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Poland can school Britain in EU policy-making

London assumes its partners will view the maintenance of the EU’s geographical integrity as an end in itself and that the threat of Brexit is justification enough for a rollback in supranational competencies, while Warsaw adopts a very different stance, reports Roderick Parkes

The United Kingdom has always championed European Union enlargement, most notably by driving through the 2004 eastern expansion that brought Poland into the bloc. But London has been motivated by a mistaken assumption. Britain believes that the EU’s geographic ‘widening’ will hinder its political ‘deepening’ – with wider membership turning the union into a loose conglomeration of nation states.

The reality is very different. Enlargement has been the catalyst for ever greater centralisation as governments have struggled to keep joint decision-making viable. Moreover, it has not prevented those hungry for closer cooperation from pushing ahead. The eurozone was founded by a sub-group of EU members.

All this has damaged the level of understanding between European governments, taking the bloc even further from the British ideal of political community. Out are the informal understandings between governments. In are hard-and-fast rules. It has all left the UK reliant on central instances like the European Commission and European courts to resolve disputes.

The basic mistake in British thinking is clear. London believes that other governments pursue deeper European integration as an end in itself; the EU treaties demand ‘ever closer union’. If that were so, it would indeed make sense to use enlargement in a similarly dogmatic manner. But in reality, other governments view deepening and widening pragmatically, resisting it when it deviates from their strategic interests. It is the UK, which has been behaving dogmatically.

So is Britain, driven to the brink of exit, rethinking its basic assumptions? Not really. London has simply inverted its old mantra: ‘widening versus deepening’ is now ‘thinning versus shrinking’. Just as the UK once viewed the EU’s geographical expansion as a means to hinder political integration, it now views a rollback in integration as the means to reduce the likelihood of exit. A repatriation of competencies, says London, is the way to keep disgruntled members on board.

Needless to say, this repeats past mistakes. London assumes its partners will view the maintenance of the EU’s geographical integrity as an end in itself and that the threat of Brexit is justification enough for a rollback in supranational competencies. As a result, it has presented no rationale to explain why a looser union with the UK on board would be more in their interest than a centralised one without.

Again, London is wide of the mark. Apart from anything else, other governments know that an effort to reform the EU’s competencies undertaken without a guiding rationale will simply become a snatch-and-grab exercise by the largest states. At this point, therefore, the UK might usefully look to Poland. Like Britain, Warsaw is also suffering from the dilemmas of widening and deepening.

Under the terms of its EU accession, it is officially obliged to join the single currency. But that goal is becoming more distant as the rules of eurozone membership deepen. Moreover, its position in the EU is becoming increasingly uncomfortable, as eurozone states put in place rules and financial arrangements for their benefit only.

Unlike London, Warsaw has therefore begun creating rationales to persuade other states to include it. This was clear during the recent negotiations on the EU budget, when Warsaw presented budgetary transfers to the EU’s catch-up economies as a hard-headed investment rather than a charitable duty. In a report to be published later this year, the Polish Institute of International Affairs will detail some of this thinking.

One block of ideas we highlight might be termed ‘acquisitive Europe’. It would see the EU pursuing a much more resource-hungry strategy of geographic expansion. This would entail a more acquisitive attitude towards non-member states like Turkey, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland or Ukraine on the part of the EU-28. But it would also see the Euro-17 trying to exploit Poland’s economic health, perhaps by offering it simpler terms of accession.

Another is ‘laboratory Europe’. This set of ideas presents the union as a generator of regional solutions to global problems: the international community, like the EU, is struggling to integrate emerging powers. By solving local examples of political exclusion – eurozone-only decision-making – and disputes arising from disparities of economic development – budget, climate and energy policy – Europe can increase its internal cohesion and its international clout.

In all the blocks of ideas being discussed in the corridors of Warsaw, processes of widening and deepening are therefore being combined in ways that would secure long-term, shared goals. These ideas are not without their internal tensions and contradictions. They also reflect a desire to join the core of EU policy-making, which hardly applies to the UK. Nevertheless, it is an approach that London might usefully adopt for itself.

Roderick Parkes is head of the Europe programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs think-tank in Warsaw. He tweets from @RoderickParkes

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