* Britain drifting to margins of Europe
* Role as champion of EU free trade could become vacant
* Poland has good credentials to fill the gap
By Christian Lowe
WARSAW, Nov 16 (Reuters) - If Britain’s Eurosceptic government decides to vacate its seat at the European Union’s top table, Poland has many of the credentials needed to take its place.
At a time when Britain’s ambivalence about Europe is weakening its influence in the bloc, Poland is riding high with a robust economy, a vision for itself at the heart of the EU, and fellow member states who want to make it their partner.
The sixth biggest economy in Europe, Poland fits into the niche that Britain occupied: helping the EU’s pro-trade, fiscally prudent camp, led by Germany, counter-balance France with its tendencies towards protectionism and heavy spending.
Last week illustrated Poland’s new status. Prime Minister Donald Tusk met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday, flew on to Brussels to meet EU chiefs, and on Friday received French President Francois Hollande in Warsaw.
“With the UK drifting, of course Poland’s relevance will go up,” said Kai-Olaf Lang at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
He said that was especially true now that France was run by Hollande, a Socialist who appears to be trying to build an informal bloc with the leaders of Spain and Italy.
“Germany needs something like a counterweight,” said Lang. “Germany is looking for partners which share its philosophy of financial responsibility.”
The irony for Poland is that it does not want Britain’s influence to weaken. The two countries have long-standing ties. Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski was born in London, and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski studied at Oxford University.
Warsaw believes that a Britain less engaged in Europe will weaken the pro-market camp and favour France and the other, more protectionist states on the southern side of the continent.
“We have a very clear view that UK isolation would be a loss for us - liberal countries - and a loss for the EU,” said a Polish diplomat based in Brussels.
But the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Europe’s internal equilibrium was shifting. “A clear counterweight (to the EU’s southern camp) is being created, and our position has significantly gained in importance.”
Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland has been building its influence in Brussels. It even set up special academies to train young cadres in how to navigate EU institutions.
“I now hear groups of Poles speaking in Polish in the corridors more often than German,” said one Brussels-based EU official, who is not a Pole.
Yet over the past few years, Poland’s progress accelerated. Some of the traditional EU powers lost influence because their economies are in crisis. Britain, with the ruling Conservative party under pressure from Eurosceptics in its ranks, began drifting to the margins of Europe.
Britain last year angered its partners by refusing to join the “fiscal compact” for budget discipline. It is now causing consternation by threatening to veto the bloc’s budget.
Poland, meanwhile, is newly confident about its place in the world and the EU’s only economy not to go into recession since the global financial crisis started.
“The weaker the role of Britain, the more the need for a country like Poland to fill that gap,” said Pawel Swieboda, a former government adviser who heads the demosEUROPA think-tank in the Polish capital. “We want to be at the centre of gravity.”
It is not only Poles who think their country’s stature in the EU is growing. “For many of us, it has been clear Poland was playing a stronger role inside the EU,” said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
Ultimately, Germany holds the key to whatever influence Poland will wield. Despite their blood-stained history - older Poles still remember the Nazi occupation during World War Two - the neighbours are now close partners.
The rapport was on show at a ceremony in Berlin last week when Tusk and Merkel chatted and joked in the background for about 10 minutes while their ministers signed a series of cooperation agreements.
They are not always on the same page. Alliances in the EU shift constantly. On the EU’s budget, for example, or on greenhouse gas emissions, Warsaw and Berlin disagree.
But they are bound together by a shared belief in a Europe that promotes free trade and fiscal responsibility - and the conviction they need to work together to protect these principles inside the European Union.
No one in Europe believes Poland can replace Britain entirely. Its economy is about a third the size of Britain’s and it does not have the diplomatic heft of Britain, which is a member of the United Nations Security Council.
Poland also lacks Britain’s defence and security muscle, though for many of its European peers it is more important that Warsaw is a supporter of a strong common defence policy. This could lead to a common EU army - something London is wary of.
In many ways Poland will push a different agenda to Britain inside Europe. It is attached to EU agriculture subsidies because its farmers rely on them. It opposes EU carbon taxes because it still burns coal to generate most of its electricity.
The most crucial difference, though is that Poland’s government believes in more integration, not less, allowing it to position itself at the heart of Europe.
“Poland is looking good ... It is seen as a useful partner in any deals that need to be done,” said Krzysztof Bobinski, president of Unia & Polska, a Polish think tank.
“I have not always taken Poland in the EU seriously in the past, but I am now.”