Poland: no friend of the Eurosceptics

Poland's is committed to the European Union, despite what David Cameron may like to think.

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Poland’s is committed to the European Union, despite what David Cameron may like to think, writes Matt Broomfield

David Cameron will have been relieved to hear Polish minister for foreign affairs Radek Sikorski offering his support over the hot topic of EU reform last week.

“We are perfectly willing to help [Britain] fix some of the problems of the EU…”, he said in an interview in Warsaw. “You have a problem with the Working Time Directive – I have to tell you it applies to all countries just as much as it applies to you…We should be able to fix it, perhaps with a treaty change, perhaps without.”

In the early 1980s Mr Sikorski was to be found capering around Oxford with the prime minister as well as Boris Johnson and his other pals in the Bullingdon Club. His comments will have come at a convenient time for his old uni pal Cameron, who laid out his stance on Europe in a speech on Thursday.

We can “get the best for Britain by rolling up [our] sleeves and fighting for real change in Europe,” Cameron said in attempt to align himself between the two “extremes” of UKIP’s anti-Europe policy on the one hand and the relative enthusiasm of the Lib Dems and Labour for the EU on the other.

Sikorski endorsed this position, saying that he “could be sympathetic” to Cameron’s rejection of the “ever closer union” between the EU and its constituent countries.

But this apparent shift in position will come as a surprise to many, both in the UK and in Poland. In January, Sikorski denounced Cameron’s attempts to withdraw the UK from some of our EU commitments.

At the time, Cameron called for a change in EU law which would allow the Conservatives to withdraw child welfare benefits from Polish workers in Britain. “If Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn’t it also pay their benefits? Why should Polish taxpayers subsidise British taxpayers’ children?” the foreign affairs minister tweeted.

This didn’t seem like an unreasonable question.

In a comment made in 2012 but reiterated just last month, Sikorski made it even clearer that he will not allow Cameron to “wreck or paralyse” the EU with conservative, individualistic reforms. In his interview this week, Sikorski went on to state that he wanted to win round “the great reserve of British common sense in favour of Europe”.

Indeed, Cameron might find the Poles less willing to help him weaken the EU than he thinks.

Sikorski’s concessions can be traced in no small part to a desire for solidarity in the face of Russian aggression (Sikorski has been working closely with William Hague in an attempt to resolve the ongoing crisis in Ukraine). Britain and the EU should “stick together”, he said. “If [Britain] only wanted to… you would be running Europe’s defence policy too.”

These remarks perhaps give a truer sense of Poland’s continued commitment to the European Union: the country’s economy has grown by 20 per cent since 2008, largely as a result of their engagement in the EU single market.

Remarkably, a report published last week by Ipsos indicates that 59 per cent of British-resident Poles think of themselves as having a ‘European’ identity, compared to 58 per cent feeling ‘Polish’. Like Sikorski, the country and its diaspora remain committed to the ideal of a unified Europe.

Political leaders in Britain jostling for position ahead of the 2014 EU elections would therefore do well to consider where Britain’s large Polish migrant community (officially 579,000 strong at the time of the 2011 census) will be casting their votes.

The Ipsos poll also shows that only 6 per cent of Poles will be supporting the Tories in the forthcoming EU elections, as opposed to 29 per cent of the general population.

Conversely, of those British-resident Poles who intend to vote in the EU, 18 per cent will be supporting the Lib Dems, compared with just 8 per cent across the country as a whole. This is doubtless as a result of the smaller party’s more welcoming stance on immigration.

Though the apparent support of the Polish government will be music to Cameron’s ears, he should be wary of reading Sikorski’s comments as indicative of the will of the Polish people. Come the EU elections, the Polish vote might well tell a very different story.

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