Herman Van Rompuy welcomed Poland's six-month leadership of the rotating Council Presidency as "an historic event", following the country's seven years of membership to the European Union.
Speaking at the Natolin campus of the College of Europe, in Warsaw, the President of the European Council praised Poland for embracing diversity, adding: "You are ready now to take on new responsibilities – for the intense period of six months starting today, and beyond. The rotating Presidency of the Council brings a sense of ownership for all the member states, showing visibly that the union is a collective work, undertaken by equal partners. It is an indispensable feature of our system."Van Rompuy
insisted that the previous presidencies – of Spain, Belgium and Hungary – had been very positive; despite claims from critics that little had been achieved. He said: "While keeping the long-term European interest as our common horizon, it has been most worthwhile to feel a new impetus, the fresh desire to achieve results, a different set of qualities brought to the job every six months.
"Without co-operation and mutual trust between key players, the Lisbon Treaty cannot work. This goes beyond the formal contacts and preparations, but requires a quasi-permanent informal exchange of information and ideas. The European Union is not just an institutional framework in Brussels, a political machinery producing directives and redistributing funds which only we as practitioners and experts can understand. No, the union is a political project; it embodies the common destiny of 27 states and 500 million citizens. Together we work on concrete proposals serving our citizens' prosperity and security; together we face a common future."
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk had already stated his intention to being Europe closer together during the presidency. He claimed the country can "become a symbol, an omen of hope, optimism, energy and the power of survival in hard times and amidst trouble tormenting the whole world". Leading European blogger J Clive Matthews said of Tusk's statement: "It is a welcome and refreshing change to hear what to me sounds like a rational optimism coming from someone with real influence in the EU after months of hand-wringing and years of stagnation."
And Van Rompuy acknowledged that since the collapse of communism, and the country's EU accession, Poland had "transformed itself into a democratic, modern and prosperous country" adding: "Your history constitutes a lesson of humanism. The Union allows Europeans to keep destiny in our own hands. The state of the EU is not so bad, even if the mood is not so good. The positive votes in the Greek parliament have changed the mood for the better. Political courage still exists."
The President insisted that divisions between member states had been overplayed. "When Germany abstains in a vote in the UN Security Council on Libya, we were all of a sudden without foreign policy, and this notwithstanding the fact that, just days later, all key European countries were together in the Elysée to decide and agree upon military action," he countered. "This absolutely cannot be compared with the divisions at the time of the Iraq war. When a country is hiring a few customs officers, then suddenly the life of the Schengen area is in danger.
"These incidents are added to the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone - which is real but also solvable - whereas the euro itself is very strong. So whoever wants to judge the state of our union has to maintain a certain distance, a certain serenity and above all: a sense of proportions. Pessimism paralyses action, or at least risks doing so. My entire career has been under the sign of a "step by step" approach. The EU is a historically unique achievement. It has always been built gradually and it has emerged stronger from every crisis. There is no reason that this time would be different."
Admitting that he "fully shared" Tusk's view that EU membership should be on the table for all countries in the Western Balkans, Van Rompuy said: "Perhaps some important decisions can be taken by the European Council in December, provided that these countries continue vigorously their reforms. Let us not forget that only 15 years ago, the countries in question were involved in a horrible civil war, at the borders of our union. In that respect, the entry of the Western Balkans into the union is the last great work of peace on our continent. And by the way: as long as a club attracts new members it is in good shape."
Going beyond that, the President talked of future partnerships with countries in North Africa and the Middle East. "We support the movements towards economic progress and toward democracy and political rights," said Van Rompuy. "We have an historical task in the Mediterranean. These countries count on Europe. Without us there will be a spring, but not a summer. Polish politicians rightly maintain that your own political experience could be a real asset. An example that can shine beyond Europe's borders. The importance of regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations will also be emphasised during the Polish Presidency of the Council."
A practical example of this approach will be the Eastern Partnership Summit that will be held in Warsaw, at the end of September. The conference is designed to promote the importance of the EU's relations with its eastern neighbours, and to inject momentum into future co-operation. "The EU is much more active in foreign policy than most people think," explained Van Rompuy. "We are in the lead in climate policy, having played a central role in the climate conference in Cancun.
"We took initiatives to break the deadlock in the Doha Round for liberalising world trade. The union is trying, both via the Quartet and via the Paris donor conference, to relaunch the Middle East Peace Process. France, as chair of the G20, is with the EU's support making progress in correcting global imbalances – at the very root of the fragility of the world economy. Even if the international agenda is blocked in many fields, we Europeans are doing our utmost to move it forward."