What Kind of Union Does Poland Need?

Before entering into a detailed discussion about what sort of Union Poland needs, let me first emphatically state that Poland does want the European Union. And I am not referring merely to a perception of one-way assistance with so-called modernisation.

After 10 years of membership, one cannot help but be surprised by such thinking, still prevalent in the Polish public discourse. If we rightly expect to be treated as an independent political actor, we cannot define our role exclusively in terms of being a recipient. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no aspect of EU solidarity is of a one-way nature. The goals we pursue with the help of European resources are only those we all have recognised as shared European objectives.

Poland needs the European Union because today it is an important, though not the only, manifestation of the unity of the West as a political entity. Following the end of the Cold War, the notion of “the West” fell into disuse as too strongly associated with the geopolitical rivalry between the Western world and the Soviet bloc. However, it is hardly the sole context for the term. “The West” is an idea that helps us overcome geographical constraints in thinking about the future of our civilisation, which is the appropriate place for Poland to seek and find security, and raison d'être.

The growing concerns about Western civilisation’s durability and integrity only have the effect of downgrading this notion because cultural coherence is no longer as obvious as it once was. Consequently, the West has become an arena for cultural hostility, which will define its evolution. Poland has an important role to play here. Poland and the Central European region have their own, separate and unique experience of a vibrant Christian culture, the importance of which only increases in a time of uncertainty that remains beyond the reach of liberal-democratic remedies. Without reviving Christian culture, Europe will find it extremely difficult to stabilise its position towards the growing civilisational tensions.
The Political Unity of the West
Faced with new global developments such as the economic and political advancement of Asia, worldwide demographic changes, and the “strategic confusion” on Europe’s southern and eastern borders, the political organisations of the West are in need of urgent adaptation and reform. This process is already underway at NATO, where institutional adaptation is easier given the relative clarity of its functions and tasks.

To make matters worse, the increasingly unpredictable political changes in the Member States jeopardise the indispensable reform of the European Union, constricting political consensus on European integration. Unless the situation is stabilised, the EU will lose its rationale and be unable to meet anybody’s expectations. Paradoxically, this does not apply to Central Europe, which careless observers perceive as yet another problem for our continent. But in actual fact, under no national interpretation—from Tallinn to Zagreb—is Central Europe’s empowerment viewed as having the aim of the disintegration of the EU. On the contrary, the Central European countries are the most vocal—perhaps, along with Angela Merkel’s Germany—in praising the fundamental importance of the EU’s scale as the decisive factor defining Europe’s role in the world. The narrowing of political consensus on European integration has been impacted by the course of the eurozone crisis and the widening distance between the political positions of the South (expecting solidarity) and the North (emphasising accountability).

The credibility of integration—aimed at ensuring security and wealth—is now being challenged, as is the credibility of the political class, seeking to legitimise its role with a similar promise. The former was called into question by the eurozone crisis and the latter by the mass migration crisis. 

Restoring political consensus on integration is a necessary, though not the only, condition for something much bigger: the restoration of Western unity. This new political consensus will only emerge if the credibility of EU policy is restored and the real political communities, i.e., nations and nation-states, believe they control this process. 

EU Reform

It is good that in Bratislava the EU has kicked-off an open political discussion on the post-Brexit future. As distrust in the EU has been growing, there is certainly plenty to discuss. The EU must start anew to respond to citizens’ needs, become predictable, and once again justify its worth.

Poland considers it necessary that the way the EU operates, that is, the relationship between the institutions and the nation-states, be reformed. Reforms are imperative for trust in the European project to be restored and the voice of each Member State to be strengthened. We need stronger democratic legitimacy of the EU and this is why we seek a stronger role for national parliaments.

In the short run, we need to reform the political agenda to set goals for the Union that unite us and, more importantly, goals that meet today’s requirements, such as overcoming the mass migration crisis, providing security, and ensuring economic growth. The new agenda must reflect the EU’s unity in responding to the toughest challenges.

We need an agreement on migration. Such compromise is feasible on the external dimension of migration policy—humanitarian and development assistance, investment, and trade policy towards third countries, all of which help to solve the problems that are forcing people in North Africa and the Middle East to leave their homes. It is also about effective external border controls. Such a policy may not only demonstrate European unity and solidarity but also help to curb the wave of illegal migration to Europe. This is a prerequisite for political stabilisation and the very survival of the Schengen zone—new consensus that may eliminate one of the two most serious sources of tension in Europe. 

A new compromise on migration requires abandoning any initiatives that provide for the centralised management of migration flows in Europe. This includes reform of the Dublin system proposed by the European Commission, as well as the relocation programme that, after a year in place, has been implemented to a level of only 3% by the Member States.

The next question is security: internal and external. Europe will not solve problems for the Member States but it can certainly provide assistance. Poland declares its support for developing European capabilities to control borders and to control inward and outward border traffic. The Polish government supports tightening Member State cooperation in the field of special services and database integration. 

Furthermore, Poland sees potential for enhancing European defence capabilities. Proposals on this subject are worth consulting with experts. However, there is a certain expectation. The new defence policy must not double the West’s existing NATO-based security architecture and should avoid creating tension within the Alliance. “The West” is something much broader than the EU. What we need is Europe’s increased commitment, along with synergy and harmonious cooperation, the framework for which has recently been provided by the Warsaw Declaration on EU-NATO relations.

Brexit has demonstrated the fragility of the single market. Distrust in EU treaty freedoms— movement, right of establishment and to provide services—was an important factor behind the outcome of the referendum. If that happened in a society that by European standards is very market-oriented, then it could happen anywhere.

Europeans eagerly bring up examples of the shortcomings in Britain’s EU debate and of the opportunism of those viewing the single market exclusively through the prism of its problems. This flawed picture of the single market and of the role played by migrant EU workers greatly contributed to the Leave vote. However, the same logic is not followed by politicians in other Member States—even founding states—who not only remain silent on the protection of the single market’s four freedoms but who also push for mechanisms that impact the freedom to provide services in the EU. Is this really only a problem of British populists and their tabloids?

The politicians who consent to a pigeonholing of the single market—and not only in this respect—actually follow closely in the footsteps of the despised “British populists”. After all, the dreams about “small unions”, while differently inspired, actually bring us the same effect as Brexit—an EU that is leaving some countries behind is no longer a broad-based project.

The opportunism that currently leads numerous Member States towards restricting the freedom of movement for EU citizens has many proponents. We will lose the European project unless we begin speaking truth to the fact that an open single market helps grow the GDP in all Member States, that it is not a problem for Europe’s economy but a solution, and that it shields us against the undesirable effects of globalisation. 

We need an information campaign by the European Commission, the Member States and business associations that aims to improve the image of the EU single market. Rather than concede to the expectations of populists who are undermining the four freedoms, we should support this idea. 

In the period between 2004 and 2009, immediately after the Union’s enlargement, migrant workers from the “new” Member States to those of the EU-15 added one percentage point to GDP growth in the host countries. According to a 2011 European Commission report, the biggest beneficiaries were Ireland (3%) and the United Kingdom (1%).

The services sector generates some 70% of the EU’s GDP and has a similar share of job creation. The market for goods and services has already contributed to economic growth and wealth by helping to increase the EU’s GDP and employment over 1992–2006 by 2.2% and 1.3%, respectively, which translates into €306 million (in current prices) and 2.8 million employees. Indeed, there is plenty to discuss.

EU Legitimacy

There is also another factor behind Brexit. The February agreement with the UK was intended to demonstrate to the British people that the European Union was open to criticism, but it was too little, too late. What led us to a situation where the EU lost credibility among so many Europeans? Why is it considered by so many to be a distant project?

Here we touch upon legitimacy and institutions. If we want to restore the EU’s sense of responsibility, we have to make it clear that the political direction of the Union is within the competences of the Member States and the European Council. The European Commission should go back to its original role and serve exclusively as an executive body. In order to instil the European process within European nations, we have to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the law-making process. The “red-card mechanism is the minimum of what we need today.
It is true that decision-making may slow as a result, however, it will give us an opportunity to avoid mistakes and, most importantly, anchor the integration process in Europe’s political reality. 
Treaty revision, which will one day become necessary, should not be taboo for anyone in Europe. It is evident that negotiation and ratification of a new treaty will be a long road. However, if we rule out this option from the outset, this will signify that we do not believe in European unity. It would also mean that everything we say in defence of a united Europe resorts to the threat of war and famine. Attempts to constrain criticism of the EU and abandon one’s views in an open debate show us how much we fear for the survival of this project. This provides the impetus to reform the project and base it on new principles. No political project will endure if it is only propped up by fear of a lack of alternative solutions. This has been proven by the situation in the UK.

Claims that treaty changes have been ruled out even prior to the start of any reform expose us to ridicule and demonstrate our weakness and lack of faith in the European project and its future.

At a Crossroads
Brexit came as a shock but was quickly overshadowed by rhetoric (“the EU moves from one crisis to another”, “Britons understand nothing”, etc.) and the rehashing of old ideas, increasingly detached from political reality (“the EU is like a bicycle that has to be kept moving all the time”). But that operation has failed.
Largely thanks to Central European countries, the pressure for reform has been maintained. The capacity to adapt and undergo substantive changes is our primary expectation from the EU. We believe that without reform the EU will collapse—defending the status quo is increasingly difficult. The new stage of integration should be based on a more convincing legitimacy and real political communities in Europe. We must answer the question of why our regulatory, political, and treaty-based instruments failed to prevent us from making mistakes. Technocratic management is good in a time of prosperity, but for many Europeans those times are behind us.

The new EU must focus on issues that unite its citizens and demonstrate that it is part of a solution to shared European problems, not a problem in itself. A good case in point is the development of a migration and security agenda in its external dimension. A realistic agenda will make it possible to offer assistance to Europeans in a responsible manner.

Instead of seeking to outbid one another with grandiose plans for enhanced integration and “smaller unions”, it is worthwhile to defend what we already have. The single market will not survive without a political offensive.
It is only along this road that integration will regain social acceptance. Alternatively, we may treat our fears with bon mots, exclude from public debate anyone who dares to have a different view of integration, defend the status quo, emphasise technocratic management, ignore the Member States’ expectations, bypass the unanimity requirement using treaty-related tricks, only to defend an increasingly despised project. Furthermore, we continue to spend money on information policy based on infantile ideas about reconciliation and war.

The choice belongs to the individual Member States and their respective political force. Poland has already made its choice. It will not allow for Brexit’s bitter experience to be wasted in the name of defending the status quo. 
Konrad Szymański is Poland’s Minister for European Affairs (MFA) and plenipotentiary of the prime minister for coordination of participation in European Council meetings.

This article was published by Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny, PISM.