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Sunday, 3 July 2011

A note to our Polish colleagues

The Polish presidency has just been launched and I know that preparations have been thorough and professional. Nevertheless, be prepared because some things will not go the way you think they will. Some of the experiences of Hungarian presidency may be useful here.

It may well not happen, but be aware that some major international crisis can always erupt, quite conceivably from a wholly unexpected direction. We did think, as one generally does, that something could develop in the Middle East, but Arab spring certainly took us and everyone else by surprise. The presidency may have few competences in foreign policy, but international crises draw attention away from the Brussels agenda. Keep a weather eye on Bosnia, things could go wrong there and enlargement is, after all, a presidency competence. And Serbia will also keep you busy, not least internal political developments there could produce upsets.

Just as much to the point is the Eastern Partnership. You are well up to speed with Ukraine and Belarus, but after having been frozen for many years, Nagorno-Karabakh could well become a danger point again (the Kazan summit was hardly a success) and that could affect the Eastern Partnership summit in September. And don’t overlook the danger brewing in the northern Caucasus, where there is serious unrest among the non-Russians, unrest with an Islamic edge.

Another possible source of difficulty lies closer to home. This is to do with Western attitudes towards our region and particularly the habits of the Western media, which are generally disdainful towards Central Europe. They make no real effort to understand the cultural and political dynamics of the region, but are very quick on the draw when it comes to condemnation. And don’t expect even a scintilla of fairness.

Here our experience can be regarded as a paradigmatic. The Western media, the German especially, have constructed a Hungary – an imaginary Hungary – that they depict as the worst repository of all the evils, like xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism. No amount of argument or evidence to the contrary can shift this, because it is so very convenient for sections of Western opinion to have a country that they can use instrumentally, as an alibi. The key point is that an imaginary country of this kind is very useful as an excuse, because thereby the West’s own guilty conscience can simply be exported eastwards.

In a way, our Central European problem is that we are alien, we do not conform to their ideas of what we should be like, but we are not exotic, so we don’t get the easy ride that exoticism can provide. And we also suffer from a discursive handicap. What is written in English or in French or in German is or can be widely read, but Polish – not to speak of Hungarian – is not, hence our voice is weaker and those who take advantage of this weakness are legion.

If I had to make a guess, I would suggest that your upcoming elections could become a ready pretext for the kind of undesirable media attention that I have been sketching. Then, you will certainly be subjected to criticism by the environmentalist lobby, indeed this has already begun, on account of the coal that Poland relies on. Some of this criticism will certainly be exaggerated, but will find ready listeners all the same. A third possible area where you may find yourselves under fire is Russia. There are those in the West who see you as viscerally anti-Russian, so will simply discount whatever you argue about Russia; and the Russians themselves will certainly back this up – you will know already how effective the Russian PR machine is and how widespread is a generally pro-Russian sentiment in some circles in the West.

Then, there is your opposition and what they may do. The Hungarian presidency was remarkable for the way in which the opposition did everything in its power to export domestic politics, its weakness not least, to Brussels, so that the EU was turned into a kind of subsidiary forum for internal Hungarian political activity. I would be surprised if this did not become a precedent, so there is yet another front where to expect criticism, and, don’t forget, Brussels is an odd kind of echo chamber where Central European politics are distorted and intentions are misread, often given the worst possible reading. Finally, there is Prime Minister Tusk’s warning of a growing covert Euroscepticism in the EU; those who recognise themselves in this mirror will certainly not be grateful to Poland and may well try to discredit the message by fair means and foul, the latter most likely.

So, good luck and watch out for the traps.
Sch. Gy.

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