While just a couple of years ago one would have found it hard to imagine the Old Continent without the European Union, after Brexit this prospect is no longer seen as impossible in the long run. But if the Union survives, as I strongly believe it will, I am positive that the Republic of Poland will be part of it.
The European Union remains the first choice of a majority of Poles, as confirmed not only by the latest opinion polls but, more importantly, by the Polish people’s enduring desire to live in freedom, peace and prosperity. This is a natural choice of any national community living in Europe. What does it mean for Poland, and what does it mean for the European Union?
There can be no doubt that most people in Poland and a large part of our elites have no problem understanding the full meaning of these values. Where Poles desire freedom, this is freedom for all, a freedom founded on truth and on freely expressed opinions, even if unpopular. Where Poles want peace, we realise full well that it has not been given us once and for ever, and we remember that when it is sought at any price the outcome may prove the opposite of what was intended. And in pursuing welfare, Poles want it extended to the largest possible portion of society or—at the very least—want the costs and benefits of economic change to be fairly shared.
To enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life while also having our rights respected and exerting sovereign influence on the policy of our own government is a tremendous challenge indeed. Starting from 2004, this challenge has been faced not only by Polish political elites but also by the institutions of the European Union, and indeed by European political elites. When we were joining the Union, it was clear that these values would be guaranteed, just as they had been guaranteed to the founding Member States. Respect for these values is the key to a Union that Poland needs.
Poland has historic experience in seeking political compromise within complex state organisms. More than 600 years ago, as one of only a few European communities, Poles opted to tie their national existence to that of their neighbours, Lithuanians and Ruthenians. As the latest research has found, the Polish-Lithuanian union was from the beginning intended as not just a personal union but the merger of two political communities into a new, single union, later described as Rzecz Pospolita (Commonwealth)1. In 1569, in response to a looming dynastic crisis and new challenges in the east, at a session of the Sejm (parliament) in Lublin, the decision was taken to deepen the existing Polish-Lithuanian union. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was hardly an attempt to build an artificial common identity—it actually represented a bringing together of national elements around a shared cause. That Union2 was to live for another 200 years, integrating the Polish-Lithuanian state much more deeply than is the case today with the integration of the EU Member States.
Underlying that success was the circumstance that the agreement was reached not only by the elites—the secular aristocracy and senior clergy—but by the entire szlachta (noble class) and representatives of towns and cities established by royal charter, meaning all those enjoying political rights in the two states. By the standards of the time, the decision was backed by a democratic mandate, and so its acceptance was universal and lasting. “All were free and all were equal among signatories to this Union”3.
Such is the European Union Poland needs, and only such a Union can survive—a Union born out of the will of the people and not academic discussions or behind-the-scenes concepts; a Union growing in step with the rhythm of economic, political and social relations; a Union built step by step at a European pace, without haste or unnecessary red tape, and inspired by authentic social expectations and needs. Only such a Union stands a chance of becoming a strong and efficient body once again. This is in line with the will of the European Union’s Founding Fathers, as laid down in the Treaty of Rome and confirmed by the political declaration adopted in Berlin on 25 March 2007, to mark the Treaty’s 50th anniversary.
The Berlin Declaration captured the essence of the European project, the way it was then perceived. It highlighted the major problems that we expected to face. Seen today, the document turns out to be a bit optimistic (perhaps even naïve) in some parts, but elsewhere it remains relevant and even portentous. Let me cite the most pertinent passages:
For centuries Europe has been an idea, holding out hope of peace and understanding. That hope has been fulfilled. European unification has made peace and prosperity possible. It has brought about a sense of community and overcome differences. Each Member State has helped to unite Europe and to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. Thanks to the yearning for freedom of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe the unnatural division of Europe is now consigned to the past. European integration shows that we have learnt the painful lessons of a history marked by bloody conflict. Today we live together as was never possible before. […]
We have a unique way of living and working together in the European Union. This is expressed through the democratic interaction of the Member States and the European institutions. The European Union is founded on equal rights and mutually supportive cooperation. This enables us to strike a fair balance between Member States’ interests.
We preserve in the European Union the identities and diverse traditions of its Member States. We are enriched by open borders and a lively variety of languages, cultures and regions. There are many goals which we cannot achieve on our own, but only in concert. Tasks are shared between the European Union, the Member States and their regions and local authorities. […]
We will fight terrorism, organized crime and illegal immigration together. We stand up for liberties and civil rights also in the struggle against those who oppose them. Racism and xenophobia must never again be given any rein. […]
For we know, Europe is our common future.
I am not sure if all Member States would, in clear conscience, support such a declaration today. At the same time, when one reads the document carefully, other important questions come up.
Is the Union capable of regaining its strength? Is it capable of solving the problem of immigrants from outside the EU whose successive generations fail to integrate with European societies, against expectations? Will the Union prove effective in its rivalry with China? Will it be an equal partner in cooperation with the United States? In a dozen years’ time, will it be capable of engaging in economic relations with the Far East, Russia, India, NAFTA states, and what is likely to emerge as a future South American union?
The EU’s true strength stems from the will of all its Member States to durably support reasonable integration based on authentic and equal co-participation in the decision-making process. This political cohesion of the European Union is more important than administrative dexterity in coming up with decisions—which can be seen, in particular, in crisis situations when the political balance is upset. We had an opportunity to learn how much this matters in the early morning of 27 June 2016, when the results of the Brexit referendum were announced. Yet another attempt at making the most important decisions within a group of the several largest and oldest Member States was then met in Europe with a measure of indignation.
To me, it was a time for bitter satisfaction. Not because of the sovereign decision of the British, to which they had full rights, but because of my own experience earned in 2006–2007 while negotiating the Treaty of Lisbon, and especially its part about voting power at the Council of the European Union. We were then being told that what counts most is not formal voting power but judicious policy planning, the capacity to exert wide influence, good diplomacy, etc. That was an obvious trap, if only because of the different potentials of the “old” and “new” Member States—and by potential I mean not only macroeconomic strength, but also diplomatic experience and fluency with the rules of the complex diplomatic game, involving a multifaceted and multi-level pattern of negotiating procedures. Little has changed in that regard and this will have to be remembered if the treaties came up for renegotiation.
To some extent, the Polish proposals made public during the 2007 negotiations remain relevant and adequate. We then proposed that voting rights at the Council of the EU be based on a fair, balanced mechanism, offering all citizens of the Member States the same influence on EU decision-making via their governments. It is of secondary importance what we call these mechanisms or the algorithms they may involve. At that time, we called it the principle of the equality of citizens, in reference to the present Article 9 of the Treaty on the European Union.
In negotiations with our European partners, we raised the need to acknowledge the importance of medium-sized Member States, citing the example of the German Länder. In the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, the least populous Land, Bremen, with a population of 700,000, is assigned three votes, and the most populous North Rhine-Westphalia, which has 18 million citizens, is assigned six votes. But this and other Polish arguments were then ignored, with the consequences still felt today not only by Poland, as can be seen in the growing tensions between the founding Member States and those in the south—Greece, Spain and Portugal—which are wrestling with the economic crisis.
The new approaches to the question of the Member States’ equal influence on the decision-making process in the EU should also ensure that the legal regulations and institutional arrangements are understood by and serve the citizens. The Polish proposal of nearly 10 years ago, citing the principle of each citizen’s equal influence on EU decision-making, still remains a guidepost that could be followed in the expected reform of the Union.
Poland certainly needs a European Union that understands the political sensitivity of Central European societies and our perception of the affairs of the region, the whole of Europe and of the immediate neighbourhood. We need a Europe that understands our historical experience, which includes not only a rich culture of European borderlands but also our related fears and misgivings. The founding Member States would still be well-advised to not only take notice of the emotional and moral underpinning of our choices but also to look more closely at the everyday realities of life in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. All this in the name of adequately defined, shared interests and the will to cooperate based on authentic partnership.
It would not be much of a problem today to demonstrate that if the largest Member States choose to defend their interests at the expense of their smaller and less affluent partners, they should not expect it to go unanswered or without unpleasant consequences for the European project.
There is also another warning about the shared European future that can be learned from Polish historical experience. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth obviously collapsed as a result of prolonged, aggressive policies by neighbours who sought to weaken it by all means at their disposal, and who, towards the end of the 18th century, hastily proceeded to erase the Commonwealth as a subject of international law. That was done at a time when the Commonwealth demonstrated to the world its huge potential as a political community that gave each of its members a chance to live in freedom. However, the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian union is attributed today not only to the hostile propaganda, pressures exerted by agents, and foreign military intervention, but also to an internal weakening of that complex and vast state, which came to pass because a large portion of the political elites dissociated themselves from the raison d'état and from the problems affecting the bulk of society (or, to be more precise, that part of society whose ambitions transcended the everyday struggle for survival).
A huge imbalance between the private and the public, a false sense of having influence on political decisions, an unhinging of the democratic mechanisms of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s delicate political system by oligarchs doing the bidding of hostile powers, and neglect of the needs of poorer social groups, coupled with protracted economic stagnation—all this led to a situation where a previously well-functioning entity saw its foundations shaken and found itself collapsing. At a time of international crisis, everything that could be lost was lost, a result of sins of omissions, longstanding dereliction of duty and extreme egoism. The Commonwealth found itself short of just a couple of years, maybe a dozen years, in which to revive.
As one theory has it, the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the touchstone that upset a fragile political balance among the European powers, ending up in the destructive wars of the late 18th century and early 19th century. The decisions of the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), restoring parts of the pre-revolutionary status quo, were viewed by the diplomats of European powers as reasonable, lasting and sacred, but in actual fact they ignored the will of the people and the new political developments churned out by the red-hot reactor of European ideas. The finely woven agreements were soon overturned by new wars and revolutionary nationalist upheavals in nearly all European countries. A further 150 years and two more wars were needed to learn that a double- or even triple-headed hegemony on the European continent is a utopia that only breeds aversion, hate and aggression.
Wiser with this and with more recent experience, we come to the conclusion that everything possible must be done to reinforce our European community. I am confident that Poles understand this fully.
1See: R. Frost, The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, vol. 1: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union 1385–1569, Oxford 2015.
2The Union of Lublin was an agreement between the states of the Kingdom of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania and was reached during a session of the Sejm on 1 July 1569, and ratified three days later by King Sigismund Augustus.
3A paraphrase of the legend on a cornerstone with the coats of arms of Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia, placed under the Union of Lublin Mound at the High Castle in Lwów (Lviv) to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Union of Lublin.