Failure at the border

Failure at the border

Schengen dominates in the justice and home affairs field.



Poland’s failure to steer Bulgaria and Romania into the EU’s Schengen area of borderless travel overshadowed everything else that it did in the justice and home affairs field. Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland’s European affairs minister, on Friday (16 December) described it as the “biggest failure of the Polish presidency”. But was it really the presidency’s fault? And was there anything the Poles could have done differently to advance the cause of enlarging Schengen into southeast Europe?

One diplomat complained that Polish officials were pushy on the issue, just as the Hungarians had been during their presidency in the first half of this year.

The Poles, the diplomat said, underestimated the strength of the Dutch position, which was to wait for a report by the European Commission early in 2012 on the two countries’ justice systems before endorsing their accession. Poland had no strategy once it realised that the Dutch would not budge, the diplomat said.

Yet this is only part of the truth. The Poles, in fact, managed to whittle down the number of member states opposing Bulgaria and Romania from four to just one – the Netherlands – by proposing that the two countries enter in stages, with border checks to be abolished first at airports and then on land borders. The idea was not new: Switzerland also joined the Schengen area in that manner, completing accessing in 2009. But it convinced France, Germany and, in the past few weeks, Finland, to drop their objections.

Success stories

The Schengen controversy dominated the headlines, but it did not tie up all the presidency’s attention to justice and interior issues. Polish diplomats conducted negotiations that led to the adoption of four important directives: on who qualifies for asylum; on a single residency and work permit for foreign workers; on the sexual exploitation and abuse of children; and on a European protection order for victims of crime.

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This achievement, as with the failure to enlarge Schengen, was a nuanced one: the substance of the first three directives had already been agreed under Hungary’s presidency.

Poland’s achievement was one of procedure, not of substance: the directives had been held up by a fight between member states and MEPs over correlation tables – charts affixed to EU legislation outlining their transposition into national law in the 27 member states.

Fact File

Foreign affairs

The EU’s Lisbon treaty, which took effect two years ago, greatly reduced the role of the rotating presidency in foreign affairs, although the presidency retained responsibility for enlargement negotiations.

Poland’s presidency saw one high point, the signing earlier this month of Croatia’s accession treaty – made possible by Hungary, during whose presidency the negotiations had been concluded. Other than that, it was fairly standard fare on enlargement: talks continued with Iceland, Turkey’s negotiations remained frozen, the opening of Macedonia’s talks was blocked by Greece. There was very little Poland, with its strongly pro-enlargement leanings, could do to remove Germany’s veto against granting Serbia candidate status, or France’s veto against opening talks with Montenegro.

Among Poland’s main foreign policy priorities was the launch of a European Endowment for Democracy, which it just managed to squeeze in before handing over to Denmark: a political declaration on the launch was agreed by the member states on Friday (16 December). Diplomats complained that Poland’s haste had weakened the endowment, which is supposed to support pro-democracy forces around the world.

Another Polish flagship initiative, the Eastern Partnership, also saw little progress during Poland’s presidency. A summit of the partnership in Warsaw at the end of September was a lukewarm affair, exposing a lack of interest on the part of the EU’s western and southern member states. Divisions appear to have deepened, with southern members focusing their attention on north Africa, and eastern members looking to the countries squeezed between the EU and Russia.

In September, Poland cobbled together a compromise that gave greater wiggle room to member states than that demanded by the European Parliament, thereby unblocking adoption of the three directives.

Toby Vogel