Paving the way for an "ambitious" agreement on the 2014-2020 budget, energy security and the European Union's Eastern neighbourhood are all key priorities of the Polish EU Presidency during the second half of 2011. The Poles, for their part, have pulled all the stops to ensure that the Union remains committed to redistributive policies at a time of economic austerity.
Poland is set to assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2011. It is the first EU presidency for Poland, which joined the EU in 2004 as the biggest newcomer of the 2004 enlargement wave. Poland is now one of the 'big six' EU countries.
Today's EU is a place of great challenges and opportunities, including the future of energy in the light of climate change and the Fukushima nuclear accident, the planning of the EU's long-term budget, defending the free movement of people within the bloc, and the evolution of Europe's neighbourhood policy against the background of the Arab revolutions and developments in eastern Europe (see 'Issues').
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Significant divisions exist within the EU on these and other issues. Poland's presidency does not mean the country will be able to easily overcome them. The rotating presidency is for the most part a ceremonial role whose duties mainly involve framing the EU's agenda and chairing the various meetings of the EU Council of Ministers.
However, Poland is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its stint as rotating president. Not only will it preside over ministerial meetings, but former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek is the current president of the European Parliament, and the Pole Janusz Lewandowski is the current commissioner for financial programming and budget, a fact that may be significant as Poland pushes for an ambitious EU budget.
Ambition, Europhilia and optimism
So there are significant challenges ahead, but the Poles have made great efforts towards ensuring a successful presidency and have made no secret of their ambition.
Poland recently symbolically opened its impressive new headquarters a few minutes' walk from the European Commission's flagship Berlaymont building, for which it has hired 100 extra staff. It also signed a €1 million contract with leading PR firm Burson-Marsteller to help it manage its presidency's communications efforts.
The flurry of activity led Ewa Sinowiec, head of the European Commission's office in Poland, to say the Poles "are approaching work with a kind of 'Alexey Stakhanov' attitude, in a positive sense". Stakhanov was a Soviet coal miner whom the authorities promoted as a model for his reputedly incredible productivity.
The European Union has entered a phase of some pessimism since the 2005 rejection of the draft constitution in France and the Netherlands, and especially since the financial and economic crisis since 2008. There are worries that growing populism and nationalism in certain member states might even reverse the process of European integration, notably with regard to the Schengen area and the euro zone.
In contrast, Poland's current government and indeed its people are unabashedly Europhile. Polish officials have claimed their presidency will "inject optimism" into EU affairs. They have been strongly supportive of increasing the EU budget, and have defended the 'Community method' against fears that divided national governments will take over decision-making.
An autumn 2010 Eurobarometer found Poles to be second only to Swedes in terms of the country going in the "right" direction, with 46% agreeing with the statement. The same survey also found that Poles are, along with Slovaks, the most favourable towards the European Union, with 78% saying that their country "on balance" benefits from being an EU member (the pan-EU average was then 50%).
This enthusiasm for Europe is partly based on the very real benefits Poland draws from its membership of the EU. In 2009, Poland became the single biggest net recipient of EU funds and millions of Poles have taken advantage of opportunities to find gainful work in the rest of Europe. In spite of fears of the 'Polish plumber', even after the recent lifting of all restrictions on 2004's newcomers to the EU labour market, the results appear largely positive for all sides concerned.
Poland's optimism is also based on its economic success in recent years. European integration has tended to stall in difficult economic times and today's situation resembles in some ways the 'euro-sclerosis' and economic 'stagflation' of the 1970s.
Poland is the only European country to have not suffered from a recession as a result of the global economic crisis. Indeed, the country's economy is currently recording a growth rate of 4.4%. But Poland is not yet among the new EU members that have succeeded in joining the eurozone: Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia.
The Poles have been keen to draw upon the symbols of their past victories to colour their presidency. Polish officials often use the word 'solidarity' in reference to the country's Solidarność trade union movement, which helped bring down communism in the 1980s.
Indeed, the Poles have used 'solidarity' to defend the maintenance of cohesion funds for Europe's regions, they have argued the experience of the 1989 revolutions should inform European policy towards the Arab revolutions, and they have even used Solidarność's iconic flag as inspiration for their presidency's colourful logo.
Similarly, though in a more understated way, the Poles have also been keen to use the legacy of Pope John Paul II. While numerous EU and national leaders attended the late pope's beatification last month, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk cited the "values based on the teachings of John Paul II" in presenting his presidency's priorities.
It will of course take more than good facilities, elite PR experts and symbolism to ensure the EU is able to deal with the challenges it faces. Much will depend on the negotiation abilities of the Poles, the willingness of EU members to compromise and, ultimately, a degree of luck.
Key Polish politicians and officials:
Bronisław Komorowski, president of the Republic of Poland.
Donald Tusk, prime minister of the Republic of Poland.
Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament.
Janusz Lewandowski, European commissioner for financial
programming and budget.
Mikołaj Dowgielewicz, secretary of state for European affairs.
Jan Tombiński, Polish ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union.