The Belchatow power station in central Poland, one of the largest coal-burning plants in the world
While Brussels winds down for the summer and preoccupies itself with finding new commissioners, there will be some very busy people left working on a climate policy conundrum that needs to be solved by autumn. We’ll be hearing quite a bit about it, so here at the Brussels Blog we’ve decided to give it a name: The Polish Puzzle.
By October, the EU needs to agree a target for reducing greenhouse gases by 2030. This is one of the most critical numbers for the determining the course of European industry over the next 15 years, so it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The commission has proposed a cut of 40 per cent from 1990 levels.
Poland, which derives about 85 per cent of its energy from coal, does not like this target one bit. The alternative – switching to cleaner gas – could make it more vulnerable to imports from Russia, which would be anathema in the current geopolitical environment. Unless one side gives, a climate deal by October could prove elusive. Read more
Juncker, left, heads Eurogroup of 17 euro finance ministers. Rostowski, right, the Ecofin of all 27.
UPDATE 2: The Polish presidency has just made the official announcement. They say the cancellation allows heads of government to decide the things finance ministers were originally going to tackle. Despite negative market reaction to the news, several EU diplomats insist this is a diplomatic miscue by the Poles rather than a sign of things to come.
UPDATE: European diplomat confirms meeting of 27 EU finance ministers has been cancelled.
It’s getting uncomfortably close to crunch time for eurozone leaders, with just over 24 hours left before the summit-to-end-all-summits. But will they actually be able to agree on the big euro rescue plan? A letter sent last night by Jacek Rostowski, the Polish finance minister, makes it seem doubtful.
Since Poland currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, Rostowski is charged with convening a meeting of all 27 EU finance ministers tomorrow ahead of the big summit to lay the groundwork for a final agreement.
But officials tell Brussels Blog the so-called “Ecofin” council meeting is now likely off, and in a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who chairs the group of 17 eurozone finance ministers, Rostowski makes it appear the cancellation is due to a failure to agree on outstanding issues. Read more
A Polish priest who was murdered in 1984 by secret policemen working for the then ruling communist authorities was beatified last weekend by the Vatican, a step that puts him on course for eventual sainthood. The news meant a lot to me because, although I’m not Catholic, I came to know the priest well when I lived and worked in Warsaw as a young reporter in the 1980s.
His name was Jerzy Popieluszko, and he was famous throughout Poland for the anti-communist ”masses for the homeland” that he used to hold at his church, St Stanislaw Kostka, in the Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz. No Sunday evening was complete without a visit to the church to hear the singing of patriotic hymns and the voice of Popieluszko denouncing the latest injustices of the communist regime. Thousands upon thousands of Poles used to attend these masses, filling the streets all around the church. I and other Western reporters used to slip into the vestry to make sure we could hear every word of his sermons.
When I wrote stories about Popieluszko for my employers, the Reuters news agency, the editors would sometimes ask me to file a note for English-speaking readers giving guidance on how to pronounce his name. I came up with something like ” YEAH-zhy Pop-yeah-WHOOSH-koh”. Read more
There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group. This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions. “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. Read more
If you search for information about Garwolin on the internet, you will find that it is a simple but attractive little town in eastern Poland, about 50km east of Warsaw. Yet 25 years ago, when I lived in Poland, Garwolin was the scene of a nasty confrontation between the forces of communist secularism and Roman Catholicism that has echoes in a landmark judgement last week by the European Court of Human Rights.
The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian state school classrooms unlawfully restricted the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs. The seven judges contended that the presence of crucifixes could be “disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists”. Read more
It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue. This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989. By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage. But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.
The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs. It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column. Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped. Read more
With Czech President Vaclav Klaus the chief remaining obstacle to final ratification of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, there has been a fair amount of loose talk about how the Czech Republic could – or should – be punished if Klaus refuses to sign it. On the one hand, supporters of the treaty say it is intolerable that the EU’s eight-year effort at redesigning its institutions should be sabotaged at the finishing post. If Klaus carries on his delaying tactics much longer, they warn, the Czechs should be denied a seat in the next European Commission.
On the other hand, opponents of the Lisbon treaty are painting the same scenario for quite different reasons. Just you watch, they say. The EU will reveal itself as an intolerant, anti-democratic machine, whipping the Czechs merely because they have the temerity to resist the imposition of a treaty they fear undermines their sovereignty. Read more
Predictably, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war provoked a few rhetorical skirmishes this week between Russia, Poland and Poland’s western allies. It reminded me of an unusual evening that I spent in 1989 in Waldkirchen, a small town in southern Germany near the Czech border, on the 50th anniversary of the war.
I was the guest of a German friend who in her youth, when I was a young boy, had lived as an au pair with my family in the UK. She had spent months walking me to school, taking me swimming, reading me stories and fixing meals for me. As we grew up, we stayed in touch, and now I was staying the night with her and her husband in Waldkirchen. Read more
If it were not funny, it would be tragic. The UK Conservative party’s decision to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion. The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.
On Tuesday the Tories relinquished the leadership of their new “anti-federalist” faction, the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to Michal Tomasz Kaminski, a Polish politician. They felt obliged to do so after Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, refused to respect a deal in which Kaminski had been promised one of the parliament’s prestigious vice-presidency posts. Read more
There are two ways of looking at the imminent appointment of Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, as the next president of the European Parliament. The first way is to applaud Europe’s politicians for doing the right thing and giving one of the European Union’s top jobs to a man from one of the 10 former communist countries in central and eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004-2007. This is the highest honour yet accorded to a public figure from one of the EU’s new member-states. Poles are justifiably proud.
The second way, however, is to be honest and recognise that the job of parliament president is about the lowest-ranking position someone could be given without its looking like an insult. Buzek, who belongs to the legislature’s main centre-right group, won’t even hold the job for the assembly’s full five-year term: under a deal with the socialists, he will step down after two and a half years and hand over the reins to a socialist. The fact is that, by giving this post to Buzek, older and bigger member-states in western Europe are making sure that they will get all the really big jobs when they come up for grabs later this year. Read more
Mikolaj Dowgielewicz is truly a new Pole. Not yet even 37 years old, he is a minister (for European Union affairs) in Poland’s centre-right government, speaks fluent English and French, was educated partly in the UK, and has spent more of his life in an independent democratic Poland than in a Soviet-controlled communist Poland. When I was listening to him speak at a think-tank breakfast in Brussels this morning, it struck me with force that he would have been just a small boy when I first visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk in the summer of 1980 and witnessed the emergence of the free trade union Solidarity.
Now, like other new Poles, Dowgielewicz talks breezily about Poland’s growing weight in the EU, which it joined five years ago, and its prospects for adopting the euro as early as 2012. Poland doesn’t want or need the eurozone’s entry rules to be bent, he says. “We’re not proposing any amendments to the entry criteria. Not that we think they make absolute sense, but it’s not feasible. You’d have to change the EU treaties. We think the criteria strengthen the eurozone’s credibility. It will have to be down to the merits of each individual country.” Read more
Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers of the European Parliament elections?
Top of the winners’ list are surely Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Merkel’s Christian Democrats destroyed her Social Democrat coalition partners at the polls, and Sarkozy’s UMP party brushed aside the opposition French socialists. Merkel and Sarkozy will feel vindicated in their approach to the global economic crisis, particularly as regards the need to introduce tougher financial regulation (and to lecture central banks from time to time). Read more
The closer the European Parliament elections, the sneakier the stratagems of British centre-right politicians and activists in Brussels.
As David Cameron made clear on May 18 when he launched the election campaign of his opposition Conservative party, the Tories are poised to leave the mainstream European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group soon after the vote. They plan to set up a new centre-right group in the EU legislature that would be strongly opposed to more EU political and economic integration. Read more
Among the various headaches keeping European Union leaders awake at night is the prospect of a thumping Conservative victory in the UK’s next general election, which must be held by June 2010. The fear is that the new Tory government would be so anti-EU that it would make the 1979-1997 governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major look like Jacques Delors’s European Commission in its heyday.
The nightmare inched one step closer on Wednesday when the Conservatives confirmed their intention of leaving the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s main centre-right political group. This is a club with members from all over the 27-nation bloc. It is the largest group in the parliament, with about 37 per cent of the seats, and it will probably retain that position after June’s European Parliament elections. Read more
At long last, the message is getting across that, as far as the financial crisis is concerned, it makes no sense to view the ex-communist countries of central and eastern Europe as one homogenous bloc. European Union policymakers, both in Brussels and at national level, have been trying to make this point for some months. Only now, perhaps, is it really sinking home.
For example, a report by Moody’s credit ratings agency on Tuesday drew a clear distinction between various countries in the region. Some, such as Hungary, rashly allowed a huge expansion in credit in recent years, much in the form of foreign currency-denominated mortgage loans. Others, such as the Czech Republic, did not. The first group is more vulnerable, even if much will ultimately depend on the willingness of western European banks to continue supplying funds to the regional banks they own. Read more
When I lived in Poland in the mid-1980s, I was once given a one-zloty coin for Christmas. This was no ordinary one-zloty coin, however. It was stamped on one side with an image of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, the birthplace of the Solidarity independent trade union. Poland’s Communist authorities had suppressed Solidarity under martial law in December 1981. Underground Solidarity activists used to take away the coins, stamp them with the shipyard’s image and then put them back into circulation as a way of reminding Poles that the movement had not disappeared altogether.
Today Poland’s government is keen to switch from the zloty to the euro. Like other governments in the region, it sees early eurozone entry as a way of protecting its economy against the world financial crisis. Poland envies Slovenia and Slovakia, which qualified for eurozone membership ahead of other new European Union member-states. They are now reaping the rewards of belonging to a large and – whatever the tensions generated by the financial crisis – broadly stable single currency bloc. Read more
Almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, it is sobering to see how military and security policy decisions taken in Washington and Moscow can still shape the fate of Europe. Take the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, which sets out to reform the EU’s institutional arrangements.
The treaty, rejected by Irish voters last June but still viewed in official EU circles as an absolute necessity, is perhaps the last foreign policy issue on the mind of either Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. But the US president and Russian prime minister are making overtures to each other on Europe-based missile and anti-missile shield systems that may damage the treaty’s prospects of ever coming into effect. Most EU leaders would see that as a great loss: they fear Europe won’t be able to project its influence effectively on the world stage unless the Lisbon reforms are in force. Read more
I am in snowy Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and a city that reminds me of a communist-era joke that I first heard in Poland in 1980.
A Frenchman visits Warsaw, so the story went, and is so shocked by the bleak buildings and empty shops that he thinks he must have arrived in Moscow by mistake. Meanwhile, a Russian visits Warsaw and is so pleasantly surprised by the colour and the range of goods on sale that he thinks he must have arrived in Paris. Read more
Surprises galore at the European Union summit that opened in Brussels on Wednesday. The heroes of the hour are turning out to be Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy. Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi are still recovering from poor performances in the run-up to the summit. And as for the leaders of Poland … the least said, the better.
First, Brown. Eyes popped out when Brown showed up in Brussels, hours before the summit started, for a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and an appearance before the media. Could this really be the same UK prime minister who, less than a year ago, deliberately arrived late for an EU summit so that he wouldn’t be seen signing the bloc’s Lisbon treaty at the same time as the other leaders? Read more
The demographic forecasts contained in a new report from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, are worth a good look. Everyone knows the EU’s rapidly ageing population and shrinking workforce are making its task of promoting prosperity and job growth ever more difficult. But we don’t often see the hard numbers behind the general trend.
What I found most striking were the predictions for the big EU-6. In terms of their current populations, these are Germany (82.2m people), France (61.9m), the UK (61.3m), Italy (59.5m), Spain (45.3m) and Poland (38.1m). Read more