a “blocking majority”) would oppose; and, so it seems, EU member-states are still highly-sensitive about being forced in the future into something in the European Council that they really don’t want. Instead, the tug-of-war takes place within that part of the voting-spectrum between simple majority (easiest to pass, easiest to be trapped into something you don’t want) at the one end and required unanimity (hardest to pass, never have to accept something you don’t want) at the other. With this frame-of-reference in mind, the draft Constitution’s “double majority” proposal puts things on the “easier to pass side” – which many want, at least theoretically, since it enables the Council better to actually get things done – while the Nice system which Poland and Spain are trying to save is definitely more on the “harder to pass” side.


Back to that upcoming Brussels summit: If I may translate the Berlingske Tidende’s report into terms any WWF fans can easily understand (that’s “World Wrestling Federation”), it is shaping up to be a “Polish-German smackdown.” Poland leads the tag-team challenging to keep Nice; Germany, with the Union’s largest population, greatest economic power, and most rippling muscles, is leading the camp trying to keep the draft Constitution as unchanged as possible – a camp which otherwise includes the rest of the original “EEC 6” of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. And this is not just some knee-jerk conservative impulse on Germany’s part, either; rather, German leaders have welcomed the new arrangements proposed in the draft Constitution, particularly the “double majority” voting, as a long-awaited step to grant Germany the power in the making of EU decisions that one would think her size (and the fact that a full one-third of the EU’s budget comes from the German Treasury) would entitle her to. “Nice is a bad treaty,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently declared, “an insufficient [“utilstrækkelig“] treaty,” and made it clear that not replacing the Nice voting arrangements would be unacceptable to Germany.

But Poland shows no sign of acceding to that, and annoyance at her behavior only increases. As one EU official is quoted in the article, “With their mixture of moral arrogance and political inferiority-complex, the Poles have lost all sympathy within a short period of time.” Poland has even threatened legal action before the European Court of Justice if Nice is not retained – and, remember, Poland is not yet a member-state! Nielsen goes on to list other irritants: the Poles supposedly are too quick to refer back in a bid for sympathy to the Nazi cruelties inflicted on them during World War II, and the Yalta settlement that condemned them to forty years’ dominance by the Soviet Union; the Poles were much too quick and vocal in their support for the American position in the big hoo-haa of last spring over going to war against Iraq; and, remember, Poland has consistently brought up the rear in one European Commission report after the other gauging future member-states’ progress in adapting their national legislation and procedures to EU norms.

How bad could things get? While citing Fischer on the unacceptability to Germany of no change to the Nice treaty, Nielsen also mentions various hints the German foreign minister has let drop about what could happen if the attempt to agree on a new Constitution turns into disaster: Germany, France, and a few other like-minded member-states could very well band together to form a “European hard-core” to cooperate and proceed on their own, something that could ultimately threaten a break-up of the EU. Most observers dismiss this as Fischer merely talking tough before the hard negotiations begin next weekend; but French officials have been heard uttering similar talk.


In this context, a quick look is merited at an article in another Danish newspaper, Politiken, entitled The Door is Half-Open for the Poles. (To an optimist, that is; to a pessimist it’s “half-closed.” Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the straightforward Danish expression – på klem – doesn’t lend itself to meditations over this sort of duality.) What this is about, despite the reference in the title to Poles, is the measures the Danish parliament (the Folketing) has recently taken to enable Danes and willing citizens from all of the ten soon-to-be EU member-states to take advantage of the latter’s eligibility to work in Denmark as of next May – but not to take advantage of that too much, to the point that – Heaven forbid! – there starts to be downward pressure on the wages native Danes receive.

New EU citizens will certainly be allowed into Denmark to look for work – but they had better be prepared to support themselves until they find it, since they won’t be eligible for any Danish social benefits. When they find it, they’ll get a work-permit, but it will have some special conditions: full-time work only, and no permission to switch to another job, if they find that their wages are too low, before the allowed time of the permit has expired. What’s more, they needn’t expect any child benefits, nor any of the government-mandated maternity/paternity leave that native Danes get. And the authorities still reserve the right to restrict the entry into Denmark of these nationals further, if it finds that, despite its best efforts, so many are coming and they’re working so cheaply that they are taking too many jobs away from those native Danes.

In announcing the new measures, Danish Employment Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen is quoted by the article’s author Jakob Nielsen (don’t be surprised: just about every third Dane’s family name is Nielsen), “Now Danish wage-earners can sleep deeply and soundly. EU expansion will not lead to sweatshops [“løntrykkeri“] in the Danish employment market . . . . And we can all be glad that we have put a fence around the Danish welfare-state.” Now, remember that the Danes are at least behaving better than the Germans and Austrians, who have insisted on a five- or seven-year “transition period” before Eastern Europeans can take full advantage of the free movement of labor that the EU was supposed to mean and come and seek work there (and the Netherlands is contemplating similar measures). Still, taking that and the Polish-German smackdown all into account: Whatever happened to the joyous reunion of brother-and-sister European countries under the umbrella of the EU that was supposed to happen after the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and 1990? I guess there is too much serious money and power involved here for such sentiment.

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