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Britain and France in race to woo the Poles


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Britain and France in race to woo the Poles

By David Rennie in Brussels

(Filed: 27/06/2005)

British and French ministers will arrive in Poland today for the start of a week-long race between London and Paris to sign up eastern and central European nations as allies in the battle over European Union reform.

By the end of the week John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Douglas Alexander, the Europe minister, will both have visited Poland, and between them added the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and as many Baltic states as Mr Alexander can cram in.

Today Mr Alexander will almost cross paths with the new French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, in Warsaw for a three-way summit with his German and Polish counterparts, Joschka Fischer and Adam Rotfeld.

On Friday, the French European affairs minister, Catherine Colonna, will be in Hungary.

In a sign of how high tensions have risen, Mr Alexander's Polish hosts will keep him away from Mr Douste-Blazy at all times.

Mr Douste-Blazy's visit to a conference of Polish ambassadors was long planned, as one of a regular series of "Weimar Triangle" summits between Poland, France and Germany.

Alas, Mr Douste-Blazy reacted badly to the news that Britain had also been invited to send a minister to the conference, Polish officials said. French diplomats let it be known their minister would not turn up until Mr -Alexander had already spoken and left.

With Britain about to take the helm of the EU on Friday in the midst of a double crisis - following last week's failure to agree a Union budget, and the collapse of the EU constitution - the Blair government is anxious to maintain close ties with the "Accession 10" nations that joined the Union last year. Several have proved strong ideological allies of Britain and the United States, whether supporting the American-led invasion of Iraq, or developing low-tax, low-regulation economies.

The newcomers' support for the Iraq war provoked Jacques Chirac, the French President, into publicly chiding their leaders that they had "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" - an insult that has not been forgotten.

Nor were Poles happy when voters in the recent French referendum on the EU constitution heaped abuse on the mythical "Polish plumber", an emblem of French fears of losing jobs to lower cost workers from the east.

However, the Accession 10 do not support the £3 billion annual British rebate from the EU budget. In general, they want a Union budget deal as soon as possible, so they can begin work on big EU-funded projects.

Poland is by far the largest of the Accession 10 nations, making Warsaw a vital element of French and German dreams of isolating Tony Blair - both over Britain's rebate, and British calls for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

One Polish official said: "We do not want to build any coalition with France and Germany against Great Britain, or with European countries against America. But at the same time, we cannot forget our economic relations with France and Germany. And we have a huge farming sector that is very interested in direct pay-outs from the CAP."

Denis MacShane, Mr Alexander's predecessor as Europe minister, said yesterday: "There's a natural affinity for Britain among Poles. But for sound economic, geographical and political reasons, the Poles will not join any direct attempt to build an anti-French or German alliance."

www.telegraph.co.uk . . .

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