Federica Mogherini, new EU new foreign affairs chief, has chosen Poland for her first trip, saying that the country has a big role to play in shaping the EU’s common vision. Former Commissioner for Enlargement Günther Verheugen explains how Warsaw has become a European leader again.
Günter Verheugen was European Commissioner for Enlargement (1999-2004) and European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry (2004-2010).
Today’s world is not the stable, post-historical place some had imagined in 1989, when the Iron Curtain fell and communist rule in Eastern Europe came to an end. But, though the events of 1989 did not bring about perpetual peace and prosperity, they did set in motion some true success stories.
One of the most impressive is Poland’s rise as a political and economic heavyweight in Europe. This year’s triple anniversary – 25 years of democracy, 15 years of NATO membership, and ten years of European Union membership – is a source of pride for the Polish people, and rightly so.
Imagine how miraculous Poland’s success is. Here is a country that disappeared from the map of Europe in the eighteenth century and was divided and ruled by imperial occupiers for 150 years. In the twentieth century, Poland was the victim of two inhuman ideologies, fascism and Stalinism. Its golden age was some 500 years ago, and at the beginning of this century many still viewed it as a symbol of backwardness.
But the Polish people struggled and sacrificed to bring about their nation’s rebirth – and in the process ushered in a new era for Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen when and how it did without Poland’s Solidarno?? movement and its struggle for freedom and human rights.
Nonetheless, Poland, like the EU’s other “new” member states (a term that, after ten years, has become inadequate), remains relatively unknown to many in the “old” member states. To discover Poland is to find a country that offers a rich cultural heritage, a vibrant civic life, and industrious, creative people who can overwhelm guests with their hospitality.
As a German, I am happy that German-Polish relations have never been better than they have been since Poland’s accession to the EU. That is a crucial development, and one that must be carefully protected, for it provides a powerful guarantee of peace and stability in the center of Europe.
Last month, Donald Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister, was appointed President of the European Council, thus becoming one of Europe’s three top leaders. This decision not only reflected Tusk’s successful leadership in Poland, where he ensured political stability and oversaw impressive economic progress; it was also a clear signal that EU leaders fully acknowledge Poland’s political and economic importance. It also signaled to the other new member states that they are true equals in European decision-making.
Again, it was Poland that paved the way, reminding the old member states from the outset of the accession process that it was not an outsider or a poor relative in need of charity, but rather a source of inspiration in the European integration process, its impact delayed only by World War II and its aftermath. Now, after ten years of EU membership, a new Golden Age for Poland may be on the horizon.
Poland has the potential to become a European leader again. Firmly anchored in the community of Western democracies, its role transcends the technical aspects of the European integration process, for it bears the responsibility of ensuring that no new barrier excludes our Eastern neighbors from taking part in this process.
It was logical that Poland was the spiritus rector of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which led to EU association agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. No other country has a stronger interest in the successful transformation of the EU’s eastern neighbors, particularly Ukraine.
Indeed, during the ongoing crisis, Poland has taken a firm stand: no one has the right to deny a European country its sovereign decision about its relationship with Europe. The two countries’ historical ties have put Poland in a better position than others to understand the nature of Ukraine’s problems, and it would therefore be wise to listen carefully to Polish officials’ advice.
The Polish people deserve a bright future. Their lesson for the rest of Europe is that dreams can come true if we fully engage in realizing them. And, just as Tusk promised to polish his English as he moves to the center of the European stage, perhaps the rest of us should start brushing up on our Polish.