President Barack Obama's fence-mending with Poland

Presidents of 20 East and Central European countries attend a plenary session at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, May 27, 2011
Image caption Mr Obama will join leaders of several central and eastern European nations in Warsaw on Friday

The inclusion of Poland in President Barack Obama's schedule is a measure of the growing importance of the relationship between Washington and Warsaw.

With a crowded agenda, the US President and his Polish counterpart, Bronislaw Komorowski, will exchange views on a variety of subjects ranging from global events like the Arab Spring to important bilateral issues like visa problems for Poles eager to travel to the United States.

Security matters will also take a significant slice of their time: mainly US-Polish military ties, but there will also be discussions about Poland's urgent desire to improve its energy security by drawing upon US expertise to harness gas from its own local shale deposits.

The two presidents are also expected to host a dinner with the heads of state from a number of other central and eastern European countries, providing an opportunity for wider consultation on a range of key global issues.

Indeed, the breadth of the US-Polish agenda speaks volumes as to the increasing significance of Poland as a European actor, both within Nato, and the European Union.

Nonetheless, there will be some fence-mending for Mr Obama to do.

As Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, told me, "Poland has traditionally been a close ally of the US on security matters, but that alliance has become strained in recent years".

"Poles were upset by President Obama's abrupt cancellation of the Bush administration's plans for missile defence, which would have stationed interceptors in Poland, and they are still arguing with the Obama administration about whether the Patriot missiles that Poland wants should be based there permanently or not," he added.

Indeed, Mr Obama's decision to review the Bush administration's missile defence plans soon after he came into office resulted in a revised system which caused dismay in Warsaw and Prague.


Both the Polish and Czech governments were going to host elements of the system and they had invested considerable political capital in selling this - sometimes unpopular - plan to their own populations.

The revised missile defence system, announced in September 2009, involves US warships in the Mediterranean and subsequently, a land-based element in Romania. Only then, in phase III, some time around 2018, will Poland host a missile interceptor site.

Image caption Obama will hold bilateral talks with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski

This shift was seen in some quarters in Warsaw as an explicit attempt by the new, untested US administration, to curry favour with Moscow. Mr Obama had made "re-setting" US-Russia ties a key priority.

The Polish government was again disappointed when US plans to station Patriot air-defence missiles in the country did not involve the permanent presence of US troops.

Similarly, talk about US F-16 jets being based in Poland - a deal which may be agreed during this visit - falls short of initial Polish expectations. The jets are likely to go to Poland for joint training at regular intervals, but it is far from clear that a permanent US base will be established.

Poland is concerned about what it sees as a weakening of resolve in Nato: a desire to push out the alliance's area of concern beyond Europe while, many in Poland fear, not investing enough on the residual threats on the European continent itself.

Charles Grant notes that "Poland has become increasingly involved in trying to build up the European Union as a significant actor in European defence".

Only last week, he says, "together with Germany and France, it proposed an EU operational military headquarters, much to the annoyance of the UK and the US".

In addition, "the vociferous opposition of Polish leaders to the Nato-managed bombing of Libya has only served to increase the distance between Washington and Warsaw," he says.

Shale gas deposits

Image caption Energy companies have been trying to assess the viability of shale gas deposits in Poland

Given Poland's traditional and continuing concerns about its Russian neighbour, it is not surprising that energy security will figure prominently in the presidents' talks.

Significant shale gas deposits have been discovered in Poland and their exploitation could have a major impact, for example, on the country's chemical industry, which for now relies upon expensive imported oil and Russian natural gas.

Overall, the reserves are estimated to be sufficient to meet Poland's gas consumption for decades to come, giving the country independence from reliance upon Russian gas supplies.

Several US and Canadian companies, countries that have pioneered shale gas extraction, already have licences to drill in Poland. Warsaw is eager to draw further on US expertise.

But one of the key bilateral issues between the US and Poland involves visas for travel to the USA.

Poland wants to join the visa waiver scheme, which applies for example in Britain and most other European Union countries, where people travelling to the USA do not require a visa for tourism or ordinary visits.

Poland was given a pledge by the Obama administration that it too would be brought into the waiver scheme.

But as yet, no decision has been taken.

With some 2,500 Polish troops fighting alongside the Americans in Afghanistan, this clearly irritates many Poles. What President Obama has to say on this subject will be closely watched.

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