Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

Oh, the magic of democracy! Three European election results have lifted spirits in Brussels: Poland’s parliamentary vote of October 2007, the Serbian presidential ballot of February 3, and the first round of Cyprus’s presidential election last Sunday.

In each case, the winners stood for better relations with the European Union and a co-operative approach to solving European diplomatic problems. The losers were prickly, obstructive nationalists and the opposite of everything the EU likes to think it stands for.Whether these three results will be enough to wipe out the painful memory of the Dutch and French referendums of 2005 that killed off the EU’s experiment in constitution-building remains to be seen. But for many in Brussels, the message from Poland, Serbia and Cyprus is that democracy not only works, but strengthens the EU and the cause of European integration.

In other words, don’t be afraid of the voters – they can be trusted, in the end, to get it right. In Poland, the October election produced a whopping defeat for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the prime minister who had achieved the reckless feat of simultaneously irritating Germany and Russia, Poland’s far more powerful neighbours. The winner was Donald Tusk and his pro-European, pro-business Civic Platform party.

In Serbia, the pro-European Boris Tadic scored a victory over the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic that was narrow but just enough to let the EU claim that Serb voters had chosen a European path over the road of darkness.

Most intriguing of all was Sunday’s result in Cyprus. Read more

Tony Barber

As someone with twin brothers of my own, not to mention a few memories of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the organised crime twins who once terrorised London’s East End, I had mixed feelings about Poland’s Kaczynski twins, Lech and Jaroslaw, right from the start.

But now that Jaroslaw has suffered a crushing defeat in last Sunday’s Polish general election and must give up the premiership, a job he held for just 15 months, only the most heartless of bloggers would crow at his misfortune. Read more