November 21, 2012 6:26 pm

EU budget sours UK-Poland relations

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Britain’s fight over the next seven-year EU budget is straining relations with Poland, the largest net beneficiary of EU spending, adding to a chill in ties between countries that once saw themselves as natural allies in Europe.

Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's Oxford-educated foreign minister, told the Financial Times the two countries had “historically excellent relations”.

“But if you ask me if people in Poland have noticed that Britain wants to cut the European budget by €200bn, where Germany is in favour of a more ambitious budget, I’m forced to tell you, yes they’ve noticed,” he added.

The Anglo-Polish quarrel over money is about more than strains in a once-promising bilateral relationship. Diplomats say it reflects the two countries’ different trajectories inside the EU. Just as Britain seeks to loosen its ties with the bloc, Poland is gaining influence.

Even with the most recent plan for the 2014-2020 budget – scaled back under British pressure – Poland is still on track to win a €5bn increase on the €68bn haul of development aid money it was awarded under the current seven-year budget.

In Warsaw, there is a growing sense that ties with Britain are in deep crisis for causes that go wider than the tussle over the budget.

“The budget is simply the latest problem with the UK. Our roads have been diverging for some time,” says a senior Polish foreign ministry official.

During the eight years since it joined the EU, Poland has shifted from being a pro-American free trader jealously guarding its newly-won sovereignty from interference from Brussels – making it an obvious British partner – to a key German ally that hopes to join the euro and to be at the core of the EU.

“Poland’s strategic interest is to be at the centre of decision making, while Great Britain’s position on a host of issues shows it is not possible to come to a unified position among 27 EU members,” says Piotr Serafin, deputy foreign minister in charge of European issues.

In 2003, Poland was seen as a member of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “new Europe”, and the presence of Polish troops on the ground in Iraq was a potent reminder that Poland saw its security interests as closely aligned with the US and the UK, at the cost of French and German scorn.

But when Polish troops started coming home in coffins and the country failed to win many lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq, Warsaw soured on the idea. The last Polish troops came home from Iraq in 2008, and security ties with Britain frayed further in 2010 when Polish hopes of setting up an EU defence headquarters were short-circuited by a UK-France defence agreement.

“It was a sign that Great Britain is playing a different game and treats us lightly,” says the senior Polish official. Poland was also criticised for not joining the UK in last year’s Libyan bombing campaign.

Warsaw watches Britain's attempts to loosen its ties with the EU with bemusement; for Poland the union is vital to its security and economic interests – there is no desire again to be a vulnerable buffer on the edge of the continent.

Political ties between Mr Cameron’s Conservatives and the centrist Civic Platform party of Donald Tusk, Poland’s premier, were also weakened when the Tories allied themselves in the European parliament with the rightwing opposition Law and Justice party. Mr Tusk’s party now has much closer relations with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

British officials concede that the budget issue was always going to damage relations. They insist that in other areas – such as promoting free trade and better regulation – London and Warsaw work well together. But they also acknowledge the relationship has soured.

For Warsaw, the flow of EU development aid known as structural funds has been vital to its economy, adding 0.7 percentage points to its annual gross domestic product on average and thereby benefiting long-established EU members as well.

It says the new highways, modernised railways, airports, sewage plants and research facilities will allow the country to catch up with richer western Europe after the destruction of the second world war followed by 45 years of communism.

“All that Great Britain is proposing are brutal cuts,” says Mr Serafin. “The beneficiaries are in this part of Europe and [the UK’s budget proposal] is not building the UK’s authority in this region.”

Additional reporting by Joshua Chaffin in Brussels

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