Thursday, June 21, 2007

What do you do with a problem like Poland?

by Paweł Świeboda

Behind the scenes, Angela Merkel has striven to get agreement on a mandate for treaty change ahead of this week’s EU summit. She has by now dealt with concerns of most of the key players in the debate – France, the Netherlands and the UK. But Poland, and its objections to a new EU voting system of ‘double majority’ voting, seems immovable.

Warsaw’s ruling Kaczyński brothers are a unique political phenomenon. Some of their thinking comes straight from the 19th century and their rhetoric can be aggressively nationalist. Their negotiating position is rigidly negative, even going against the grain of public opinion in Poland itself. They seem undecided as to whether they want Poland to be a confident big member-state or a claustrophobic one that is stuck in a fortress mentality.

The Kaczyńskis are wrong to oppose the introduction of the double majority voting rules, according to which a measure would pass if it wins the support of 55 percent of the member-states, representing 65 per cent of the EU's population. This system would make the EU more democratic and more transparent. Their alternative voting proposal, based on a formula linked to the square root of member-state populations, is pure political fiction. Only the eurosceptic Czechs support it, and then only tentatively. Poland’s real intention is to delay discussions on the treaty in the hope that the process gets derailed at a later stage.

Do not dismiss the twins’ stance as hopelessly irrational. Votes matter in the EU. While countries almost never formally cast their vote, the allocation of votes represents a balance of power that counts from the very beginning of the law-making process. When an EU presidency tries to strike a deal in the Council, it is well aware whether it carries a qualified majority with it. The double majority system, originally agreed in the constitutional treaty negotiations, is a sensible expression of the EU’s nature as a union of states and citizens. But it does disproportionately favour bigger member-states, and could lead to them dominating almost all EU business. The combined votes of the three bigger member-states, with a smaller companion, can block any legislation and hence control the EU’s agenda.

The Kaczyński brothers are also right to point out that other member-states have asked for and are getting concessions in the treaty debate. So why deny Poland the right to have problems with the current deal that the Germans are presenting? True, the double majority voting system lies at the core of a delicately balanced compromise that took years to negotiate and finalise. And the Poles’ aggressive tactics and almost palpable desire for a stand-off with Germany are hardly conducive to building the alliances they need to achieve their goal. On the other hand, Berlin’s plan to isolate Warsaw and place it under insurmountable pressure will not work. Better to offer Poland a sensible compromise instead.

Poland should first of all accept that the double majority voting system is here to stay. It remains the best available compromise on an extremely sensitive issue for the member-states. To undo it would risk triggering interminable arguments over the institutions, which no country wants and which the EU cannot afford. But the Germans should offer the Poles a way out of their problem. Germany could accept that the EU retains the old Nice rules – which give Poland a particularly good deal – until 2014, for the issues that matter most to Poland. These issues would include talks on reforming the EU’s budget, and funding to develop the EU’s poorest regions. It is true that the overall agreement on the EU budget requires unanimity. But Poland fears losing its bargaining power over the legislative acts which translate the budget agreement into practice, and which are subject to majority vote. The EU has done this kind of deal before. During the negotiation of the Maastricht treaty, the member-states agreed to continue using old voting rules on controversial environmental issues for a transition period.

There are other possible concessions that could be offered to the Poland. The government’s mathematicians have calculated that Poland’s influence on EU votes would increase if the number of countries needed for an agreement was lowered below 55 per cent; or if the population requirement was raised above 65 per cent. Hence an adjustment these thresholds could help. Warsaw could also be compensated with extra seats in the European Parliament – that is an issue on which it was badly treated in the initial deal on the constitutional treaty.

Finally, Germany could offer to restrain its own position in the new voting system by accepting a cap on its population estimate – say at 70 million. This would seal Polish-German reconciliation inside the European Union (and help take some of the sting out of the enlargement debate and the eventual accession of Turkey). After all, it took many years for France to feel comfortable with the notion that Germany would gain a greater voting weight than itself in the Council of Ministers.
Angela Merkel is on the right track in trying to forge an agreement at the Brussels summit. Her leadership has been impressive thus far. But she should not underestimate the dogged determination of Poland’s leaders or make the mistake of thinking that they will fold under enough pressure. They will not.

By Paweł Świeboda, director of DemosEuropa, Warsaw

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