Lithuanian and Polish ethnic spats may cloud Polish EU presidency picture

  • 2011-05-11
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

With the upcoming Polish EU rotating presidency starting July 1, 2011, Warsaw is revving up its efforts in attempting to capitalize to the fullest on the mandate. However, Janusz Sznajder, advisor to the Polish minister of foreign affairs, stresses that 85 percent of the work of an EU rotating presidency involves ongoing EU issues, while 10 percent of issues focus on crisis management, and just 5 percent of the agenda targets priorities set by the mandate holder.
Lithuanian policy-makers, with a few months left till the Polish EU presidency, apparently are more predisposed to being involved in heated squabbles with the Polish side over the recent changes in the curriculums of Polish schools in the Vilnius region, reinforcing in them the position of the Lithuanian-language, than they are in the approaching Polish presidency of the EU Council.

When it comes to Warsaw, it seems the Polish capital, awaiting its EU presidency mandate, bypasses - deliberately? - regional issues that may be important not as much to Poland, but to Lithuania: energy security and the trans-European railroad Rail Baltica connecting Helsinki and Warsaw, via Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn.
If 5 percent of an EU presidency’s agenda usually consists of priorities set by the mandate holder, it seems that none of the mutual interests will carve into the agenda of the Polish EU presidency. The adviser, speaking to a Polish news outlet recently, has already identified six general priority areas of the Polish EU presidency: the internal market, the Eastern Partnership Program, energy security and developing external energy policy, the common foreign and security policy, the EU’s financial perspectives and intellectual property.

Some Lithuanian political analysts regret that the prioritization lacks any emphasis on regional issues, as those aforementioned, the highlighting of which might benefit, first of all, Lithuania.
Very likely Lithuania, the closest Polish neighbor in the East, will not get any Polish EU presidency bonus, but far-away Iceland likely will. Thus, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Polish deputy foreign minister, during his recent visit to Iceland, cajoled by his Icelandic counterpart, wound up his trip with the quite unexpected assertion, “Enlargement of the European Union and Iceland’s accession to the bloc will be among the top priority issues when my country takes over the EU rotating presidency on July 1.”

The declaration has left Lithuanian political analysts scratching their heads: if there is room for the Icelandic aspirations in the Polish EU presidency’s “priority list,” why is it that Lithuania has been left off of it?

Asked by The Baltic Times’ correspondent about the Polish EU presidency’s advantages to Lithuania, most Lithuanian MPs apparently seemed puzzled by the word “advantages,” so vividly contradicting the recent ethnic grumbling. However, politicians that I spoke to raved about the “necessity to continue the long-standing Lithuanian and Polish relationships,” while some frankly admitted the Polish EU presidency mandate so far seems to be “overshadowed” by the slowly receding tensions over the strengthening of the Lithuanian language in Polish schools in Lithuania, Polish euro-parliamentarian Valdemaras Tomasevskis’s  vociferous declarations about the need for Lithuanians to “integrate” into the largest Polish community in the Vilnius region, and the Lithuanian reluctance to let Poles write their names, surnames and even street names in Polish letters.

“I do not like the words ‘benefit’ or ‘advantage’ when we speak about mutual relationships, even when it comes to the Polish EU presidency. Poland has always been a very important partner of Lithuania and it will always remain that way, despite the recent dissent on some issues. To be honest, I am not aware of any Lithuanian Seimas’ initiatives in regards to the Polish EU presidency, or of any plan as to how Lithuania may benefit from it,” Egidijus Vareikis, Lithuanian MP and a member of Seimas’ Foreign Affairs Committee, admitted to The Baltic Times. “I hope that Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs works in that direction,” he added.
Asked to single out several issues in which prioritization may be beneficial to Lithuania, the parliamentarian and one of Lithuania’s foreign policy-makers struggled to do just that, managing to say that “issues tackling the post-crisis EU economy, its recovery and energy security issues” are of the utmost importance. He cautioned that Poland’s EU presidency might be blurred by the upcoming elections to the Polish parliament in the fall. Reminded of the ethnic tensions in the Vilnius region, he acknowledged, “Obviously, the tensions over the aforementioned issues bend in our current relationships, often putting away the Polish EU presidency,” Vareikis acknowledged.

Emanuelis Zingeris, another MP and chairman of Seimas’ Foreign Affairs Committee, says that “it is too early to conclude anything about the approaching Polish presidency of the EU Council.”

“When it takes off and when we will see what it is about, we could [then] infer about it more conclusively. Though some may malevolently expect that the present ethnic [tensions], what I call petty ‘jabs,’ will overshadow our long-cherished relationships, I am sure it will not happen. Poland will always remain our strategic partner. As for the temporary dissent, I am glad to say that the Polish side, in the capacity of their PM Tusk, is already over them, as Tusk, the leader of the Polish delegation, and Lithuania’s statesmen delegation, will participate in a joint festive ceremony in Strasbourg on May 11, commemorating the 220th anniversary of the first-ever in Europe Lithuanian-Polish Constitution. I am sure the policy-makers on both sides see the broader picture of our long-standing relationships,” Zingeris maintained to The Baltic Times.

Asked to be more specific on Lithuanian interests in the framework of the Polish EU presidency, Zingeris did not elaborate, asserting, “Poland is a strong mid-European country, one of the three main arteries, besides Brussels and Washington, through which our Lithuanian foreign policy is being forged.”

Political analyst and former MP, Alvydas Medalinskas, is convinced that the coming Polish EU rotating presidency “can be important to Lithuania as well.”

“One should be aware that, quite recently, Lithuania and Poland called each other ‘strategic partners.’ Hopefully, the recent disagreements over the different approach to the situation of the Polish minority in Lithuania will not disturb the partnership,” Medalinskas asserts. He claims the dissent is partly a result of the upcoming election campaign to the Polish parliament. “Obviously, in their anticipation, some Polish politicians are trying to play the rightless-Polish-minority-in-Lithuania card, which may slow down the common Lithuanian and Polish steps in European politics,” Medalinskas admonishes.

However, he says, rationality should overpower pre-electoral emotions. “If this happens anytime soon, bearing in mind Poland’s EU presidency mandate, Lithuania and Poland do have some common interests in implementing the Eastern Partnership Program,” Medalinskas emphasizes. He points out that the Polish presidency comes along with the Danish EU presidency. “It is very important, as Denmark has always supported Lithuania, as well as all the countries that participate in the Eastern Partnership Program. All three states – Poland, Denmark and Lithuania – have always found common background when it comes to the policies toward the Kaliningrad region. I do hope that they can continue finding common points of collaboration in that direction,” Medalinskas said.

He also points out other common fields for the countries, like eco-safety of the Baltic Sea. “I have little doubt that Lithuania and Denmark care about the issue as much as Poland; therefore,  I hope, with the Polish EU presidency, the European Union will become more principled on the issue of possibly unsafe construction of nuclear power plants in the Kaliningrad region and, particularly, in Belarus, 50 kilometers away from the Lithuania-Belarusian border,” Medalinskas maintained.

He also predicts that general agriculture reform may become one the main issues of the Polish presidency. “Both Lithuania and Poland are interested very much in receiving EU monetary assistance, in the same scope, until 2013. In addition, in the interest of the two countries, is to actively seek an equalizing of EU payouts for the agricultural sector from 2013, regardless of an EU member country’s status – novice or an old-timer,” the political analyst emphasized.

He points out that Poland will have, obviously, to react to the new challenges that a modern Europe and the West deal with in the uprising-plagued Arab countries. “Those Arab states are not very much familiar to Lithuanian politicians and diplomats; therefore, for us, it may be reasonable to learn from Poland what policies and political means should be applied to those lands. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the active pro-democracy-inclined political processes will come to an abrupt end any time soon. Hence, logically, Lithuania, taking over the rotating EU presidency in 2013, will likely have to go on with an array of important initiatives to be started soon by the Polish, Danish and Cyprian EU presidencies. Lithuania will have to do it not only in the countries of the Eastern Partnership Program, where Lithuanian politicians and diplomats have much expertise, but also in the little-known Arab countries. The Polish EU presidency is very important to us in terms of learning and possible continuing of soon-to-be-started policies in 2013,” Medalinskas inferred.

Julius Pranevicius, interim director of the Lithuanian EU Presidency Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asserts that the Polish EU presidency is “very important” to Lithuania, as Poland is Lithuania’s strategic partner with which Lithuania shares many common interests in the European Union. “Poland has named the priorities of its EU presidency that are very important to Lithuania as well, like the new EU financial perspective, strengthening the EU’s domestic market, energy security and the Eastern Partnership Program. Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expects that Poland will succeed in achieving a good deal of advancement in tackling these issues, that are very important to Lithuania, through the Polish presidency of the EU Council,” Pranevicius maintained.

Asked whether the lately heated-up spat over the supposed violations of the Polish ethnic minority’s rights in Lithuania’s eastern territories do not blur the importance of the Polish EU presidency, the interim director of Lithuania’s EU Presidency Department eschewed a direct answer, asserting, “Lithuanian and Polish mutual relationships, both in the European Union and in the international arena, are being developed constructively, as all the afore-planned projects are being carried out, and we collaborate actively in all international formats,” Pranevicius said. He emphasizes that, during the Polish EU presidency, the collaboration will go on, particularly in implementing the priorities of the EU political agenda.
The representative of the ministry also stresses that the ministry’s officials work together with Polish experts preparing themselves for the Lithuanian presidency in the European Union in 2013. Pranevicius says that the Lithuanian EU Presidency Department has been preparing for the 2013 EU presidency mandate since 2006. “We analyze the experience of the countries that have already had the EU obligation, particularly focusing on the experience of the countries that will steer the EU wheel right before the Lithuanian presidency, Poland inclusive. While communicating with Polish officials and the EU-presidency team experts, we strive to adopt their experience in budget-planning, venue-arranging, human resource-administering, as well as in the field of training, communication and some other fields,” Pranevicius noted. In addition, he says, while consulting with Poland, other mutual meetings and regional political consultations, like in the “NB 6+2” format, are being arranged.