At Large

Poland Scores

A diplomatic coup in the age of climate change.

By 12.19.08

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Poland has begun to exercise unexpected leadership in at least one area of European affairs. In October Prime Minister Donald Tusk successfully challenged both France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, on the subject of reducing Europe's green house gas emissions.

With 94% of its electricity generated by coal furnaces Poland is highly dependent on its cheap coal resources. Agreeing to Sarkozy's original plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 included a requirement that all utilities would purchase and sell permits for the uncontrolled emissions through a public auction.

To the surprise of many, both Germany and Italy quickly followed the Polish lead in blocking the EU Commission plan to have Warsaw, among others, forced into the considerable expense of obtaining the permits in this manner.

Under the new agreement, coal-dependent countries will be sharing in the revenue produced in permit sales to non-exempt countries. With this stimulus it is expected that technologically backward nations will be assisted financially to invest in clean technology. Poland is estimated to receive 15 billion euros during the period of 2013 and 2020 when the agreement goes into effect.

It appears incontestable that PM Donald Tusk in one year has led Poland in a successful effort to patch up relations with the European Union in general and Germany in particular. The really striking bit of diplomatic sleight-of-hand was in building a bridge to improved contacts with Russia. And all of this has been accomplished at the same time as maintaining a special relationship with the United States.

Using France's turn at the rotating presidency of the EU as a chance to enhance his status as a European leader, Nicolas Sarkozy had placed all his cards on the issue of attaining agreement on guiding the world in establishing climate change targets. It was the moment for Sarkozy to shine in partnership with the EU Commission head, Barroso. Armed with his indefatigable energy, Sarkozy used the old Gaullist ploy of finding something to lead -- no matter what it was -- and charging forward.

Unfortunately for the French president, the Poles, along with the global financial crisis, got in the way. The original impetus of the Sarkozy plan was sidetracked by the need to acquiesce to Poland's insistence on a special status due to its far greater disadvantages in generating electricity. The Germans, for their own manufacturing interests, jumped in supporting the Poles. Meanwhile, the left wing of the European Parliament decided the original plan was not going to be effective fast enough to suit their green interest.

Thus the Polish prime minister with the help of the new improved German relationship saved the day for his and other countries' interests. While most European commentators hesitate to credit the Polish action as a masterstroke, the fact is that Donald Tusk saved Sarkozy's face and perhaps even his political future by allowing him the public victory that culminated in the final agreement last weekend. The timing was perfect; it allowed the French president to return as a hero to the immediate and real problems affecting the French economy.

Whatever difficulties Poland continues to face economically and politically in relation to its European neighbors, Donald Tusk and his diligent foreign economic and political team have succeeded in pushing their even harder-working nation to a primary role within the EU. This is no small feat among their traditionally powerful western neighbors. (Poland is second among EU countries in amount of per capita hours worked per week.)

The days of backward-looking leadership of the Kaczynski twins appears to be heading for the dustbin of history as only Lech, the president, remains in office, with limited power. More importantly is the growth of influence of this principal Western Slavic nation in European affairs -- an accomplishment that clearly is contrary to Russian proprietary interests in Eastern Europe.

There is a special relationship between the United States and Poland that goes back to the support given during the American Revolution. This relationship showed once again with the Polish combat contingents sent in response to U.S. requests for assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As much as Nicolas Sarkozy and Jose Manuel Barroso see a European entente on a climate pact as a possible global guide, the rise of the fiercely democratic and hardworking Poland as increasingly influential in European Union affairs is of considerable importance to the United States. It's good to remember who your friends are!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.