Poland

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 >>