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Poland, Soon To Assume Leading EU Post, Pledges Greater Attention To Eastern Europe

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (left) confers with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt at EU headquarters in Brussels. (file photo)
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (left) confers with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt at EU headquarters in Brussels. (file photo)
Weeks before Poland takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, the government in Warsaw is vowing to seize the opportunity to push ahead on EU association talks with Ukraine and Moldova, to forge a closer European-Russian strategic partnership, and to support European democracy promotion in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

The EU Council Presidency, which changes hands among EU member countries every six months, gives the nation that holds it considerable power to set the agenda on the council, which sets broad strategy for the EU as a whole. Poland assumes the post on July 1. Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski explained that Poland is eager to use its new bully pulpit to deepen EU links with its eastern neighbors.

One EU aspirant, Croatia, hopes to conclude accession negotiations during Poland's presidency, Sikorski said. But he warned that two other aspirants from points farther east, namely Ukraine and Moldova, still have plenty of work ahead of them.

"We hope to sign the accession treaty of Croatia because the job in the Balkans is not done yet," Sikorski said. "And as regards further enlargement, I think there needs to be a lot of homework done on behalf of those countries, so that when the mood in Europe changes in favor of enlargement they will be readier than they are today."

But he insisted that Poland will press ahead with talks on the establishment of "deep and comprehensive free-trade zones" with Ukraine and Moldova, "which would integrate those countries economically with the EU." He also pledged intensified cooperation with Eastern European partners on issues such as corruption and energy efficiency. He said that the European action program for such assistance to Eastern Europe will soon exceed $1 billion -- "which is real money, I think."

A vehicle at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Dorohusk (file photo)

Sikorski acknowledged that enthusiasm for additional expansion has waned in Brussels thanks to Europe's financial travails. Poland, he said, intended to counter these sentiments by presenting its own raft of suggestions for restarting growth -- including measures to complete the single market in services and Internet trade. Such reforms, the Poles estimate, could boost European GDP by 4 percent this decade.

"That hopefully would lift the mood and make us more generous towards our neighbors," Sikorski said.

The foreign minister said that Poland would also put its weight behind efforts to negotiate an overarching Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia. At the same time, the EU will continue parallel initiatives to improve conditions for Russian citizens living in territory close to EU member states -- such as visa-free travel for inhabitants of the exclave of Kaliningrad.

"Now I also think we should be helpful to Russia where they ask for things that benefit both their citizens and the EU," Sikorski said. "We think that Europeanizing Russia is in Europe's interest as well, and those kinds of initiatives will have Poland's support during its presidency."

Poland's term as council president will also include greater attention to reforming energy networks with an eye to boosting Europe's energy security -- a response to the tensions caused in recent years by interruptions in the supply of Russian natural gas. Sikorski said that the Poles would also like to see more effort devoted to the creation of a common European defense and security capacity -- a need underlined by the recent crisis in Libya.

"And so Europe should be able to act in its immediate vicinity so that the debacle of the Balkans may never happen again," Sikorski said. "And so I see Libya as an argument in favor of, for example, establishing a European operational headquarters. Europe has in recent years conducted over 20 operations, but each time we have to scramble for a way to command them."

Sikorski underlined that the United States also had a clear interest in seeing Europe adopt more responsibility for its own defense.

"Let me also say that I think that the visit by President [Barack] Obama in the last few days in Poland reassures us that Poland's priority in strengthening Europe's security and defense policy is in line with what the United States would like Europe to do," Sikorski said. "The U.S. needs a Europe that is more capable militarily so that it can be a more effective partner for the U.S."

During his recent visit to Warsaw, where he attended a summit with leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, the U.S. president also suggested that Poland, as a country that has managed the transition from communism with such obvious success, can offer a vital example to the new democracies of the Middle East and North Africa.

Sikorski said that Poland planned to capitalize on that suggestion during its term as the EU Council president -- and that this was a point that resonated when he experienced the recent Libyan rebellion firsthand during a visit to the rebel capital of Benghazi.

"I visited Benghazi and I talked to the provisional council there, and it was revealing for me to realize that what they will face in Libya if and when they take power in Tripoli is pretty much similar to what we faced 22 years ago," Sikorski said.

As a way of sharing relevant experience in the transition to democracy, Sikorski said that Poland would lobby its European partners to participate in the creation of a European endowment for democracy "based on the American model that served us so well when we were fighting communism."

The new endowment, he said, would serve as "the expression of our collective prejudice in favor of democracy in our neighborhood."

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