Poland’s EU Presidency: Opportunities and Challenges for Russia

Poland has announced the priorities of its EU presidency, and first among them is restoring Europe’s economic growth. Poland is well suited to the task, as it has one of the best track records in overcoming the economic crisis. Indeed, other EU nations could learn something from Poland.

The second priority – which is a necessary consequence of the first – is to make European institutions more effective. This will be no easy task. European institutions are suffering serious birth pangs, but they are developing nevertheless.

The third priority is to continue the European Union’s expansion. On this point Poland finds itself at odds with most of the EU. The public in most EU member states believes that the Union has expanded too far and that some countries should not have been accepted. The founding nations believe they have already paid too heavy a price for some new members. That being said, a small number of countries could still join – Croatia, for example.

Then there is also the EU project to expand its influence on the European periphery – the Eastern Partnership, proposed by Poland and Sweden. This will likely cause friction with Russia, which sees the Eastern Partnership not just as a means for greater cooperation with post-Soviet states but as a bid to subordinate neighboring countries, to shape their domestic and foreign policy to suit EU interests, and to dislodge Russia from the western part of the post-Soviet space. Disagreements between Russia and Poland are inevitable, as Poland is driving the process. Russia will insist that an Eastern Partnership without Russian participation, or one with Russia in a subordinate role, is unacceptable and that alternative formats must be found.

Poland could help improve relations between Russia and the European Union by accelerating progress towards visa-free travel and seeking greater cooperation in security, science, education, and the economy – something that had been discussed extensively in the past.

Poland will, therefore, face numerous challenges during its EU presidency. First and foremost is steering the EU out of the economic crisis. This is likely too tall an order for little Poland. Second, Poland has an opportunity to prove that it is not a spoiler in EU-Russian relations, as it is often believed – that it can actually improve relations between Russia and the European Union. This will be a serious challenge for Poland, but the positive trend in Russian-Polish relations in the last year and a half has laid a good foundation.

The modernization partnership and the energy dialogue between Russia and the EU will likely develop along different paths. Everyone seems to be for modernization in theory, and yet very little is being done to promote it. The solution requires either a political or an economic solution. The key issue at stake in an economic solution is the investment climate in Russia, which is still far from ideal. A political solution, on the other hand, will require a clear expression of political will, which has so far been lacking. Russia’s position as a strategic partner of the European Union will have to be clearly spelled out, which is so far not the case. As a result, the modernization partnership will be weak, though essentially conflict-free.

The energy dialogue, on the other hand, will be intensive and fraught with conflict, as Russia and the European Union take different approaches to the issue. The fact is that Russia and the EU are dependent on one another: the European Union is the main consumer of Russian energy, and energy is the backbone of the Russian economy. Russia, along with the Middle East, is the main supplier of energy to the EU. Intensive cooperation will be required to overcome the two side’s conflicting interests.

Russia is keen to maintain its current strategic contracts, increase its presence on the energy market and, of course, do business through its powerful corporations such as Gazprom. The European Union would prefer not to deal with big state-run companies like Gazprom. The EU would rather see Gazprom divided up or stripped of its powers to control entire networks, focusing instead on either gas delivery or production. As Gazprom produces gas, the EU would like to see it deprived of its delivery function, and it certainly doesn’t want Gazprom to supply gas directly to the consumer. This will no doubt be an area of contention. Also, the EU will remain unflagging in its attempts to control the Russian energy sector, whereas Russia will continue to assert its sovereignty.

Peripheral conflicts are also possible in the energy sector. Russia and the European Union do not see eye to eye on nuclear power. The lesson Russia has taken from Fukushima is that specific technological measures are needed to improve safety. The European Union, on the other hand, has taken political steps to reduce the role of nuclear power in its energy portfolio and is prepared to take more. If the European Union cedes some foreign markets to Russia, conflict would be avoided. Otherwise there will be a conflict, as Russia has made agreements to build nuclear plants, for example, in Bulgaria, and to pursue other nuclear projects. The European Union decided to minimize the development of nuclear energy sector.

A peripheral energy conflict is also possible with Ukraine. The Ukrainian economy badly needs money, which it can obtain either through lower prices or loans. But before this is done, another issue has to be resolved: control over Ukraine’s gas transport system. This is a highly contentious issue, because Ukraine is willing to give up this system only in exchange for Russia’s refusal to build the South Stream. And this at a time when Russia believes that the Yushchenko-era attempts to block Russia’s gas links to Europe could return. The Yanukovych team seems to think the fact that it is in power provides a guarantee that this won’t happen again, but this is not the case. The potential for conflict is great due to the sides’ different interests and approaches.

The European Union can, in principle, enter into talks on Ukraine’s gas transport system, especially since the talks have already provoked protests from Tymoshenko and her allies. Tymoshenko wants to internationalize her position as much as possible, as this offers her a lifeline in the event that the criminal case against her in Ukraine continues to move forward.

But there is room for energy cooperation, too. The technology of Western companies can be used to increase recovery of gas and oil in shelf zones, especially in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean. But the best and most promising area of cooperation, one with great humanitarian value, is energy consumption and conservation. The EU is one of the most energy efficient regions in the world, while Russia is among the most wasteful. The EU stands to benefit if Russia gets serious about energy conservation, as this will increase the supply of gas, oil and electricity on the market and reduce prices. But cooperation between Russia and the EU on energy saving technology has barely gotten off the ground. The European Union insists that energy saving technologies fall within the realm of private business, and if Russia wants them it can buy them from private companies. Russia, on the other hand, would like to get them as part of a package deal on energy rather than buy them separately on the market. There are very good prospects here.

Poland may also be able to play a certain role in territorial conflicts involving Russia and the EU. Estonia and Latvia continue to pose a serious problem on this front. These post-Soviet states are not entirely democratic and openly discriminate against ethnic Russians, but the European Union looks the other way. Poland acts as the protector of these countries. Polish support for their antidemocratic tendencies could result in more provocations on the part of Latvia and Estonia.

Second, a new conflict is brewing with Romania, which is openly pursuing a dialogue with Moldova on annexation. This could result in serious conflicts. Pro-Romanian forces appear to have stolen the elections for mayor and city council in Chisinau to maintain control of the capital. This could escalate the conflict.

Russia and Poland could also find common ground on an issue that is front and center in Europe – the role of religion and traditional values in society. In recent years, the European Union has been abandoning traditional values, and there has been a serious push against religious representatives, especially the Vatican. Russia, on the other hand, is evolving towards the institutional consolidation of religion and traditional values in society. Poland and Italy are the EU countries with the greatest respect for traditional values. Poland could act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union in this sphere.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.