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Poland and Romania: Extending the partnership in the EuroEast

September 8, 2013 - Octavian Milewski - Bez kategorii



Romanian-Polish relations have been on a moderately ascending path in the last three years. In 2013 the countries celebrate 20 years since the signing of the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation, and the Strategic Partnership signed by the two countries in 2009 has been developing in the direction of an increasing understanding of both sides’ foreign policy interests and perceptions. The Ambassador of Poland to Romania, Marek Szczygieł described the strategic partnership with Romania as “excellent”, which might not be an exaggeration.

Yet, excellence is not a benefit generating skill, it is an attitude backed by concrete results to be turned into strategic venues for constructive mutual growth. You get to know it when you see it. In this respect, the relationship defined and built in the framework of the Polish-Romanian “strategic partnership” would need a deeper, wider and more comprehensive range of improvements and deliverables.

A strategic partnership is about special, tight relations on many levels, including social and humanitarian ones. From this point of view, Poland and Romania still have a lot to achieve in order to be able to call their relation really strategic. Nonetheless, if we compare the strategic partnerships of both countries with other (neighbouring) countries – for example, Romania’s strategic partnership with Hungary, or Poland’s with Lithuania, the relationship is almost flawless and has a sound foundation for development. What is indeed to be appreciated is the functional cooperation in mutually chosen fields that do currently bring the countries perceived benefits.

In 2010 the two partners started strategic dialogue focusing mainly on defence and security issues by signing a five year Action Plan. The strategic dialogue has been reinforced by a dynamic trade exchange, which in 2012 came close to 3.5 billion euros, Poland being the sixth in the list of biggest commercial partners of Romania with an impressive almost 700 companies active in Romania. Unfortunately, Romanian companies have not been present in the Polish market with the same success, since Romania was not so successful in dodging the economic crisis and respectively developing an appetite for entrepreneurial venues outside the country.

Commonalities and differences

Similarities between the two countries abound: both have suffered from similar historic wounds in the 20th century; both are placed in a comparable geographic position, that is they share external EU borders; both share similar positions on the development of CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy); both have similar perspectives on the Eastern Neighbourhood and enlargement, Poland having a special attitude towards Ukraine, while Romania towards Moldova; both have similar positions on energy security and development, including shale gas and the absorption of EU funds; and both share similar views on EU affairs such as cohesion funds, transport corridors and the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy).

Yet, if Poland is often accepted in the “first league” of EU politics, Romania is absent from the game of the “big boys” and even relegated to supplementary regimes of checks and controls, with the Schengen regime application being a case in point. Poland is often placed at the same table as big European Union countries such as Germany, France, Britain and Italy, and Polish high officials often set the tone in EU internal and external affairs. Formats such as the Weimar Triangle say it all about Poland’s vocation and capacity to project policy debates on the European level.

Moreover, Poland has proved its capacity to overcome deep historic divergences with Ukraine and Russia, which have solidly improved Warsaw’s image of a reliable actor in the big EU chancelleries. While having similar geo-strategic interests with Romania, Poland can be a lesson-learned case for refuting the hackneyed argument that Romania cannot overcome the legacies of the Second World War and the 20th century in general.On the opposite extent, Bucharest’s rhetorically unstable relationship with Budapest (itself a strategic partner of Romania), is not a factor that contributes to either more attractiveness or credibility in Warsaw's eyes. In recent years, the two Danubian neighbours and strategic partners have had cyclic brawls over issues more reflecting internal politics. By mutually resorting to cheap populism and involving each other in useless and energy consuming sterile squabbles on historic myths or minority rights, both countries have harmed their stance inside the EU.

While Bucharest is very keen on participating in V4+ actions on dialogue and cooperation, it is still cannot understand how its relationship with Budapest might contribute to more understanding in the main capital of the V4 forum, i.e. Warsaw. Most probably, when Bucharest learns that ignoring provocations from insignificant Hungarian leaders is a sign of wisdom and not of weakness, its stance will acquire more poise not only in Warsaw, but also in Brussels and even Budapest.

Meanwhile, Romania has been unofficially classified in the group of “laggards” in terms of justice affairs, fighting corruption and implementing EU administrative reforms. This has corroded Romania's stance inside the EU and the country is currently fighting an image deficit, be it for existent reasons or not. The year 2012 was a testy political year for Romania, and left the EU with a feeling that Romania has damaged its image. There is enough ground to think that this turbulence will come to an end with the beginning of a new presidential cycle. Again, the 2012 political crisis and the deliverables on assumed EU strategies are telling. It is enough to summarily evaluate the Black Sea Synergy or Black Sea Strategy, where Romania has performed only rhetorically to boost its utility for the region.

On the other hand, Poland has been accepted as the champion and initiator of EU backed policies in the EuroEast of which the Eastern Partnership (EaP) has become an EU flagman platform of the latter’s few foreign policy successes. Romania, even if somewhat reserved in the beginning, has indeed come aboard but has still demonstrated more of a reactive behaviour, except for Moldova.

Common Euro-Eastern ground

As the evolution of the last three to four years have proved, Poland has a prevailing philosophy for Eastern Europe. It is a philosophy to drag the East European countries from the periphery into the European core. After having successfully digested the comeback to Europe in the last two decades, it has now emerged as one of the most competent champions of the integration of new Eastern Europe. As such, Poland has proved time and again that the stronger it becomes in the West, the stronger it becomes in the East. It has thus become an example for Romania and a natural pole of attraction, given the success of the EaP as one of the few EU-wide strategies of foreign policy.

Romania’s tale is similar regarding its comeback to the West, but at the same time different with respect to its stance and performance in both directions. Romania is still deficient in designing attractive policies in relation to its Eastern neighbours – except Moldova – which is important to the Romanian psyche, but is a relatively minor success given the magnitude of Ukraine. In this respect, a Romanian constructive and engaging policy on Ukraine (Poland’s strategic addressee in the EaP) would surely be seen as a supplementary argument for deepening the strategic partnership with Warsaw. Such an approach could open new venues for mutual collaboration on Moldova, as it would create a more trustful partnership and give incentives on common socialisation with this Eastern neighbour.

Of course, it is still an open question whether Romania would let itself be introduced into a sincere tandem, led by the state that is in a category of its own in the EU, on how to tackle Ukraine. Moreover, collaborative learning on Moldova and Ukraine, a so-called “optimisation of trust” in trilateral formats, could bring significant improvement for both partners, not only on a bilateral level but also as a boost to their competence(s) in Brussels. There is no doubt that for Romania, the first test ground is Moldova. It is there that the two partners would test each other, for if they won't be able to think and implement collaborative projects in Moldova, it would be hard to conceive of similar projects in Ukraine.

A partnership for the EuroEast?

Yet, what can the two partner countries do together? There is a solid ground for improving this trend by extending the constituency elsewhere than Romania and Poland proper. It could be highly rewarding to support small trans-border projects, in this way reaching Romania’s favourite and kin country – the Republic of Moldova. A possible destination could be the Iași-Ungheni trans-border area for example, where reaching out to rural areas could have a very positive effect. Teaming up on ODA (Official Development Assistance) would also be a great enhancement to all the parties involved.

Poland is already present in Moldova, being represented by energetic and competent managers training the local authorities to apply for EU funds. Both countries have already registered successes in helping build new institutions in Moldova, whether we speak of the Agency for Protecting the Consumer (Poland) or National Agency for Integrity, sponsored by the Romanian government in collaboration with Romanian NGOs. The question is whether the two partners can pool human and knowledge resources to improve Moldova’s capacity to implement EU sponsored reforms and institution building on the one hand, and on the other improve their own expertise to train the EuroEast for what is to hopefully come in the next decade, i.e.further European integration.

To a certain degree, Romania has been fighting an image deficit in some areas of Moldova, such as the mainly Russian speaking city of Bălţi, the Gagauz autonomy and the Bulgarian/Russian speaking region in the South. Designing collaborative Polish-Romanian projects (perhaps even getting Swedish development agencies on board) could significantly help convey a benevolent and European image of the partner countries in micro-regions heavily manipulated by artificially induced phobias towards Romania, the West and European integration by extension.

Another track that could help tap into human and economic connections is to stimulate local and city authorities from Poland to establish chambers of commerce. For example, the industrial city of Bălţi is much closer geographically to Wrocław or Lublin than, say to Penza or Kostroma. The latter has recently established “brotherly” relations with the Moldovan Bulgarian town of Taraclia (in the south of Moldova) with the direct help of the Russian embassy.

Moreover, as mentioned, a pooling of resources and investing common activities in Moldova would have very constructive effects. In Moldova for example, Poland has a huge potential as historical links and memory generate a very positive image about Poland. The same is true of Poland’s image in Romania. Poland should think about opening a branch of the Polish Cultural Institute in Chișinău. The Polish minority is much bigger in Moldova (compared to Romania), while people of Polish descent and heritage add twice-over to the size of the minority. This looks like an untapped resource in cultural terms.

The two countries could be able in the not too distant future to co-author cultural and educational projects with the Romanian Cultural Institute in Chișinău, under the banner of promoting European culture and values. In the end, the “more for more” principle should also mean more input of human resources from the friends of EaP countries for more output in terms of European norms and values from the Eastern Partnership countries themselves.

The same question appears, why would Poland want to do this and why together with Romania? One of the main reasons is the sensitivity of Romania’s “lone” presence in some of the neighbouring countries. Some of the negative consequences of 20th-century tragedies have not yet been overcome. One Polish diplomat insightfully made a comparison between the two countries: while Poland has become a paragon of pragmatism, Romania is still over-historicising its vision of its Eastern neighbours.

As a result, Romania is a still highly politicized subject in Western Ukraine and the Odessa Oblast, for example, saying nothing of Transnistria. The same could be true of Romania in the city of Bălţi, a dominantly Russified city with a USSR-nostalgic population. Joint small-scale Polish-Romanian goodwill projects, reaching the grassroots level could greatly contribute to overcoming this legacy, and could hopefully help Romania overcome its own introvert behaviour towards the East, while at the same time offering Poland a resourceful and credible partner for the region at low political and economic costs.

Intensify and develop common projects in Moldova

Moldova stands as a complex issue of particular importance to Romania. Yet, on the European level, Poland has done no less for the Moldovan cause in political terms. As already mentioned, a triangulation of activities in the border areas with Moldova could be envisaged, and even in the border areas with Ukraine. Poland could, for example, share its experience in managing the border movement of pedestrians with Romania – yet unexplained loophole in the border regime between Romania and Moldova or Ukraine.

One underdeveloped aspect of the programmes, actions and projects promoted by Romania and Poland within the EaP is access to ordinary people. A potential direction is addressing NGOs based not only in the capitals, but also sponsoring calls for NGOs in bigger regional cities such as Bălţi, Ungheni or Cahul, where the two partners could act as co-sponsors for small-scale projects. Collaboration could produce a benign counterbalance against Russia’s influence and pro-Russian elites (Gagauzia is a case in point). It could also contribute to the Europeanisation of ordinary people in general.

Rural areas are in an even more dire state, and as such it would be a very promising area of collaboration. It would not only give visibility to the two partners, but also address an area which has been so far neglected. Finally, Poland has a good record in ODA management. Moldova in particular and the EaP partners in general, are a common ground still lacking stronger cooperation. In this area (i.e. ODA), Romania is still five to seven years behind Poland’s experience. Sustained collaboration in the field would be highly valued on the level of experience sharing, ODA institution development and common projects development.

Equally important, joint Polish-Romanian normative-institutional projects in Moldova would help capacitate institutions and implement the EU association agenda. Romania and Poland have the more than necessary experience of pre-accession and accession institution-building. As such, the association agenda is just the same as integration, but just in name.

Upgrade needed in the East

Who would have said two decades ago that Poland would be an example of how a transition should be overcome? Presently, it is up to Poland and Romania to make it happen in Moldova. For the former to put more knowledge, human and material resources into Moldova's course to EU integration, and for the latter to learn how to teach transition to Moldova (and to Ukraine for that matter) without resorting to the rhetoric of purported exclusivist rights. The Moldovan “playground” is not only a test case for the bilateral partnership, it is also a ground for creating a precedent of willing EU champions of the East. Moldova has not yet fully become a “habitual objective” for Poland, while it is rhetorically an obsession for Romania although with still modest results.

As the old wisdom says, politics is the art of the possible. In Poland and Romania’s case the possible pertains first and foremost to their ability to overcome the logic of the self-centred interest – i.e. acting alone in EaP countries with concrete but small impact projects, and evolve towards a common-centred interest in the Eastern European space – teaming up and thinking big in order to win over the undetermined population of EaP countries. The reality does dictate them to join their knowledge, experience and political weight for a peaceful conclusion to the processes that started in the aftermath of 1991.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Poland emerged as a leader among Central European countries in demonstrating the will and capacity to share its transition lessons to the Arab countries. For the EuroEast the message is clear, if Poland can do it for the Middle East and North Africa, it means it can also step up its efforts for the Eastern neighbours. Moreover, combining expertise with knowhow from international organisations (EBRD, USAID, UNDP) and bringing on board EU strategic partners with similar projections for ODA practice capable of dividing tasks, donor coordination and employing common standards of norms and institution building, could indeed be a way towards even greater consolidation of the strategic partnership.

Poland and Romania, the two biggest countries of Central-East Europe, can add considerably to the transformation of the region’s countries into an integrative area by the end of this decade. It only takes coordination, collaborative spirit and pragmatism. Euro-skepticism and social anti-Westernism can be combatted through concrete life quality improving deliverables, and if they could be brought under a common banner it would serve not only the countries individually but the EU as a whole. Nobody knows better than Poland and Romania how to escape “Easternness” through resorting to pragmatism and sustainable reforms.

Octavian Milewski is a political scientist specialised in post-Soviet area studies. He is currently a project coordinator affiliated to the International Fund for Cooperation and Partnership of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

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