Polish minister makes waves as Coveney clings to backstop lifeline

Europe Letter: Poland and US deny calling Middle East meeting to build anti-Iran alliance

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz:  had suggested   a five-year time limit on the backstop  as a compromise. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz: had suggested a five-year time limit on the backstop as a compromise. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

Simon Coveney was very polite about his counterpart’s intervention in the Brexit debate. And then dismissed it, confident it wasn’t going to run.

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz had suggested that perhaps a five-year time limit on the backstop would be a compromise that could bring together the Irish and a House of Commons majority.

Coveney said he appreciated that the intervention was meant as helpful, whether it was seen as such or not.

“I can understand the Polish minister,” he said. The Poles have the largest foreign population in the UK. “More than even the Irish,” Coveney said, but he had “made very clear that a time limit on an insurance mechanism – which is what the backstop is – means that it is not a backstop at all”.

In this regard the EU27 are completely united, he insisted. And that will probably be that.

But Polish diplomacy has been making other waves that have been disconcerting fellow EU member states.

An invitation went out from Warsaw recently for a surprise “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” to be co-hosted by Poland and the US on February 13th and 14th.

All welcome. Well, not quite all.

Iran was not on the invitation list and Czaputowicz and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had let it be known that the meeting, despite its anodyne title, was about building support for an anti-Iran alliance. Quickly denied with a flurry of reassurances to Tehran.

In the UN on Monday the US representative said the conference was really a “global brainstorming session” with an agenda that includes cyber security, humanitarian aid to Syria and Yemen, and extremism.

Representative

But the Poles’ European allies have not warmed to the idea of the conference. And although most will send a representative – “after all, who wants to be seen as dissing the idea of peace in the Middle East?” was how one diplomat put it – but “ministerial”, not likely.

The EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, has said she has a calendar clash. And officials expect that Coveney will also find that he is unavailable, like most EU foreign ministers. The Russians have said that they will not attend .

The EU may have serious issues with Iran, but regards it as an essential partner in the search for peace in the region

The Polish-US initiative is a strange one. The EU, like most of the world community, is in serious dispute with the US over its unilateral repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, with Washington threatening sanctions against countries that continue to trade with Tehran.

We can expect shortly the announcement of the establishment of a “special purpose vehicle”, probably based in France, to assist in routing international payments from Iran away from the US-controlled dollar system.

Establishing the SPV has been difficult, as most member states who might be sympathetic fear US secondary sanctions.

The EU may have serious issues with Iran, not least on its ballistic missile programme and role regionally “promoting terrorism”, but regards it as an essential partner in the search for peace in the region.

It also has considerable difficulties with the US over its approach to the Israel/Palestinian problem. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, and its cuts to Palestinian humanitarian funding, are seen as deeply out of step with the international consensus on the way forward.

Curry favour

Suspicions of the Polish conference were inevitable given that Washington seems to have initiated the idea, which Poland is said to have taken up to curry favour with the US administration.

Warsaw, preoccupied by the Russian military threat, is not unsympathetic to the US repudiation of the JCPOA and appears to see the initiative as an opportunity to press its Nato ally to establish a military base in Poland – named, it has been suggested , “Camp Trump ”.

The US president is said to be considering the offer.

The US administration will not be unhappy to see cracks emerge in EU solidarity over Iran, but there have been suggestions that Pompeo may well cancel the conference at the last minute if the attendance looks unlikely to meet its ambitions. Polish diplomacy would not look impressive.

Meanwhile, the release of Trump’s much-awaited Middle East peace plan has been further delayed, according to press reports.

Trump set a four-month deadline in September for his long-awaited plan to be made public, but his timeframe has now shifted as Israel heads to early elections in April.

Certainly no prospect it will be unveiled in Warsaw.

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