It isn't surprising that Poland and Lithuania's participation in mediation efforts during Ukraine's political crisis has stuck in the craw of some West European politicians. We have already seen how aggravated older EU members become when newer ones express an independent view on matters of foreign policy, so it was only a matter of time before someone publicly criticized the high-profile role of presidents Alexander Kwasniewski and Valdas Adamkus, who helped the conflicting sides reach a political settlement and bring the country back from the edge of an abyss.
It is not clear what exactly Josep Borrell Fontelles, president of the European Parliament, said about Poland and Lithuania at the Madrid economic forum in December, but it appears that, given the delayed response in the media, officials at the Polish Embassy heard of the criticism and then tossed the idea to some journalists. Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza claimed that Borrell had blasted Poland and Lithuania for acting under U.S. influence while mediating in Kiev and that the EU's envoy, Javier Solana, deserved the credit for negotiating a settlement.
The Jan. 5 report detonated like a time bomb. Poles and Lithuanians, proud of their presidents' diplomatic achievement, reacted defensively, if not angrily, and almost immediately Borrell was compelled to act in order to prevent an ugly war of words. He called Kwasniewski to say that he had been "misinterpreted" and to promise that he would meet with Polish MEPs to provide a thorough explanation. Polish politicians were eventually placated.
Still, it is difficult to see how someone claiming that another country acted under U.S. influence could be misinterpreted. Borrell, a member of PM Jose Zapatero's Social Democratic Party, is likely to have deep reservations about the United States, particularly the current White House administration, and may resent the strong relations that East European countries maintain with it. Whatever the case, he and other Western European leaders need to grasp one irrefutable reality: the EU's new neighbors understand - and therefore trust - countries like Poland and Lithuania more than, say, Spain and Belgium. Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine share a common history, and the former two have helped the latter in its efforts to become integrated in European structures. Borrell's reported suggestion that Poland and Lithuania should not have been involved is utterly wrong. Their presence was far more pertinent than Solana's.
On the other hand, one could say that Borrell's comments, even if overinflated, are positive in that they have cleared the air. The problems of the EU's new eastern neighbors will not go away, nor will Poland and the Baltics' vital role in helping to solve them. Older EU members understand perfectly well that the union's foreign challenges increased with last year's expansion. Now they need to be aware that their eastern expertise also increased with the new members, and that they would be wise to use it to their advantage.