Poland's role in Europe

Jan Parys, the defense minister in Jan Olszewski's 1991 government, and now the head of the political cabinet of foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, sat down with WBJ Observer to talk about Polish priorities in shaping the European and defense strategy, the challenges now facing the European Union and the government's attitude towards the debate going on in Brussels about the future of the European Community.

Ewa Boniecka, WBJ Observer: Polish foreign policy is linked to our strong presence in the European Union, which is underlined by the Law and Justice (PiS) government. But all members of the EU are aware that the European Union is now facing various kinds of crises and there are questions being raised about its future. So, what is our country's strategy in such a situation?

Jan Parys: In the European policy of Law and Justice (PiS), the most important issue is conducting an honest debate about the future of the European Union; without it, none of the problems - financial crises, economic growth, refugee influx - will be resolved. The current situation, in which the EU has taken so many competencies upon itself, while the existing legal setup of the community does not provide the EU with effective mechanisms to act, leads to confusion in the member states. Reforms are needed in the EU's structure. Recent opinion polls show that the citizens of eight EU member states would like to conduct referenda on their country's membership. It shows that euro-sceptic opinions are strong in some member countries and that many Europeans think EU authorities do not have the mandate needed to resolve the difficult challenges presently facing the community. There are also complaints that the European Union is suffering from a deficit of democracy, the basis on which the community was built. The citizens of member countries feel that they are ignored by representatives in the EU, who seem out of touch with ordinary Europeans. Such feelings between Brussels and European societies do not strengthen solidarity in the European Union. Accordingly, a comprehensive debate about the future of the European Union is surely needed.

We have touched upon certain internal problems in the EU, which are also linked ti the growing influence of anti-European parties in some member states. But Poland is one of the strongest pro-European countries in the Union, while still maintaining its national identity. What are the repercussions for the development of the European Union?

The European Union is a community of nations, and stressing the importance of national identity in each member has nothing to do with nationalism. Every nation has the right to take care of its own identity and to be proud of it. Being a member of the EU does not mean that we forget who we are. The European Union is strong when its members are strong as individual nations. It is naive to think that the EU could ever develop into a federal state. The integration of the community is based upon the will of the members to care for their strong national identities, and Poland's position in the EU is based on that principle.

The European Union has to react towards the hostile policy of Russia, which is threatening international order and behaving aggresively towards Ukraine. Will solidarity in responding to Putin's policies be upheld in the EU, while some members present a different attitude towards the policy of sanctions against Russia?

It is dangerous for the European Union, not only in terms of what Russia is doing in Ukraine, but also its general hostile policy towards the West. Russia wants to change the architecture of security in Europe and is threatening to use force - even nuclear weapons - to relize its goals. So far, the European Union has conducted a common policy towards Russia, while there are some differences in opinion about how to react to Russia's behaviour. So, a debate about the Eu's eastern policy and the stance towards Russia could take place, but I would not fear that different members could present various attitudes in such a debate. The important matter is the final conclusion; we have to work out a common decision based upon facts, and not ideology or the specific interests of individual countries. If such a debate is based on facts, it will be much easier to reach a consensus. The policy of imposing sanctions against Russia is effective and painful for Russia. The European Union is aware of it and so far has shown solidarity and a common stance on prolonging the policy of sanctions. Until the time that the war in Ukraine is ended by Moscow, the EU's policy towards Russia will remain common and firm.

What influence does Poland have in shaping EU policy towards Russia?

We cannot say that we know everything about Russia, but we certainly know more than many Western countries, which often have naive beliefs about Russia. We are Russia's neighbor and carefully observe what is occuring there; many countries listen to our arguments, specifically because they are rational arguments. We certainly have influence on the EU's policy towards Russia; still, we must realize that it has certain limits. Our mistake was that Poland was not present in signing the Minsk agreements concerning the Ukrainian crisis; a direct consequence of the role played by minister Sikorski at the time of the crisis, which was not regarded positively by many countries.

It leads to the question about relations between the EU, the US and NATO. What role do they each play in the face of the current dangerous policy of Russia and tensions in the world?

It is difficult to imagine a Europe that would distance itself from the US. We share common ideas, democratic values, and we have built the Atlantic Alliance together. It is obvious for Europeans that the US is the architect of the Western world, and in spite of certain anti-American sentiment in some European countries, that understanding is common in the EU. In Poland, the close and deep ties with the US are held in great regard. 

In the field of security, the protection given to Europe by the US, which is the main contributor to NATO, is essential for Europeans. The EU is not building its own army, but providing national armed forces to function in the framework of NATO. Having said that, there is urgent need to increase military budgets in member states, which decreased after the cold war period. We have to develop better and closer cooperation between national armies and contribute more to the strengthening of NATO. It is necessary to increase the number of conventional military forces in Europe because it will lower the risk of using nuclear weapons in defense. Relations between the EU, the US and NATO are linked and interdependent, and have great significance, especially now, in the face of Russia's aggresive policies towards the West.

NATO is currently increasing its presence in CEE and is doing so significantly in Poland. You took part in the ceremony laying the cornerstone for the construction of the anti-missile shield in Redzikowo. What were your personal feelings at that moment?

That moment, when we were first considering building an anti-missile base in Poland, was very moving for me. I remember that when, in 1992, I began to talk about Poland moving nearer towards NATO, I was met with ridicule, there were voices that said it was impossible, that it was madness. Still, we joined NATO and the base in Redzikowo, which will begin operating in 2018, is a strong first signal that Poland is not treated by NATO as a periphery area, but as a country vital to strengthening the whole of NATO. Through establishing the base in Redzikowo, it is confirmed that any attack on us will be treated as an attack on the American garrison, and that Americans will defend Poland. The installation of the anti-missile base in Redzikowo is important for the security of the whole of NATO's Eastern Flank. It is well-known and respected in the Alliance that Poland has a deeply rooted military culture ready to defend our independence at all costs.

Nevertheless, I want to point out that in my opinion there are still too few NATO bases in our part of Europe. When we look at the map we see that the bases are located in Western Europe. It is important and fortunate that the American and NATO anti-missile base is located in Poland and that NATO is drawing conclusions from Russia's aggression towards Ukraine.

The installation of the anti-missile base in Poland has aroused pointed and hostile reactions from Russia. How could it be reflected in Russian policy towards our country?

The policy of Russia towards Poland is part of Moscow's policy towards the West, and there is now a freeze in relations between Russia, the US and the European Union and a cooling in our bilateral relations. The Russian reaction to the building of the base in Redzikowo is predictable as part of Moscow's confrontational stand against NATO. However, Russia is our neighbor and we have to maintain working bilateral relations, which is not easy in the face of Russian behavior. Our eastern neighbor is aiming for the restitution of imperial status and Poland, in connection with the West, is treated by Moscow as the first obstacle. It has been recognized for hundreds of years, since beginnings of geopolitical strategy, that Poland is the heart of Europe and in that sense, whichever power controls Poland has influence over the whole of Europe. We are located between East and West, and Poland knows from historical experience that we cannot stay in a grey zone - we must be connected with the West. After the collapse of communism, Polish society overwhelmingly supported pro-Western policy and we have consequently followed such pro-Western policy and linked our security with our membership in NATO. Poland is strengthening its army and trying to invest more than other Western countries.

Such pro-Western political strategy is shown in our attitude towards Ukraine and its aspirations. The most important matter for us is to attain peace in Ukraine in a framework of respect for international principles and providing security for Ukraine and Europe. Poland is involved in reaching such aims, yet it is seen by Russia as an affront to its political aimsperceived as Polish hostility towards Russia.

We have talked about many aspects of Poland's role in Europe. I would like to ask you how you view the future of the European Union, are your prevailing feelings optimistic or pessimistic?

As far as the future of the European Union is concerned, I am an optimist, because I believe in Europe. I think that the EU is a crucial mechanism needed for the survival of Europe. When there are so many disscussions about what to do with the EU, it is proof of concern about the structure and evidence that there is a willingness to improve it. I think that such a debate is needed from time to time to correct the functioning of a big structure - it is common in big international bodies. For the EU, it is time to respond to new challenges and new situations. Hence, anyonewho claims that maintaining the status quo is most important and departing from it would be a catastrophe, is misled. Everything is in our hands. Still, we have to take care that reforms in the EU are not left in the hands of ideologists, but in the hands of people who are able to think rationally and who are ready to build a mutually prosperous and fair Europe.

Interviewed by EWA BONIECKA

Source: WBJ Observer 


Jan Parys, the defense minister in Jan Olszewski's 1991 government, and now the head of the political cabinet of foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski.