The decision on who should lead the EU’s Warsaw office is crucial

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. Participants of the monthly pro-European Union rally titled 'Pulse of Europe', hold flags in the national colors of Poland (L), and the European flag in front of the concert hall at the Gendarmenmarkt place in Berlin, Germany, 6 August 2017. [Clemens Bilan/EPA/EFE]

The next Head of the European Commission in Warsaw needs to be a political heavyweight, argues Piotr Maciej Kaczyński.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński is a Senior Fellow, Centre for International Relations, Warsaw, a visiting trainer with EIPA, Maastricht, and a member of Team Europe Poland.

Ursula von der Leyen has a decision to take. Since April there has been a vacancy at the position as head of the Commission representation in Warsaw.

It may look like a small issue – a vacancy in a far-away city. Yet Jean Claude Juncker once said that the biggest regret he had was the Commission inaction in the British debate ahead of the Brexit referendum.

The decision about who should lead the Warsaw office is crucial in another historical moment when the issue of Polexit (mostly due to the rule of law problems and anti-European hostility on the part of the ruling party) is hanging in the air. The Commission needs to be fully aware of the local context. Von der Leyen needs to learn from the Juncker Commission’s mistakes.

Traditionally the heads of the Commission representations are leading diplomatic missions and their primary concern is smooth working relations with the local government. Usually they are senior long-term Commission staff, or other institutions insiders, who know the insights of the Commission very well.

Sometimes those positions are ideal for an experienced official to spend a few years before retirement or, in a way, “in exile”, the popular view regarding the head of the Commission representation in Vienna, Martin Selmayr.

How is Warsaw different from other capitals? The relations between the Commission and the Law and Justice (PiS) government are far from amicable.

There is a long history of misinformation at the highest level when Commissioners like Frans Timmermans or Věra Jourová have been misled by the Polish government officials on the issue of the rule of law. On other issues, there are stable working relations as regards cohesion or agriculture, even climate policy. But the rule of law stands out.

This is why it is important that president von der Leyen and members of her college have access to an alternative to the Polish government narrative.

There is a fear that the Commission president may opt to sacrifice the position of the new head of the EC’s Warsaw office in order to strengthen its relations with the relatively moderate prime minister of Mateusz Morawiecki (that is, compared to his predecessor Beata Szydło, or the views of the Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro). Still, this would be a mistake.

On the rule of law file the Commission choses to be bold or moderate (there is a growing pressure on the Commission from the MEPs to be bolder), but in either case it needs to be well informed about the internal Polish political and legal developments. It cannot afford to walk in the dark and be misled by Polish government officials.

In other words, the new head of the Commission office in Warsaw needs to have – to quote one MEP discussing Borrell’s Moscow visit – cojones. The shoes they have to fill in after the outgoing head of the representation are big.

Marek Prawda was appointed in Warsaw five years ago and is now retired. His appointment was far from ordinary. When PiS took over the Polish government in late 2015, the then Foreign Minister (now MEP) Witold Waszyczykowski fired a number of experienced diplomats, including ambassador Prawda, then Polish Permanent Representative to the EU.

In his days, Prawda was an influential figure in the Coreper. His rapid departure was a surprise to many in Brussels, including the Commission President. Yet Juncker was quick to act.

He offered Prawda a new role to represent the Commission in Warsaw. This decision was not a cordial move. In fact, it was a bold move by the Commission president against the wishes of the Polish government.

Normally heads of the EC Representations are agreed with the local capitals. But Warsaw-Brussels’ is no normal relationship. There is another capital equally difficult, Budapest. The head of the local EC representation, Gábor Zupkó, was agreed with the Hungarian government. Independent observes recognize  approach as “mixed”.

Sometimes he defends the Commission against the openly anti-EU campaigns. Yet he also frequently engages in explaining the Hungarian government policies in the Berlaymont, which normally is not the job of the Commission official.

Over the last five years, the Warsaw EC office has proven essential in rapid information flow, and communication efforts to balance out partisan anti-EU campaigns. Without being able to cooperate proactively with the Polish government, the Commission still was able to run successful information and education campaigns in the country with its networks independent of Polish officials.

There is no room to compromise this method, which has proven to be effective. If anything, the Warsaw office should be further empowered and strengthened to deliver to the Commission HQ the information it requires and to continue the efforts of debating with the EU citizens the future of Europe.

In anything, more political courage is expected from the College of Commissioners to hold the Polish government accountable on the rule of law conditionality.

In a way, Warsaw is the Commission’s last outpost. This is where the debate takes place on European values. This is where the definitions are, or are not, rewritten. The Commission’s local office has been a vital voice in those debates. There is no reason to compromise this approach.

However, should there be a downgrading of the Commission’s local office, it would be a blow to the aspirations of all the pro-European Poles and a move welcomed by the anti-Europeans.

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