Financial woes to dominate Polish EU presidency

Fri, Jul 1, 2011, 01:00

The rotating leadership of the EU is a diminished office, writes ARTHUR BEESLEYin Brussels

POLAND ASSUMES the EU’s six-month rotating presidency today, taking over from Hungary as Europe struggles to contain the sovereign debt emergency.

The presidency is the former Soviet bloc country’s first since it joined the union in the 2004 enlargement. With Europe trying to toughen its economic governance rules and reform its budget, the financial crisis will dominate in the coming months.

The rotating presidency is a diminished office, however, since Herman Van Rompuy became permanent president of the European Council last year and Catherine Ashton took charge of EU foreign policy.

Although Poland will chair most EU ministerial councils in the coming months, the country’s use of the zloty means its representatives will not be in the room when euro zone finance ministers confront the debt debacle. With no end in sight to the turmoil, this remains by far the most urgent item on the EU agenda.

Still, the presidency provides a platform for the centrist administration led by prime minister Donald Tusk to boost its international profile and reinforce its domestic credentials ahead of a general election in October.

Mr Tusk hosts EU leaders at a ceremony in Warsaw today to mark the beginning of the presidency.

He comes to the presidency with a reputation for economic competence: Poland avoided recession in the financial crisis.

He is perceived to have improved Poland’s relations with Germany but his European policy is deeply pragmatic. In a reflection of its heavy reliance on coal, Poland recently vetoed moves to adopt a tougher long-term EU target for the reduction of harmful carbon emissions.

Poland wants to use its time in office to strengthen the effort to expand Europe’s single market, with an emphasis on internet-based trade.

According to European diplomats, it will be crucial for the country to make steady progress in difficult talks between member states on the European Commission’s budget proposal for the 2014-2020 period.

It will also fall to the country’s presidency to complete the negotiation with the European Parliament of the final parameters of new economic governance legislation.

Drawn-out talks with MEPs, stalled over the application of reverse qualified-majority voting when penalising errant countries, broke down again yesterday.

The Polish presidency is also likely to see a greater focus on the EU’s engagement with countries in its eastern hinterland, such as Russia, Georgia, Belarus and the Ukraine. Such relations are crucial for Europe’s energy security.

Hungary’s presidency ended yesterday as it began with the country under pressure – this time from US secretary of state Hilary Clinton – to ensure media and other democratic freedoms.

Prime minister Viktor Orban faced a European outcry in January over new media laws, which he later promised to amend. This marred the presidency from the off.

However, certain Hungarian officials are perceived to have done well to contain potential spillover from the Franco-Italian dispute over the Schengen passport-free travel zone.

Its presidency also saw a significant advance in Croatia’s application to join the EU and in legislation on food labelling and patents.

Diplomats said the presidency was more workmanlike than spectacular, with wide variations evident in the effectiveness of ministers and officials.