“Poland is the natural bridge between East and West.” The words of Professor Norman Davies, who probably has a better understanding than most. And thus to the 5th Eastern Partnership summit held in Brussels, a meeting at which heads of state and government from EU member states and six Eastern partner countries discussed future cooperation, attended by Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, who, while if not exactly pontifex maximus, was urging bridge building rather than burning or raising.
Speaking to journalists before the start of the summit on Friday, she said that European Union should “move from declarations to concrete steps” in its efforts to forge closer ties with six neighbours to the east, each formerly part of the Soviet Union. “The fact that some decisions have been made about visas, business cooperation and infrastructure is precisely what Poland wants to see done” in the EU’s relations with Eastern Partnership nations, Szydło said. She added that this “should be aimed at ordinary people, people who are waiting for this cooperation to produce tangible results in their everyday lives.” It is perhaps interesting to note, en passant, that when the EU does something Poland wants that is good, but when the EU wants Poland to so something it may not be.
Be that as it may, the Eastern Partnership, which is an initiative launched in 2009 by Poland and Sweden to forge closer political and economic ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – is clearly worthwhile. The summit did adopt a declaration which mentioned the “European aspirations” of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova but did not offer them a concrete promise of future EU membership.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski had said in October that the European Union should maintain an “open-door” policy towards these countries and that Poland was interested in ensuring that the Eastern Partnership is kept “high on the EU agenda.” In April, the foreign ministers of the Visegrad Group countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) voiced “strong support” for the Eastern Partnership, which they said was key to stability and economic growth in Eastern Europe.
And a day earlier, more bridge building of a sort in Paris where the prime minister had met French President Emmanuel Macron. She said that she was in a favour of seeking compromise on issues that have divided the two countries. “We are in a position to find such compromises, solutions that will help in bilateral cooperation, but also on key issues on the EU agenda,” Szydło said. She added that there were differences between Poland and France over Macron’s push for rules to pay workers “posted” abroad at the same wages as local workers, something which Poland considers discriminates unfairly against its companies.
Szydło told reporters in Paris: “I declare my full commitment and willingness to cooperate in further work on the mobility package, as part of which decisions will be made on applying rules on posted workers in the road transport sector.” “Without France and without Poland, the reform of the EU in the context of its further development will fail and we must work together in this regard,” she added.
Anything which improves Polish French relations is to be welcomed. Macron has been critical of the Polish government’s policies which he said in an interview in August “undermine the rule of law, earning the retort from Szydło that Macron “should mind his own country’s business” after he had accused Poland of isolating itself within the European Union. Szydło also said that Poland was democratic and “pro-EU”, and that it was determined to defend important European Union values, including the free market.
Of course, bridge building and maintenance is a constant process, and the prime minister can expect a letter from European Parliament President Antonio Tajani. He said on Monday that he would be asking her to ensure the security of MEPs following a demonstration on Saturday in Katowice, during which, nationalists “hung” the pictures of MEPs who backed a recent European Parliament warning to Warsaw amid EU concerns that the Polish government has eroded the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The government has consistently denied that is has undermined the rule of law, and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Monday that prosecutors would investigate the mock hanging. Police are also analysing video footage of the incident.
But perhaps the most important rule of good bridge building is to have a rather more constructive attitude to those who would cross than that of the bridge keeper encountered by the three Billy Goats Gruff in the eponymous fairy tale. A bridge users seek to avoid very soon loses its utility.