Poland wants to heal the European Union

An interview with Konrad Szymański, Secretary of State for European Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

What will it take to make integration popular again?

In nation states, which are real political communities, there is today a sense that they lack control over this process, that they lack influence on its development. This process is a foreign one to them.

This is a pathological situation, because we are talking about a deep phenomenon, unprecedented in history, which affects many areas of life. If integration continues to belong to nobody, then it will wither away.

Has Brussels bureaucracy taken control over this process?

That is what is widely believed, although of course the reality is somewhat more complicated. This impression comes from classic social communication mechanisms in national capitals that assume that every success is ours, while every setback is theirs. The Union is helpless in the face of this, because communication narratives coming from national capitals are significantly stronger, they focus on public opinion on a permanent basis – in contrast to the EU, which does so on a sporadic basis. But this communication is key. One needs to return ownership of the European project to real political communities, to democratic nations. Attempts by supra-national democratic mechanisms to legitimise this project have failed. This needs to be now said loud and clear.

So how can we solve this problem?

In order for nation states to once again feel responsible for integration, they need to regain the sense that they are influencing it. Today, this process belongs to nobody, it has been abandoned. Poland, the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries as well as Great Britain are pointing this out increasingly loudly. In order to change this, the most obvious way forward is to grant a certain number of national parliaments the right not only to withhold draft European directives, but also to abandon them, substituting a yellow card with a red one. When 11 parliaments – representing one hundred million people – recently presented on Poland’s initiative suggestions regarding the Posting of Workers Directive, they were completely ignored by the European Commission, whose democratic legitimacy is much more hazy. This is a very bad situation. One could also envisage introducing a mechanism that allows countries to refer to the European Council more frequently, when they have doubts about an initiative pushed by the European Commission. Indeed, this limits the effectiveness of decision-making capabilities in Brussels, however it is better to have fewer decisions, but ones that really reflect the intentions of member states.

Before Merkel came to Warsaw she met with the leaders of France and Italy. Is she closer to Southern Europe?

After Brexit, the EU needs to show a new unity and a political agenda. This wont happen at the September summit in Brussels, it is more about a process that has to take place relatively fast. There are two problems that need to be tackled: tensions between Central Europe and Berlin regarding migration policy and the disagreements between Northern Europe and Southern Europe about fiscal rigor. The first problem stokes stronger emotions because it deals with the vision for the societies in which we want to live in. Paradoxically, however, it is much easier to solve. It is enough if we accept that in this area the EU can work together only on certain things, for example humanitarian assistance, protection of borders, co-operation with Third World countries in North Africa and the Middle East. This in itself goes a long way to solve the problem, which will last many years. But Brussels and Berlin need to dispose of all central management tools regarding migration policy and refugees. This simply won’t work, it will only increase tensions at a time when we need unity. It appears that Germany is increasingly coming to understand this. Solidarity in response to the migration crisis can take on different forms. However, solving the problem between southern and northern Europe will be much more difficult. Due to political reasons, Germany is not able to take responsibility for the public or private debt of southern countries. Therefore, the South is justified in feeling that the rules upon which the Eurozone is supposed to function are not being respected. The gulf between the standard of living in the South and North is widening; in Germany it easy to borrow money while in the South investments barely have a pulse due to financial restrictions.

If this is indeed the case then is it easier for Germany and France to work together with Poland than with the Italians and Spaniards?

Warsaw is now part of the solution to problems, for example negotiating with Great Britain prior to the referendum or with Turkey regarding taking in refugees. We are ready to play a constructive role in the integration process, not only as Poland but also as Central Europe. We want this project to last, to do well, to heal. If our boundary conditions are met then the German-French-Polish engine could work, although most likely after the elections in Germany and France, because until then it will be difficult for these countries to take on big initiatives within the EU.

But Poland has to do its homework: solve the Constitutional Tribunal dispute in such a way that leaves no doubts that democracy is enforced properly in our country…

I don’t agree with the rhetoric stating that Poland does not respect the rules of democracy. We have a serious problem with one of our constitutional institutions. We are trying to solve it and this should be acknowledged by Europe. A lot of things have been improved recently. It is a pity that the European Commission, which at the beginning behaved very pro-actively on this issue, has become hardly constructive at all in these final stages. No doubt things would be better if the Tribunal issue had already been resolved, but this cannot be done on someone’s orders. This would be a bad precedent that would allow the European Commission to dictate in detail the workings of national institutions. There have to be certain limits to these interventions.

In order to play in the first league, Poland also has to prove that it still respects financial rigor. And here we are with a draft state budget for 2017 with a almost 60 billion zl deficit…

The deficit remains under control, in relation to GDP it is lower than it has been in the last quarter of a century. Poland is not turning its back on fiscal responsibility. This is why social promises are being introduced according to this, and not some other, calendar.

Strengthening Poland’s position in Brussels would also serve to explain our plans regarding the currency union. Will we ever take on the euro?

This is not a ticket that gives us increased influence in Brussels. This is decided by other factors.  The EU has to realise that it wont be a one-currency organisation. Berlin understands this very well. It is closely connected to many economies outside the Eurozone and dividing Europe according to this criteria is not in its interest. In politics you can never rule anything out, but I really doubt that Poland will, even in the long term, join the currency union. However, the decision on this matter will be made by a different cabinet.

Is Nord Stream 2 continuing to poison Polish-German relations?

I appreciate that the German administration does not want to assume responsibility for this project and stubbornly considers it to be an initiative constituting private companies. This suggests that Germany senses that it is not something to boast about. Because this not just a question of security of supply and Russian influence, but also about if we want the energy market in the EU to be competitive, if we want it to put consumers in a strong position. However, this is an issue that divides us.

The Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico is flying to Moscow on Thursday in order to reach an understanding with Vladimir Putin, while without Merkel there would be no EU sanctions against Russia. Have we been let down by our Eastern European partners when it comes to Eastern policy?

This needs to be seen in a wider context. The Visegrad Group countries never broke European solidarity in terms of sanctions, they also didn’t sabotage NATO plans regarding the East. This is more important for us than gestures. For Germany, sanctions against Russia are crucial in maintaining the unity of the West, that is widely speaking, the unity of Europe and America. We really appreciate this. But let us also not forget that even in Berlin there is a big divide when it comes to dealing with Russia, especially between the CDU and SPD.

Great Britain is delaying the start of formal negotiations on Brexit. Is this a problem for us? 

As long as it respects the rights and responsibilities of member states and does not cause excessive levels of uncertainty, then this is something that we can live with. I understand that it is difficult for the British government to establish a model for long-term relations with Brussels. But I want to say clearly: after leaving the EU these relations need to be based on a symmetry of rights and responsibilities.

Will the City lose its access to the EU financial market if Great Britain does not maintain free of movement and does not pay in funds to the EU’s budget?

Yes, although we could see tailored solutions.

How much will Brexit cost Poland financially?

A lot depends on the hallmarks of the 2020 budget. If the British decide to stop paying in funds then the annual loss in flows to Poland would amount to approx. EUR 1 billion. But if this is compensated by increasing the contributions of the other EU member states, then our contribution will increase by 250 million euros – this is the net value of how much we will lose. It is worth remembering that it is unlikely that Britain will stop all contributions. This is just one possible scenario.

For Poland, would not the best scenario be a Great Britain that remains closely integrated with the EU, similar to the Norwegian model?

This would be better for both sides, but it is completely Great Britain’s decision to make. They have to define it themselves. It is not the aim for our negotiations.

After the elections, the new Polish government announced that Great Britain would be our main ally. What then followed was an abysmally low level of debate in London in the lead up to the referendum, its result and the leaders of the Brexit campaign escaping the responsibility of their own actions. Is this still a serious country?

Yes, it is still a serious country that has slipped up a bit. This happens. But Great Britain will remain a strategic partner for Poland, because it understand the security needs of Central Europe better than Paris and Berlin. We do not oppose the development of Europe’s defence capabilities, as promoted by the French and Germans, but on the condition that that they don’t clash with NATO. The West can not afford such frills. We need Europe to play a bigger in building its security architecture, but not at the cost of the West’s unity.

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