Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland: Warsaw Is Poles Apart On EU Constitution Issue

Poland is threatening to spoil the party at the upcoming European Union summit in December. The issue is the EU's draft constitution. The draft significantly diminishes Poland's voting rights in the Council of Ministers as set out in the 2000 Treaty of Nice. The Poles are angry, and the issue has cast a cloud over the constitution and pending EU expansion. The EU's Italian presidency is now seeking a compromise, but it's not yet clear the Poles are ready to bargain.

Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Poland is threatening to spoil a European Union summit in December by opposing a draft of the EU's proposed constitution.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Truszczinski signaled the country's position this week (on 4 November), saying Poland would like to approve the draft constitution but does not feel obligated to do so "at any price."

The main point of contention concerns voting rights in the Council of Ministers. Under the EU's 2000 Treaty of Nice, Poland was to get 27 votes in the council -- just two fewer than the four largest countries: France, Britain, Italy, and Germany. This, despite the fact that Poland's population is much smaller.

The draft greatly diminishes Poland's influence. It scraps the Nice formula in favor of Qualified Majority Voting, under which most issues before the council would be approved by a simple majority of countries (13 of 25 members), provided the majority represents at least 60 percent of the EU's population. Not surprisingly, the measure is supported by the four largest countries.

Krzysztof Bobinski is the director of Unia-Polska, a pro-EU group based in Warsaw. He tells RFE/RL that Poles strongly oppose the change.

"It's an issue that is constantly in the public domain [in Poland]," he said. "The politicians are talking about it, and people have a feeling that Poland is getting screwed. And they are not quite sure [why] Poland is getting screwed over, but they know that Nice was good for Poland and that now the European Union wants to change it."

Bobinski says that when Poles approved their country's entry into the EU in a referendum in June, they voted on the basis of the Nice treaty and an understanding that Poland's influence on the Council of Ministers would be strong: "We had a referendum here in Poland in June in which one of the most important arguments was that Poland would have a very serious, strong position in decision-making inside the European Union, thanks to the Nice formula. And therefore, when people voted on this, people were actually voting on the Nice formula and not on something that is less attractive to Poland."

The changes to the Nice treaty are part of a larger effort to draft a new constitution led by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The constitution is seen as necessary to ensure the smooth working of the EU once it accepts 10 more members next year.

Poland is not alone in opposing the changes. Spain -- like Poland -- was also given a relatively generous 27 votes in the Council of Ministers by the Nice treaty. It, too, stands to lose disproportionately. But Spain has signaled it might be willing to compromise. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar hinted at this on a visit to Berlin on 4 November.

"There is much agreement between Germany and Spain in many European issues," Aznar said. "There are, however, differences in questions of the constitution. We will remain in discussion about those and [we will] come to a mutual understanding."

Charles Grant, the director of Britain's Centre for European Reform, agrees it's a serious issue in need of resolution but says he's not sure if there is any scope for compromise:

"One possible compromise would be to raise the threshold figure from 60 percent to, say, 66 percent. That would make it more difficult to pass a new law. And it would have the advantage for Spain and Poland of meaning that they could more easily block a measure."

Grant, whose institute has written extensively on the constitution issue, believes the voting procedures called for in the draft constitution represent a big improvement over the Nice formula. He says the Nice rules, while favorable to medium-sized countries like Poland and Spain, were unnecessarily complicated.

"[The draft 'double majority' voting system] has the great merit of simplicity. It's also a very fair system because it combines together one system based on the number of states -- some advantage for small states. The second measure is how many people you have -- so there's some advantage for big states. Everybody thinks it's a pretty good [deal]."

That may not be enough to convince Warsaw.

Bobinski says, in many ways, it comes down to money. Poland is looking to receive massive inputs of EU development aid in the coming years -- and without the necessary clout on the Council of Ministers, it fears it may not get it.

"The Foreign Ministry, certainly, in Poland and the prime minister are convinced that this is a formula that needs to be defended," he said. "Otherwise, Poland will not be able to extract the funds out of the European Union that Poland thinks it is due."

The voting issue is not the only point of contention for Poland. It's also seeking to add a reference in the constitution's preamble to the importance of Christianity in European history. And it's seeking to ensure that any provisions on EU defense are "inclusive" -- that they don't exclude NATO.
  • 16x9 Image

    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.