Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans should keep away from the strained rule of law dialogue between Brussels and Warsaw, as long as he is running for a seat in the new Commission, says expert Sławomir Dębski. He spoke to EURACTIV.com about Poland’s place in Europe, its relations with neighbours and security.
Sławomir Dębski is the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).
Dębski spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski on the sidelines of the Warsaw Security Forum.
Support for European integration is very high in Poland at the moment. How does this go together with the support for the conservative government?
We have extensive support for the European project and we have a government that is pro-European, however, some for their own political purposes sometimes try to stigmatise Poland and the parties in power describing them as Eurosceptic. The fact is that if we listen to what Poland’s government is actually saying, nobody there is claiming that they are against the European integration, on the contrary: both PiS prime ministers, Szydlo and Morawiecki, have rejected the idea of a ‘Polexit’ on a number of occasions and criticised those that tried to put the government into that corner.
The stance of the Polish government towards the EU should be put in the context of the pan-European debate on the future of the EU. We have two major camps in Europe, the Federalists, those who, responding to Brexit, claim that we need more integration, deepening of the Union, making new institutions; and on the other side of barricade are those who say ‘didn’t Brexit show us, we went too far?’
Dutch PM Mark Rutte said in his speech in Strasbourg that we do not need a deeper Union, but a more effective one. Poland is somewhere there in this debate, I would say closer to the Netherlands than to the federalists’ vision. Poland wants a more democratic Europe, where smaller countries have a greater say in the debate on the EU future. And by the way, right now I do not see a strong enough majority among the member states supporting a more institutionalised, deeper Union. Poland is there, with one caveat: Poland is not a member of the eurozone – yet.
Are there any signals that this might happen any time soon?
A number of conditions have to be fulfilled: First, the eurozone members have to put their own house into order. The public image of the Zone has been damaged in recent years. It is not so much problem for the club members but for those who are considering to join it is a pretty challenging task as they need to convince the voters that joining Euro is a brilliant idea and the nation has no other better option. At the same time voters still remember the Greek crisis and hard and painful conditions imposed on Greece and now they hear about a new trouble with Italy’s budget.
So, the decision to join the eurozone will be politically costly for any Polish government and I think it is not only up to Polish political elite to convince their people that embracing the Euro would serve their interests well but the eurozone itself should regain its magnet and then do something to help the Polish government to sell this decision to the Polish public. And the third point is that the level of economic development should be harmonised somehow.
Relations between Warsaw and Brussels have been quite strained in the past year when we think about Article 7. Commissioner Frans Timmermans said last week: ‘Half of Poland hates me’. What can we expect in the next couple of months? And does Warsaw expect things will change after the elections?
I think some individuals involved in this struggle should simply go. Some people have become too personally involved in this matter. At this point, the Article 7 procedure is a political matter, not so much a legal one, in my view.
Sometimes I have the impression that the whole case matters much more to Frans Timmermans than to the member states. And that’s something disconcerting. His aspiration to become the next head of the Commission will not help the process in the coming months. It means that he also has his personal agenda and uses the conflict between Poland and the Commission to promote himself and not to solve the problem.
If we are preaching high democratic standards and fairness in politics and want people to believe the European Union is not a place for dirty politics, Frans Timmermans should keep away from the process launched by the Commission while he is running for a seat in the new one.
Would you say that the current alienation with Brussels is seen as an opportunity in Warsaw to push its own initiatives inside the EU, like the V4 and the Three Seas Initiative most recently?
No, not at all. Most of the European member states do have their own issues with the Commission, sometimes even with the Court of Justice. So it happens. The important point here is that democracy is a self-regulating system, it means that it cannot be regulated from outside. I know that some people in Europe want to see the Commission or the Parliament as new actors in this process of democratic self-regulation of the member states, but that is a dangerous illusion. Such a role requires a direct democratic mandate from national elections, because the mandate means accountability on the national level, not the European one.
The aspiration of the people in the Eastern part of the European Union to bridge the gap in infrastructure, development and quality of life with the Western part of the European Union is real. People want politicians in this region to cooperate and help them to get similar living standards to the core Western societies. Estimations predict that bringing the East of the EU closer to the West of the Union would require something like €600-800 billion of investment. No country on the Eastern flank of the EU can generate such a financing volume on its own.
There is quite a natural need among these 12 countries to cooperate, to be a common platform for lobbying inside the EU and maybe especially outside the EU. We also have to bear in mind that the European budget will be shrinking for natural reasons, not only because of Brexit but also because of other needs. There is understanding that we need creativity in thinking how we attract the attention of potential investors, how we can attract the attention of non-EU financial institutions, pension funds, long-term investors because they are usually interested in infrastructure projects.
I believe that the Three Seas Initiative should work hand in hand with the European Commission, looking for new opportunities, more flexible instruments and how to create this magnet of attractiveness for the outside world.
How will the V4 cooperation continue then? These four countries usually agree on migration, but are ideologically different: On the one side, we have conservative countries like Poland and Hungary and on the other more Socialist like the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The V4 is a useful instrument, but it is not a magic wand. Yes, the four countries use the V4 platform to promote or push forward their own interests and their own views inside the EU. But it doesn’t mean that they consult with each other and have a common view on everything – it is decided case by case.
Sometimes it is not a perfect instrument, there are a lot of disagreements. But regardless of the government reshuffles and the political changes in these countries, there is still a pretty strong interest in cooperating with each other.
Let us come to the two most discussed security issues these days. One of them is Nord Stream 2, where Poland wants to communicate to Germany that the project is not a good idea.
Let us be clear, it is not only Poland. Even the majority of Germany’s expert community on security and foreign affairs voiced their concerns against this idea. It is perfectly clear that it would introduce a huge threat to the unity and security in Europe, it would divide Europe further, and it would expose Ukraine and other countries to possible Russian energy blackmail.
After Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to Berlin last week, we see that this weighs heavily on Polish-German relations.
I think this is not the problem of Poland; it is the problem of Germany in the end. All the possible arguments have been put on the table and they had been just ignored by Berlin. And because of the deliberate decision of the German political elite to ignore these objections and simply push Nord Stream 2 forward.
The conclusion is that while the German political elite likes to preach to everyone about solidarity, about common values, about the future of the EU, we have to realise that when German interests are at stake, Europe does not matter. Then the entire European solidarity mantra is off the table. Sad but true.
What about the relations in the Weimar Triangle framework then? This cooperation was asleep in recent years, is there any hope that it could be reawakened?
Good question. There is some interest in Berlin and Warsaw using this political triangle, while one’s may have sometimes an impression there is no interest in Paris whatsoever.
When Germany tries to develop a new approach in foreign policy towards Central Europe, France is nowhere there. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently came forward with that idea of a “New Ostpolitik”, in which Central Europe is to be no less important to Germany than Russia. It sounds revolutionary if we take into account classical, “the Russia first” approach of the “Old” German “Ostpolitik”. Better late than never, one may say.
There is a view in Warsaw that the Weimar Triangle simply does not work because of France and its lack of serious political engagement in Central Europe, except, of course, some already traditional Central Europe bashing, which occurs in French foreign policy from time to time, and, for obvious reasons, can hardly be regarded as a serious political approach.
The hot topic is the permanent NATO bases on Europe’s Eastern flank, Fort Trump, that Warsaw would like to see on Polish territory.
With the demand for the permanent bases, we see the emanation of the growing aspiration of Central Europeans to really have “Europe one, whole and at peace”, the grand idea announced in 1989 by U.S. President George Bush. And this idea has not yet been fulfilled.
In the decades before, there was a perception that we stopped half-way in making Europe, one, whole and at peace. For example, by Jacques Chirac, who famously said back in 2003 that Eastern Europeans missed the opportunity to shut up, that only old members could take a stance and speak up. This statement showed very clearly that still a lot needs to be done to fulfil the pledge of one, integrated Europe.
In the context of NATO, there was an institutionalised gap in the situation of Central Europe stemming from the fact that there were no allied troops on Europe’s Eastern flank. After 2014, the situation has been changing. Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, Russia’s aggressive policy towards democratic systems of NATO countries, including the United States, the sending of hit-men around the globe – this created a political atmosphere which allowed Central and Eastern European countries to make their case and encourage all of NATO to enhance their military presence there.
We have this rotational presence of NATO troops, what we need now is to have institutionalised permanent presence. The threat is there, Russia is close, Russia is aggressive and it may produce troubles if the geopolitical circumstances in other parts of the world allow it.
Russia says this constitutes a direct threat to their security…
It can be true only if we agree with the notion that Russia needs to intimidate and blackmail its neighbours to feel secure. But that would be the case for a psychiatrist, rather. And we shall not forget that Ukraine was not a threat to Russia whatsoever, on the contrary, the state was almost unarmed, weak, infiltrated by Russia’s secret services and corrupted by Russia’s oligarchs. The country was part of Russia’s controlled area of interconnections between politics, business and crime. Nevertheless, Putin wedged a war against Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea and still occupies it as well as the Donbas.
We have been between Russia and Germany for a couple of centuries. Poland has been constantly under Russian threat, sometimes more direct, sometimes less, and we experience constantly Germany’s capricious policy towards Central Europe. We adjust ourselves. It is a question of time when we would hear from a German journalist, expert or politician that it is Poland that is provoking the Russians and actually the Germans would like to have a say on issues concerning Polish security, but frown at the idea that Poland might actually want something else for itself.
This asymmetry is not something that serves either German-Polish relations or security of the Euro-Atlantic area. It serves only Russia. And Russia certainly benefits from a misguided adherence of some NATO members to the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which is— erroneously — believed to hold a formal pledge that NATO will not set up a permanent presence in what used to be „new member states.”
Poland is no longer „new” in NATO—next year, we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of accession. And Central Europe certainly does not constitute a grey zone of security, an area in which Russia can call her „sphere of privileged interests.” These times are long gone, it’s high time for everyone to acknowledge it.
And I am very much in favour of working hand in hand with all the allies in NATO, but this work would be much easier if the decision of the United States would be to have a more permanent presence on the Eastern flank.
Besides NATO, we see the emergence of various PESCO projects that also focus on security in Europe’s East.
We have to understand the reality and the reality is that on NATO’s and Europe’s Eastern flank, the threat is imminent. If we are talking about some plans for upgrading European capabilities, Poland is very much in favour of those plans and is supporting those ideas. Warsaw is ready to contribute. It would some time for Europe to develop the capabilities allowing it to think realistically about its “strategic autonomy” from the United States.
So, “in the meantime” we need real deterrence, we need real capabilities, we need real readiness and we need real troops and that can be provided first and foremost by the U.S. It means that there is no place for a vacuum. It is not the question of either or. We’d like to have both.
If PESCO is meant as a big umbrella for an integrated market for French or German procurement only, then the idea is still not bad, but all countries would like to have a second option as well and not limit themselves to this grand vision of better capabilities and stronger European posture in some very distant future.