US and UK court old Eastern bloc

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POLAND has become the country everyone wants to woo. Tony Blair left it yesterday and George Bush arrived today, both of them keen to praise and shake the hand of Leszek Miller.

It is nothing to do with the Polish prime minister’s personal magnetism, but it is everything to do with the power he represents. This time next year, Poland is due to be in the European Union - and may prove a key to thwarting a Franco-German axis.

Mr Blair’s courting technique is to help Mr Miller win the ‘yes’ votes he needs in next weekend’s referendum for Poland to join the European Union. And the Prime Minister worked his charm by laying out what amounts to his personal manifesto of a new, enlarged Europe.

If Poland does enter the EU it will change the balance of power fundamentally, as the largest of the ten new entrants and the de facto leader of the former Communist states who helped take the EU’s membership from 15 to 25.

These countries, and Poland in particular, have no time for the federalist ambitions of Germany, nor the anti-Americanism now championed by France. Proud of their recently-won independence, and anxious for the military protection which NATO offers, they are ideal allies for Mr Blair.

In Poland, he does not only have an ally which supported the Iraq war, but one of the handful which offered to send troops into battle. In Poland he also has a country which has been trodden on by larger neighbours for centuries and is, like the British, deeply wary of signing up to a system which could prove a motorway into a federalist super state.

Yesterday Mr Blair tested arguments on Poland, which he will use when he starts his push for Britain to join the euro. The carefully-worded speech contains several messages about his hopes and fears for the future of the EU.

The first audience was the Poles. They will next weekend vote on whether to join the European Union - and despite the subsidy on offer, it is by no means guaranteed that they will vote ‘yes’.

The polls in Poland show that, while about 75 per cent are in favour of joining, the turnout is likely to be below 50 per cent. As ever with Euro politics, the ‘no’ camp is more likely to vote than the ‘yes’. Mr Blair was there to assuage reservations. His visit, in itself, showed Poland how tall it could stand on the world stage when it was needed to counter Germany.

Mr Bush today will discuss his invitation for Poland to keep around 2,000 troops to administer a sector of Iraq - upstaging both France and Russia in being part of the reconstruction.

Then the Poles’ biggest fear, that after their long struggle to win back independence, they will become under rule once again - this time from joining a motorway to federalism.

"We want a union of nations, not a federal superstate, and that vision is shared by the majority of countries and people in Europe," Mr Blair said.

He cannot deny that this is an aspiration rather than a promise.

If a "majority" wants a union of nations then, logically there is a minority pushing for a federalist super state. Here, the PrimeMinister refers to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Next, defence. The country used to name the Warsaw Pact is keen to join NATO and not at all comfortable with the German-French idea of a rival European military alliance operating outwith NATO.

Mr Blair guaranteed this will not happen, promising defence reforms "wholly consistent with our membership of NATO".

He promised: "NATO will continue to be the bedrock of our defence, in Britain as in Poland" - something which France, Germany and Belgium by no means agree with as they try to set up a rival military alliance.

But Warsaw has identical policies to London, with its own long-standing relationship with Washington. In defence, as in political outlook, it is Blair’s ideal mate.

In urging Poland to enter Europe wholeheartedly, Mr Blair was using it as proxy for his ambitions for Britain. Signing up to the Euro project would make Poland "outward, not inward, economically effective, not economically feeble; to use Europe to make our voice heard louder and stronger in the world".

And, in this way, it could be seen as Mr Blair’s personal manifesto for the continent. While Jacques Chirac wants to mould Europe into a bulwark against US power and Gerhard Schrder wants to see an ever-closer union with creeping powers, the Blair vision is something different.

In his view of Europe’s future, economic union comes without a political price - and America’s relationship with the continent remains free from the rivalry seen in the Napoleonic fantasies of Dominique de Villepin, France’s foreign minister. His speech had more than a hint of anti-French sentiment, but Mr Blair had kind words for France too, praising its willingness to pull its weight in defence spending.

Poles listening to that speech may well be sold on the rather attractive ideal of Europe. The same is not true in Britain, where far fewer believe that a federalist EU is grimly inevitable.

He had a warn reception in Warsaw. But the Prime Minister has some distance to travel before his message on Europe is swallowed in his own country.

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