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Petulant Poles

DW staff (df)
June 18, 2007

EU member states have agreed to drop symbolic elements of the new treaty, but a meeting of German and Polish leaders over the weekend failed to resolve an impasse over the bloc's voting structure.

Is the Poles' love affair with the EU coming to an end?Image: dpa

When Chancellor Angela Merkel convenes an EU summit on a new slimmed-down treaty towards the end of Germany's six-month rotating presidency on Thursday and Friday, the 27 member states are expected to be split into three broad camps. Merkel wants to establish a road map for the conference to adopt a new EU treaty.

First, there are 22 countries, which are in favor of the defunct constitution that was ratified already by 18 members. The next group are euro-skeptic countries such as Britain and the Czech Republic, which would have likely voted against the old document, but never got around to casting their ballots after it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

And then there are the Poles, in a camp of their own. At issue is the EU’s reformed voting structure in which each member state carries a certain weight based on their population base. The Poles argue that the current double voting structure gives disproportionate power to large EU countries, such as Germany, and that Merkel is acting in her country’s national interest, instead of speaking for the entire bloc.

EU summit could collapse due to Polish position

Merkel, who met with Polish President Lech Kaczynski this past weekend, said she could not rule out the possibility that the Brussels summit could collapse because of the Polish position.

Lech Kaczynski in Deutschland
Talks over weekend between Poland's Kaczynski(left) and Merkel stalledImage: AP

"I can only say that it was a very open discussion, but in this matter the positions have not changed," said Merkel.

Merkel rejected Poland's demand that talks on voting procedures be reopened, saying it was better to leave the agreement, which was reached after long and tough negotiations between all member states, in place.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said he backed Merkel's position in the stand-off. "If this summit fails, then it certainly will not be the fault of Germany leading the negotiations," he said, alluding to the impasse created by the Polish position against the rest of the EU.

"The double-majority system as defined within the constitutional treaty, we cannot accept that," Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga told reporters after EU foreign ministers discussed negotiations for a new treaty reforming the bloc's institutions.

Voting formula based on square root of population

Diplomats said Fotyga's tough 30-minute speech dashed hopes that Warsaw was starting to soften its stance after the meeting between Merkel and Kaczynski.

Under the current reform, most EU decisions would require the support of 55 percent of member states representing 65 percent of the population. Poland, which has less than half of Germany's population, has proposed an alternative based on a mathematical square root of each country's population. Warsaw is cross that even a discussion of their alternative is off the table on Merkel's agenda at the summit.

EU Verfassung Volksabstimmung in Frankreich Plakat
French and Dutch "no" votes in 2005 plunged the EU into crisisImage: AP

The Poles, who are overwhelmingly Catholic, insist that they are willing to compromise. For instance, they are willing to drop references to a Christian God enshrined in the treaty, which was another bone of contention, but that accepting the "double majority" system of voting, which they threaten to veto, would be a going a step too far.

Poles divided on government position

Kaczynski explained that Warsaw focused so much on the issue of voting rights, because the voting system would assume a new significance in the reformed European Union.

Polish opposition politicians on the other hand appeared divided on the government’s position.

While the liberal opposition seems to be leaning toward the government line that countries like Poland should be given more voting power within the EU, the democratic left alliance pointed out the flaws of what it regards as Kaczynski’s intransigence.

Left-wing opposition leader Wojciech Olejniczak believes that long-term strategic alliances with major European Union partners should matter more than the square root voting system the Polish government is pushing for.

"Looking for a compromise solution is a better way of building a country's position than putting a spanner in the works," he told DW-RADIO.

According to other critics, Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who is Prime Minister, are reluctant to back down on the issue of voting rights because of their suspicion of Germany’s motives.

"The Kaczynski brothers focus too much on the difficult history between Poland and Germany, which seems to cloud their vision of Europe," said European affairs analyst Andrzej Krajewski of the Batory Foundation.

Britain and Netherlands have special demands too

Besides Poland, Britain and the Netherlands have also set out their own demands. Britain insists that a Charter of Fundamental Rights must not be legally binding and wants an opt-out on judicial and criminal matters, a position that is further complicated by the change in leadership from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Gordon Brown after the summit on June 27.

Großbritannien Tony Blair gibt Rücktritt bekannt Gordon Brown
Change of leadership in Britain from Blair (left) to Brown complicates mattersImage: AP

The Dutch are seeking stronger powers for national parliaments to send back EU draft legislation. France, which voted against the constitution, and Spain, which had already approved it in a referendum, made a joint appeal for a quick, simplified treaty.

Agreement on a revised treaty at the summit could lift the EU out of its torpor and boost Merkel’s standing in Europe. But another failure could plunge the bloc into a deeper crisis and institutional gridlock. It could mean a two-speed Europe in which some countries would advance ahead anyway, leaving the naysayers behind.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said some of the most objectionable differences, which are largely symbolic, had been overcome, such as calling the new document an amended treaty as opposed to "constitution." Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and the EU flag with gold stars against a royal blue background for example, would not be formally enscrined in the new treaty.