We need to rethink Europe

Sławomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), talks to Poland.pl about the role of PISM, Polish foreign policy, the development of the region from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Seas, as well as the future of Europe and its security.

Poland.pl: The Polish Institute of International Affairs is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, think-tanks in Central-Eastern Europe. What is PISM’s recipe for success? In what ways is the institute unique?

Sławomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs: I don’t pay much attention to various sorts of rankings. I’m also not a big fan of the term “think-tank” to describe PISM. There are thousands of think-tanks around the world, most of them private and, in fact, business-oriented. So, in this galaxy, among myriad stars, moons and black holes, we are a unique object. PISM was founded by an act of the Polish parliament to provide the government with advocacy and intellectual support for the process of shaping and conducting Poland’s foreign policy. These are the two fundamental functions of our institute.

We work as an “in-house opinion provider”, supplying the government with expertise, analysis and recommendations, first and foremost for the needs of the prime minister, the minister leading foreign policy, and the president. PISM is a “message-driven organisation” not an academic “research driven” one. Our task is to provide expert content, strongly embedded within the current political context. We don’t determine policies—that is the role of the government. Our task is to support the government by providing expertise in given policy areas.

What are the main challenges facing the institute in the immediate future?

Above all is creating a very specific team of analysts that are able to formulate recommendations that are also of a political nature. Doing this requires a lot of experience working at the intersection of two worlds—that of experts and of politicians. It involves the very rare talent of briefing politicians and providing them with information in a very synthesized manner and supported by a certain perspective. There is always a certain temperament that at any given time serves Poland’s foreign policy. What sets the people who work with PISM apart from others is their abilities, which cannot be learned, neither at university nor at any think-tank. One has to pick up these skills and temperament the hard way.

One could compare us to a law firm. Law firms prepare an argument at the behest of their client and on a specific case. On one day it might be one issue, the next day it could be some other one. If a political decision-maker has a certain issue to deliver, PISM should be able to give advice on how to do that most efficiently, how to avoid trouble and how to formulate the political messaging so it hits its target well. PISM can be useful here because we deal with the world outside government on a daily basis, we test our messages in seminars, conferences and other sorts of forums held around the world. We test the strength of different arguments. It’s about knowing what works and what doesn’t should the need arise and it’s about having an arsenal of divergent arguments at your disposal.

Poland’s current government places a lot of importance on relations with other Central European countries, such as trying to deepen relations with the Baltic States, the V4 as well as the Balkans. Is it fair to talk of a reorientation of Polish foreign policy?

First, it is about how we think about foreign policy. If we understand it as optimising the country’s ability to pursue its interests and to do business with other actors, we had better realise that it is a process. Foreign policy uses many different instruments, shaped and abandoned continuously in reaction to the changing international environment. Put simply, something works now but tomorrow it may not be necessary and we will need something different, but rarely something entirely new. So, we should bear in mind that the current government’s approach should not be described in terms of a radical reorientation of foreign policy but rather that it is shaping new foreign policy instruments, addressing different problems, emphasising different needs and aspirations, and we should be precise in that matter.

Sometimes the lack of political precision helps those who don’t necessarily care about Poland. So, the government aims to strengthen cooperation within the region that may be called the “Wider Central Europe” (WCE), embracing the Baltic, sometimes even the Nordic, V4 and Balkan countries, and is willing to invest politically more than its predecessors in keeping the region united and focused on joint projects in energy security and infrastructure issues. The markets of the region have developed somewhat differently and are not as saturated as the markets of countries further along in the integration process, such as the Netherlands, Denmark or even Spain, which were part of the single market for decades before Poland joined.

The group of WCE countries contains certain sectors characterised by a lower saturation of competition compared to countries that have been in the EU for longer. This is an attractive element for investors from outside the European Union. If someone wants to enter the European market today, it is easier for them to do so through the WCE.

When it comes to a name for this area, I know of at least four other terms used to describe the region you have asked about. We cannot still be “new Member States” 12 years after joining the EU. Our region is also not “new Europe”—we are as old a part of Europe as its other parts. Then, there are historical terms—“former members of the Eastern Bloc”. This also doesn’t sound right because we tore off the shackles of communism so that we longer have to be defined by it. The Chinese describe the region as the “16+”. They have a special economic programme for this part of the world. President of Poland Andrzej Duda, on the other hand, uses the term “ABC”—Adriatic, Baltic, Black seas. The fact that there are so many different terms is a sign that none of them have stuck. Therefore, I prefer to call it Wider Central Europe because it is shorter and it sounds better in English. 

In countries within the region—between the Baltic and Adriatic—there is, however, a willingness to push ahead with closer, vertical cooperation. This willingness is not driven by the intent to build a bloc against anyone. Those familiar with the politics and history of the region know that it has never been possible it to form a coalition able to generate a message directed against anyone. It’s about cooperation, about strengthening one’s own position. Within this practical context, foreign policy is about creating new instruments that serve to strengthen Poland around the world. This is what the EU and NATO are there for—they are not the goals but rather the instruments.

The current government has defined its policies in such a way as to intensify cooperation in the region. Critics of this policy say that there is nothing behind it. However, I would like to inform them that politics is always aspirational. It is about aiming for something. One could say that our policy aimed at EU and NATO accession also had nothing but aspirations behind it. Not long after the collapse of communism, Jan Kułakowski, Poland’s first ambassador to the European Community, after handing over his credentials without any formal instruction from Warsaw, told Jacques Delors, then the head of the European Commission, that Poland wanted to join the European Community. On hearing this, Delors’ eyes almost jumped out in amazement. It was an example of aspirational policy. The economic situation at the time was such that everyone in Poland thought “maybe in 50 years’ time” we could join.

How can Wider Central Europe be successfully integrated?

At this point in time, the political substance of this cooperation is still being developed. However, it seems obvious that the region is interested in diversifying its sources of energy. This can be heard wherever one goes. Even in Hungary.

What do Hungarians say? “We are stuck with Gazprom and Russia, we don’t have anywhere else to get our energy from, so we need to work with them”. However, if you say to them, “let’s think about creating an alternative”, they reply “of course, we are interested in the possibility of receiving gas from other sources”—from the gas terminals in Świnoujście or the Croatian island of Krk. That would require building a transmission network that could integrate the region. It is not a coincidence that Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović supports the integration process of the region.

The region needs several huge infrastructure projects. One could be a fast-rail network, which does not exist here. We know from the experience of the UK, France and Germany that this type of project can create a lot of momentum. All of the analysts studying the region would agree that it would be one of the strongest triggers integration. Also, many countries in the region are too small to have a developed aviation network or to be able to build a fast-railways on their own. Together, however, the numbers start to add up. It would of course have to be a project based on European rail standards, which would help the Baltic States move away from being part of the post-Soviet rail network and join Europe in this area.

For years, the Eastern Partnership was one of the main projects of Polish diplomacy. How should the track record of the EP be evaluated from today’s perspective? Has the model run its course?

I don’t think that the model has run its course completely, but we now have a different political context. We need to remember that foreign policy builds new instruments but the effectiveness of these instruments depends on what happens around us. The concept was created in 2008, when after Russia’s war with Georgia there was a need for a practical instrument that could be used for more than managing the immediate neighbourhood. The Eastern Partnership was built to supplement European Neighbourhood Policy, which adopted an identical approach for all of the EU’s neighbours. The idea was that if there were countries that wanted to be more than simply neighbours, then instruments would be needed to support their aspirations. It is in the interest of all EU Member States for their neighbourhood to be as stable as possible. Those who think that this is not important for us should just look at what is happening in Libya and Syria and what happened in Georgia and Ukraine.

I dare to say that the Eastern Partnership was a belated policy. If it had been developed earlier, Ukraine might be in a different position today and perhaps it would not have been the victim of Russian aggression. Ukraine was a weak state. European policy towards its closest neighbour should be aimed at countering that weakness and strengthening it and other countries so that they are able to respond to the aspirations of their societies.

As a result of this new context, EP requires adaptation at several levels. A country that demands the perspective of EU membership and has the full right to do so, such as Ukraine, should be met with a response from the Union to its aspirations. There are, of course, countries in the Eastern Partnership that have stopped expressing these aspirations. These countries need to face the consequences, not the idea that the EU will suddenly turn its back on them but that the forces and means within the Eastern Partnership need to be focused in such a way that they help those that want the help the most.

Is the tightening of relations between China and Wider Central Europe and the concept of the “New Silk Road” a real opportunity for the region or is it a distant idea that is still rather abstract?

Again, we need to approach politics as an instrument used not only to pursue hard interests but also aspirations. No doubt we are dealing with certain aspirations on China’s part in its eagerness to play a greater role in relations with Europe. China has an enormous surplus of wealth, not only as a state but also in the commercial realm, and is looking for investment projects in order to make use of its great financial potential. It is trying to interest Europe in closer cooperation through various infrastructure projects. Over the course of a few months, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will have visited the region between the Baltic and Adriatic four times: Belgrade and Prague already and he is visiting Warsaw in June, and then in the autumn he is due to visit Riga. One may say he visits the region more often than he does the United States and perhaps more often even than with the head of the European Commission. What is significant is that China looks at this region from a broader perspective without really preoccupying itself with issues such as NATO or EU membership. It also invests in Ukraine and Belarus. This is perhaps strategic and long-term thinking, keeping in mind what Europe will look like in several dozen years. I am convinced that in several dozen years Belarus and Ukraine will be part of Europe and perhaps even democratic Russia—although at the moment there is not much that indicates that this will be the case—yet even this vision can be painted with a big dose of optimism.

We’ve talked about the economy and infrastructure of the region. What about security?

Without a doubt, this is the number one topic for European societies on many different levels. A certain level of frustration and anti-establishment sentiment is connected not only to the fact that elites have lost touch with societies—European politicians don’t realise how much it irritates people to see images of EU leaders in glass buildings debating their lives, imposing on them their own elitist concepts of progress—and one of the reasons behind this sense of alienation is that to them Europe no longer feels like a guarantor of security. They also don’t feel that Europe has a future or that it will determine the development of the world. We’ve become very self-content, “fat cats” often even on an aspirational level. At the same time, the differences within society are very serious and are evident in every country while the so-called “European elites” seem not to realise this.

Unfortunately, this fuels the fire of frustration. What should young Spaniards do who have finished university and cannot find work? What type of vision is offered by the European Union, which creates various programmes such as Erasmus and yet when these students return home are faced with the task of “reinventing oneself”. If European policy is made without consulting its societies, then we will have to deal with an increase in attitudes rejecting this model. And this is dangerous.

We need to rethink Europe. If this cannot be done by the current elites, then change will come. Also, new elites will be born to do the job. It is how democracy works. Europe is a community of self-regulating democracies and we should remember that.  

What influence on the security situation will the decisions made at the NATO Summit in Warsaw have?

Those who want the NATO summit in Warsaw to provide the ultimate response to the threats created by Russia as a result of its aggression in Ukraine won’t be completely satisfied. Also not completely satisfied will be those who think that the Alliance has already done enough regarding this issue. The Warsaw summit constitutes a certain stage in the process of adapting the Alliance to the new strategic situation. This organisation has spent 25 years adapting to peace in Europe, cutting defence spending and decreasing its defence potential. This means that reversing the trend will take time, and certainly can’t be done in two years.

Meanwhile, since the summit in Newport in 2014, which was meant to send a strong message about reassurance. We have entered the next phase in which the Alliance is actually building up forces on its Eastern Flank: there is now a rotational presence there, defence spending is increasing and military exercises are taking place more frequently. The Warsaw summit will send a message about deterrence. It is important that this process continues after Warsaw. This summit needs to give a new impulse to the Alliance to adapt more quickly and eliminate problems that may arise from this adaptation process. But the day after Warsaw we should start to think about the next summit and how to use it to send a message about defence, as there is no credible deterrence without real defence potential and capabilities. The course after Warsaw should be towards focusing NATO on adaptation to the new strategic environment and on the defence of its eastern members.  

Interviewed by Bartosz Marcinkowski


Sławomir Dębski - Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a position he also held from 2007 to 2010. He is a historian and political scientist and was granted a Ph.D. in history from Jagiellonian University in 2002. Between 2011 and 2016, he was Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding and the Editor-in-Chief and part of the Editorial Board of the "Intersection Project".