Radosław Sikorski : « Poland can be better ! »

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Radosław Sikorski is a Polish politician, currently Member of the European Parliament (Civic Platform // EPP). Before his European mandate, Mr Sikorski has fulfilled many top positions in Poland including Minister of Defence (2005-2007) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2007-2014). Hence, Mr Sikorski is the ideal person to answer our questioning regarding the current political situation in Poland but also on the relations between Poland and the EU and more precisely on the role of Poland in tomorrow’s Europe.

Interview written by Romain Le Quiniou and Arthur Kenigsberg

Poland has experienced a political melodrama these past weeks due to presidential election’s controversies. How do you personally analyse this situation? 

Well, we are speaking to each other on the 22nd of May and we have a farcical political situation in Poland. On the 10th of May, by no decision of any legal body, the presidential election did not happen. If it had happened, it would have been unconstitutional, but it also did not happen unconstitutionally (laughs). The electoral code was only voted three days before and the government illegally – without a legal foundation – printed the ballots and then the election did not happen because of an announcement of two members of Parliament (ndlr Kaczyński and Gowin). (laughs). Try to analyse that… And today, 12 days later, we still do not have an electoral code, we do not have the date of the presidential elections, we do not have an election campaign, the committees of candidates for the previous election are not even operational. 

The only firm date we have is the end of the term of office of the current President which is the 7th of August. But the electoral law remains undecided and there is also legal uncertainty on who will be the candidates or whether a new and fresh candidate would be allowed to register. It is all unserious and undemocratic because the incumbent – by being President – is of course performing presidential functions and that is his campaign. However, his challengers cannot campaign because we are in a lockdown (laughs). Additionally, state media have been subjugated and turned into propaganda mouthpieces of the ruling party. So if I were an election observer from the OSCE coming from Madagascar, I would write a pre-election report in which I would have to say that the initial conditions are not democratic. I would personally not judge these conditions to be fulfilling the criteria of a democratic vote.

What would have been the right way to proceed without having an election at all?  

Our constitution has a very well thought instrument for the time of a natural disaster such as a pandemic you can invoke the state of natural disaster and then all appointments in the country are frozen and you can have a presidential election 90 days after the state of natural disaster has ended. 

That would be a perfectly suitable constitutional way to deal with the current situation. The government does not want to use it that because it thinks that at the moment we still have the effect of the population rallying around the authorities while 90 days after the state of pandemic, the population will be resentful about the economic hardship and about the way the pandemic has been handled. It is purely political! Hence, the government is not using the constitutional route because it thinks the sooner they do the presidential elections the bigger the chances of their candidate. 

According to you, what is the right formula to beat Andrzej Duda in the upcoming election? And more generally, what should be the strategy of the whole opposition to end PiS’ hegemony? 

Currently, we cannot be sure that the main opposition candidate (ndlr: Rafal Trzaskowski from the Civic Platform) will actually be registered for this upcoming vote. It seems that the Mayor of Warsaw will make it into the second round. According to the opinion poll published today, the incumbent’s popularity has slipped by 20 % in the last week. So from being a formality for the incumbent, this election was suddenly become a real contest. On an uneven pitch evidently because as said before the state media – both television and radio – are still propaganda mouthpieces, the Catholic Church is strongly for the incumbent, and the incumbent is campaigning while his opponents cannot. 

This election is of particular importance. On the one side, PiS wants to validate its previous victory (parliamentary elections in 2019) and the opposition wants to limit PiS’ hegemony. How do you see it? 

This election is very important because it is the make-or-break of the traditionalist revolution in Poland. The Polish presidency is not like the French one. The President of Poland is not the head of the government. Of course, the candidates all pretend in the campaign that the President runs the country, but it is simply not true! The President has veto power over legislation and that is about it. Hence, it is a negative power which prevents the government from doing bad things. For example, from breaking the constitution. And that is exactly what Andrzej Duda has been failing to do. 

As such, if there is an opposition President, PiS would still be running the Government, but it could no longer do this kind of radical things like subjugation of the prosecution service, the judiciary, or the media. If the opposition holds both the Senate and the Presidency, the political system would be balanced. Moreover, presidential elections are a way of anticipating parliamentary ones. In 2015, we (ndlr: the opposition) lost the presidential elections and it led to the victory of PiS in the parliamentary elections in few months later. And you should remember, PiS’s majority is thin, they only have a majority of five deputies, which is also already splintering. 

Indeed, the reason we did not have this vote on the 10th of May was that a part of the PiS coalition said no. Finally, it is a very important election also because Kaczyński, the Prime Minister (ndlr: Mateusz Morawiecki) and the former Prime Minister (ndlr: Beata Szydlo) think that if they lose, not only they will  start losing power but they will actually start being held accountable for what they have done. Indeed, this slide towards authoritarianism did not just happen by itself, it happened because a previous Prime Minister committed a crime by not publishing a verdict of the Constitutional Tribunal. So these people are afraid they will actually go to jail if they lose. And that’s why they are ready to do whatever it takes to prevail. 

But this election is also of particular importance because Poland, for the first time in many years, is entering turbulent times. Would you consider that Poland is politically, economically and socially ready for this? 

Is Poland prepared ready for the upcoming downturn? No it’s not. This government has been bribing the electorate with the largest financial handouts in the Polish history. Poland from being one of the least generous country in the EU regarding social spending – in proportion to GDP obviously – has become five years later one of the most generous. PiS has instituted a very generous universal child benefits and has spent billions on increasing pensions. Of course this is a welcome and popular measure when the overall situation is good but it means that the economy was being run on consumption rather than on investments. Investments both public and private actually fell.

Poland started from a low base of public debt, much lower than France, the UK or the US, in the forties in terms of percentage of the GDP. Then come the crisis and due to the increase of spending that we are all doing, one may wonder whether the zloty will hold up. In comparison, France is in the Eurozone which is the second reserve of currency in the world, but zloty is a marginal currency. Hence, if you start spending a lot, if you start having a deficit of 10 % of GDP in a single year, your currency might suffer considerably which is not without consequences. We should not forget as well that in Poland millions of people have loans denominated l in euros. So when zloty devalues, the mortgage of payments in zloty terms go up. And there is also currently inflation in food prices for example. So the value of increases in pensions and child benefits has already dropped. In addition, we expect a spike in unemployment. 

Overall, the Polish economy is fairly resilient because agriculture is a bigger share of its economy than in many other countries, companies do not rely as much on credit and people maintain links to the country-side, companies have bigger reserves and have not invested recently. So some foreign banks think that Poland will be hit less than other countries. There is talk of Polish recession being only -5 % of its GDP. However, this will be the first recession in Poland in 30 years! Remember that people in Poland have got used to growth being a fact of life. And suddenly, for the first time in over a generation, there will be a shrinkage. This will obviously cause high dissatisfaction, particularly because – like in France – the recession is not hitting all professions equally. You and I are doing our job online, but if you are a hairdresser or a truck driver, you are just staying at home and your livelihood is suspended. 

The type of depression we are getting in, unfortunately is exacerbating class resentments. Highly educated people will be affected less than less educated people who have already been resentful even before. 

Speaking about resentment, there is a risk that resentment towards the EU increase in Poland, despite the fact that Polish people are considered as one of the most Europhile population within the EU. Are you afraid that PiS could target the EU as the new topic of political polarisation? 

I do not have to be afraid about it because this is already a reality! Every day, the state television is setting its viewers against the European Union, peddling distortions and outright lies. For example, they say that the EU is not doing anything about the pandemic, that Poland is not getting any support from the EU which is just a lie. 

The EU is spending much more than Poland on both looking for a cure and for a vaccine and also in terms of fighting the economic depression. We should not forget that Poland is the biggest beneficiary, because in the current budget, we have the largest financial allocation in absolute terms. The current government has been unable to spend this money according to EU rules which means that we have had the largest unspent budget as well and now that rules have been liberalized we have the biggest amount of money to spend on the pandemic and the depression. And there is not a single speech done by a member of the ruling party without a negative reference to the EU. 

So, yes, they are trying to galvanize their electorate through nationalist passion. And their strategy conditioned about a third of the Polish population to hate foreigners and hate the EU. You say that the population is europhile, but if you scratch the surface a little bit, much of that support is opportunistic, for as long as the balance of financial flows is in Poland’s favour. Overall, the government is not educating people in understanding the larger, less tangible benefits of Poland’s membership. What I fear is that when Poland, sometime in the next decade, becomes like France a net contributor to the EU, the europhilia will go down.  

Poland is also having some internal troubles due to attacks on judiciary independence and more generally on democratic principles. This is especially a matter of tensions with the EU and several of its member states. How do you evaluate EU’s action towards these developments?

The EU has done what it can, but in the end the EU is a confederation with only some federal features. Hence, when a member state breaks EU’s treaties, Brussels cannot send the police or tanks. All the EU can do is to take a country to the European Court of Justice. The essential question is then whether such country obeys or not the judgment from the ECJ. Polish authorities have not crossed that line yet, when there is an actual judgment they draw back. As such, they do whatever they can to internally break the rules but they have not yet clearly and unashamedly broken an ECJ judgment. So there is some hope in that. 

One more time, the EU is at a historic moment. Last week, in an article for a French newspaper, you called for a ‘great bargain’ between France and Germany. Is the recent Franco-German initiative a confirmation of your thought? 

Yes, it is a good compromise. France wanted to send a signal to all of the sides, all those affected by the pandemic: EU is part of the solution and we need to create financial instruments in common. Germany insisted that there should be a limit to their commitments. In other words, that should not be bonds without any limits on the amounts issued. And so they have come to an arrangement whereby the European budget is the guarantor but it is a closed-end fund with a limit of 500 hundred billion which is a real amount of money. I think it is the right message to send but of course I think that the financial part should be only 1/3 of the package because we should also have a bargain on the politics and on defence. 

We spoke about the Franco-German couple, but what about Weimar Triangle in which Poland is involved? Could Weimar Triangle be one of the solution for the re-launching of EU integration process? 

Of course, if we did not have a provincial nationalist government, that Franco-German announcement could have been made with Poland as a participant. Poland of course has a smaller population and a smaller economy than France or Germany but we are the largest country in Central Europe and in that sense we represent the interests of 10 member states. Hence, we could have been involved as a representative of the region, so as to present the view of almost the majority of the EU. More generally, Poland should be playing the role of the representative of our region in the Franco-German axis as it would generate more consensus within the EU. I am afraid we have people in power who do not understand. 

As you said, Poland is not the biggest country within the EU but is still one of the most important actor in terms of economic, demographic or military indicators. But Poland is still considered by many as a sidekick political player within the EU. How concretely, “Poland can be better” (ndlr: Polska może być lepsza is a book written by Radoslaw Sikorski) 

In Polish, the title of my book has a double meaning: “Poland can be better” than it is but also Poland can be better than others. Diplomacy is a relative game. In the economy, if you do better, others can do better, it is not a zero-sum game. In diplomacy through there are only 10 top countries and therefore your performance and your ranking in the ‘league of honour’ depends on how well you play your cards. And my argument has been that if we make fewer mistakes than others then we can continue to advance in the ranking.

We are about the 20th economy and the 18th military budget in the world, in Europe, we are the 6th – 5th after Brexit – economy but growing very fast. Actually, the relativity of these numbers is highly interesting when we have a closer look to recession. Indeed, if we go down by 5 % but others go down by 10 or 20 %, that means Poland is rising (laughs). But as I said, it is a game you play with others, you can’t be recognized as an important country on your own, you can’t bestow that on your self. It has to be done in the eyes of others. Others have to see you as a part of the solution and as a worthy member of the club of leaders. You can’t get that status by screaming at others or taking offense. We now have a government which does not actually conduct foreign policy. They conduct internal propaganda by means of arguments against foreigners. It’s not the same thing. 

According to you, and especially due to your long experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs, what should be the position and the role of Poland in tomorrow’s Europe? 

Poland should be where the circle of biggest player within the EU is. There has been a G6 – now G5 – of the top countries that represent currently the great majority of population and GDP of the EU. And on some issues, Poland should be part of the G3 as well, as we discussed previously the Weimar triangle provides a very useful access to that. However, there are other issues in which Poland has interests in common with its Central European neighbours. On issues that have to do with post-communist history, on issues about agriculture, on issues such as green deal and some of the legacy industries, Poland has more in common with Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary or Romania. And here, Poland can play a useful role in representing the interests of that group in the G5 or in the Weimar triangle.

Let’s not forget that Europe is run by concentric rings and groups of countries which are stick together or not depending on the issue. And if Poland plays a skilful game, it would be seen as a useful partner by several of those rings. Though, that takes skills and an ability to look at the world from a point of view that is not your own. It also implies seeking commonalities and searching for compromise. But if all you do is you want to be morally right because of some past grievances then of course you are not in the game. 

What about Eastern Partnership for which Poland has been the initiator. Is it still a thing for Europe?

Oh absolutely! We have just had a session of the Foreign Affairs Council with the Commissioner for enlargement and a joint communication of the Commission and the Parliament. To put it simply, Europe has two strategic neighbourhoods: the South where France sponsors the Union for the Mediterranean and where 2/3 of EU funds for the neighbourhood go because that is the proportion of population. And the Eastern neighbourhood which is actually more advanced in terms of proximity to EU’s laws and regulations. 

Within the Eastern Partnership (EaP), we have three countries which now have association agreements and deep and comprehensive free-trade agreements and visa-free arrangements whereas in the South, I am afraid we have none. Some are called association arrangements but they are from the past and they are not as comprehensive. Obviously, we need to help France in stabilizing our southern neighbourhood because it affects our interests but we count on France’s reciprocity in helping us bringing Eastern neighbours of the EU closer to our standards – environmental standards, legal standards, democratic standards and so on. And in that sense, Eastern Partnership has been very successful. 

Tens of thousands of students from these countries come to the EU on Erasmus scholarships, we’ve made border crossings more civilised, we have developed cross-border tourism. And for environment, we should not forget that their rivers are coming to the EU and the air pollution as well. Visa-free arrangements, parts of EaP, have meant that we helped those countries to establish database of passports issued and biometric passports. Readmission treaties and actual border control of their own external borders are also benefitting us indirectly. And there is more to be done, for example, I think it would be useful for these countries to participate in our system of roaming at home. 

When you go to Ukraine, you do not want to be ripped off on the data roaming on your phone. You also want Ukrainian neighbours to be able to use Google maps while travelling in the EU because that means it is convenient for them and safer for us when people have access to emergency services when the data is cheaper. Switzerland still rips us off on data because it is not part of that system and I think it would be useful. Our telecoms have also benefitted from cheaper data because they make their money by providing more services. 

At Euro Créative, one of our objective is to reinforce relations between France and Central European countries. As a conclusion, what would be your recommendation to revive French-Polish relations? 

Well, what we need to do is to change our government in Poland because the current one, not only broke a contract with France over the supply of helicopters (ndlr: the Caracal affair), but did it in an unprofessional and offensive way. Poland also need to re-join the mainstream of the European Union and I think we can do it best by taking President Macron at his own words in creating a European superpower. Finally, we should re-join the path of Eurozone adhesion and adopt the currency of the European Union: the euro. I think that it is what it would take to persuade France that this nationalist government was a detour and does not represent the real Poland. 

Euro Créative’s team thanks Radosław Sikorski for his availability and the time he gave us for this interview.

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