In defence of the rules

Konrad Szymański, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaks about successes, failures and the future of the European Union.

Piotr Legutko, Gość Niedzielny: What was the plan behind the pre-emptive measure to block Donald Tusk's election as president of the European Council?

Konrad Szymański, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: It was about rules. It was a decision made quite consciously when it turned out that the Member States were prepared to ignore at least two principles that we consider binding and remain committed to. The first was the strong involvement of President Tusk in Poland's internal debate, which is unacceptable for international actors. The second concerned the right to nominate a person to a high EU position by the country of origin. This principle is defined in the European Treaty even in relation to the Commission, which is a much more communal body than the Council.

But there is no specific provision that the President of the European Council must have the mandate of his own country.

There is also no record of them having to be a former prime minister, and yet many states have raised the issue in the discussion. We can talk about it, but this is a rule that is not based in any treaty. In my opinion, the principle of the designation of one's own country is binding, and its breach has serious consequences. That is why Prime Minister Beata Szydlo decided that she will not look by idly and will not accept the imposition of force or pressure.

Was it clear from the start that this gesture would be rather a symbolic, minority gesture or was there a chance that a larger group of countries would offer their support? There was talk not only of hopes but also initial declarations.

At a certain stage it became clear that we would be alone in this issue. But this doesn’t change anything, because this was not about symbolic but rather about principles. And when it comes to principles we are ready to act alone.

So one can say that the defeat was expected. But is talking about a success not a denial of reality?

Only time will tell what the ultimate results of these efforts will be. It is clear that we lost the vote but voting is only part of a much wider process, which is ongoing. If we talk of defeat, then it is a defeat of the entire EU. However, the achievements will be all the more apparent if the rules are changing guiding co-operation between the heads of government within the Council and if we will then see a much stricter adherence to his mandate by the president. It will be also judged on whether we manage to change the selection process for the EU’s highest positions. In my opinion, success is very realistic in both these cases and Poland’s position will make its mark on how the EU functions.

But the poster stating 27:1 does make an impression and creates a shared sentiment. The result speaks for itself. It is painful and embarrassing.

It wasn’t painful for us because we see every EU process in the larger scheme of things. I am convinced that our experiences on March 9 will in the near future be interpreted very differently to how they are seen now. The heads of government went back to their countries with the shared understanding that the selection process governing top EU positions needs to be refined.

However, does the experience of March 9 not make it more difficult for us to operate in the EU, have we not been sidelined as a result? Some European politicians clearly state that this is the case.

No, it won’t make things more difficult. Over the past one and a half years Poland has shown that it can act very assertively regarding some issues, while on other issues it is able to seek a compromise. However, the measure of our value cannot be the statements of politicians involved in a dispute with Poland. We are willing to reach compromises on the condition that rules are respected and our interests are taken into consideration. And no one can talk over this with mention of marginalization. Poland, as a sovereign country, sends a clear message about what it expects from the European Union. I have the impression that there is a gulf between this mindless talk and real policy.

Is there not a danger that the result of this vote will be repeated when the issue of possible sanctions against Poland is raised?

There is no such danger. Apart for Poland, the March 9 vote was not a priority issue for practically all countries, which is why it turned out the way it did. But every issue is governed by its own logic. A crisis in one situation need not be transferred to other negotiation tables and we will make sure of that.

Does this principle also apply to the Visegrad Group?

In this case our positions diverged for obvious reasons, it was a specific situation, but I am convinced that co-operation within the Visegrad Group will continue because it is based on a shared vision and common interests. It is one of the most compact regional groups in the EU.

Although the foundations of the EU itself are starting to shake. Perhaps one day history text books will point to Versailles in March 2017 as the beginning of the end of this ambitious project.

There is no reason to talk of the end of this project. It is justified to talk of a crisis or a serious rethink, but the EU has a good chance to regain control of its fate and the vitality that underpinned its work for 60 years. As you mention history textbooks, the EU can be satisfied with itself because – despite its weaknesses and mishaps – it has strengthened security and prosperity in Europe.

In quoting President Hollande’s famous statement to Poles – “You have principles, we have the funds” – we can ask ourselves what ever happened to these founding principles of the EU? 

I don’t want to focus on the latest unfortunate statement coming from Paris in these tough times, because it doesn’t put us in the best possible position to solve the problems facing the EU. I firmly believe that it is not mutually exclusive to have both money and principles. We are able to defend our principles effectively also due to the fact that we have strong foundations in the form of prosperity. With regard to values upon which the EU was founded 60 years ago, the truth is that Europe looked completely different back then.

Europe was bonded by Christian values.

Last week in Warsaw we had a conference on the beautification of Alcide de Gasperi and Robert Schumann, the founding fathers of the EU, which sounds somewhat exotic if one considers the EU today. One has to remember, however, that it is not so much the instigator but the mirror of certain processes although one has to admit that sometimes it strengthens these processes because, as with every international organization, it is susceptible to something of an ideological colonialisation.

And thus 60 years after Schumann we are accused of violating “EU values” with regard to the human right of…abortion.

This is the perfect example of the colonialisation of not only institutions, but also the human rights doctrine by a very narrow ideological project. There is not a single international human rights document or EU treaty that states that abortion is a human right. Not to mention the fact that it is a very obdurate concept given that abortion clashes with the ontological foundation of all human right, that is the right to life. These are rhetorical games that cannot be treated as arguments in the discussion about values because we never agreed on such values in the first place. This is one of the voices in the current debate, one that is indeed very loud in Europe. It is unproportionally loud and public opinion leaders are not standing up to it effectively enough. But this is a reflex of Europe’s cultural crisis. Let us not forget that when the EU was founded, when the treaties and most important documents were created, almost all member states regarded abortion as an attack on the human life.

Do you often face accusations within EU structures that state that Poland is obstructing the path to modernization and progress?

I never came across such accusations myself. But cultural differences in Europe are very easy to spot. Poland is a glorious example of this. Only that we’re in the position now that all the other countries were in when European integration was born. They are the ones that have changed, so it doesn’t make sense to accuse us. Everyone says that today we need a common denominator. Perhaps they should ask themselves why this common denominator slipped away in the first place…Why so many societies went down a different path? In many regards, Europe is more integrated, co-operation mechanisms are extremely sublimated, but at the same time our common cultural and civilizational denominator has become a lot more disintegrated than it was at the start. Integration has gone off course and this is the main reason why Europe is now coming apart. Europe does a pretty good job at focusing on technocratic issues, but it does less well when it comes to fundamental issues.

Meanwhile, the source of most threats facing the EU is its departure from values and principles.

If Europeans don’t know how they want to live, then someone else will tell them. And this restlessness that we see in Western societies is very visible during elections, when people seek to placate their qualms. These are not social qualms or typical political doubts regarding things such as taxes, pensions and education. They are existential qualms that have not been entirely defined, because the protest movements are not Christian in nature. This doesn’t change the fact that they create a natural fear of the future in the Western world, a fear about the possibility of reproducing the world that they have become accustomed to, about the level of control over the cultural landscape.

Do what degree does the conflict between the Netherlands and Turkey count as one of these threats? Who carries the responsibility for the escalation of this dispute?

The Dutch government used measures that go beyond those in the liberal political toolbox, using the justification that it was doing so for the greater good and to ensure a sense of political security for its citizens. In the backdrop there is the fear for the survival of the Dutch social model. At the same time, the Turks have the right to ask why it is they who have been chosen as the target of these restrictions, it would seem natural that they would have the right to congregating and contacts with their country of origin, especially at the ministerial level. This is squaring the circle, but liberal democracy cannot escape from these questions because they are based on dangerous contradictions upon liberal democracy is founded. Until now it was blind to threats to social cohesion and it continues to be helpless. This blindness was completely conscious because after all the foundation of a liberal democracy is its openness. The Dutch elections were to a large degree focused on how far one can go with regard to tolerance to social diversity, which after all was until now the dogma of liberal democracy. Only that in these current circumstances it is starting to endanger political cohesion. The first indictor of this was the emancipation of Islamic parties in the Netherlands itself. We now have a very strong anti-Islamist reaction, which was led by Wilders. But we also have an attempt to demarcate the boundaries of the political community by the liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte. This is something new.

How should Poland respond to the issue of migration? The government talks a lot about our sense of security but less about our responsibilities. As a result it gets stuck in traps, such as the allegations that it is even afraid to take in 10 orphans from Aleppo.

The story of the “10 orphans from Aleppo” was a particularly unfortunate political game which instrumentalised people who really are unhappy, who have been harmed. I hope that it wasn’t completely deliberate. If we didn’t care about our humanitarian responsibilities then we wouldn’t have doubled our spending in this area. They are even bigger when you consider our contributions to the Turkish fund, UN funds or the Syrian fund. However we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the overwhelming majority of people arriving in Europe do not have the status of refugees and that the mass and uncontrolled immigration creates threats to security. If one and a half years ago we were dealing with a wave of one and a half million people, whose identities we could not verify, then it is absurd to assume that there are no dangerous people among them. This first wave was managed catastrophically and our government did not want to become involved in it. Poland will not carry the responsibility for bad decisions taken outside of Poland.

Opening humanitarian corridors would not create a danger to our security. The Law and Justice chairman strongly supported this measure in his recent interview with “Rzeczpospolita”.

This declaration by Jaroslaw Kaczynski is ground-breaking and far-reaching. At the same time it is a response to expectations from the Catholic Church and our own feeling that in addition to providing security we should also provide assistance. All of our actions within the framework of external migration policy clearly show that no one in our government is shirking humanitarian responsibility.

Konrad Szymanski – Politician, lawyer and author. Since 2015 the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Comes from Kalisz (born in 1969), graduated from the Faculty of Law at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. He was a member of the European Parliament between 2004 and 2014. 

gosc niedzielny.jpg Source: Gość Niedzielny