In general our press and politicians are very quick to discern and condemn conflicts of interest that might affect decision making, especially financial – Sebastian Coe and Nike being a recent example. It is the perception of conflict that matters, not the actuality. Yet Poland, whose former PM Donald Tusk is now President of the European Council, has escaped disqualification, which should seriously be considered while the UK tries to renegotiate its relations with the EU, and most especially in relation to the restriction on migrants’ benefits which is under discussion.
As soon as they were free to do so, millions of young Poles left their country to take up employment and better lives in W Europe. The UK gave immigrant Polish workers immediate rights here. There are at least 700,000 Poles in the UK. They are entitled where appropriate to jobseekers’ allowance (although there are not very many claimants), while almost no British expats make similar claims in Poland. Child benefits may be sent back to children in Poland who have not come to the UK and there are reportedly 13,174 such cases. In these arrangements Poland is no different from any other EU country whose citizens come here and look for work. The significance lies in the imbalance and the attitude Poland is taking to Cameron’s attempts to change the situation. No, said Poland, to his proposals to deter migrants, that would be “discriminatory” – until that country saw an opportunity to squeeze concessions out of the EU reform attempt. Give us NATO bases, and we will forget what we said about principles. Not only that, but Poland will not play ball over European plans to distribute migrants: we are a Christian country, they say, Muslim migrants not welcome.
The new Polish government has cracked down to such an extent on its judiciary and the media that the European Commission has launched an unprecedented inquiry into the rule of law in Poland. And of course there remains the 70-year old disgrace of Poland refusing to legislate to settle the restitution claims of the millions of victims of Nazism and Communism whose homes and businesses were stolen from them. Hundreds of thousands of property titles in Poland are tainted by this failure. It was to have been a condition of Poland’s entry to the EU that she make provision for restitution, but at the last minute the state claimed poverty, and got away with it.
The least that Poland could do is to accept its legal and moral obligations within the Union, as well as the advantages. And the Polish president of the European Council should not be the man to block negotiations, given this history and context.
It was the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that took us into the war. Polish forces fought together with us. Time to remember those historic alliances.