Prime Minister, we are talking on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Polish independence. In 1918, Poland reappeared on the political map of Europe, after 123 years of partitions by three foreign powers. Ever since then, for an entire century, we have struggled to keep or strengthen that independence, not always successfully. How should we strengthen it in the future?
Among the key conditions of independence, agency is perhaps the crucial one . What we need most is an efficient, ambitious state, which will be able to use its economic and military potential, skilful administration and international alliances to provide security and create the optimal environment for growth. In the future, Poland must also be able to influence geopolitical reality, both on the regional and European level, but also on the global scale. After 1989, Polish elites were united in their belief that the raison d’état includes our membership in the EU and NATO. Fortunately, these goals have been achieved. We have thus gained powerful instruments to strengthen Poland’s ability to exert influence worldwide. Today’s world, however, presents us with new, often more difficult challenges. A strong transatlantic alliance and membership in the EU will remain the two pillars of Polish security, growth and international activity. We must put them to good use, but we also need to take a wider perspective and be more proactive in foreign affairs, in a world which is far more complex than just a decade or two decades ago.
Should this proactive approach to international politics be applied mainly to our closest neighbourhood?
Poland is the biggest country of the Eastern part of the EU and NATO, which is the fastest growing region in all of Europe. It is obvious that we should make the best use of it. The Visegrad Group and the Three Seas Initiative are political projects designed to utilise the potential of the region, showing that our policy-making is effective and that we are good team players. There are already tangible results of our team work, such as, for instance, the most recent European Council summit where, together with our allies, we convinced all member states of the EU that arbitrary relocation of migrants was a wrong decision. International relations involve continuous efforts to build political alliances, which would allow Poland to influence decisions on the global scale and to shape international markets in line with our interests. In these efforts Poland cannot be limited to her closest neighbours. We must use political and economic projects to build partnerships outside Europe, too – in Asia, in Africa, in South America.
You are, therefore, an advocate for strengthening Poland’s political potential, hence also her sovereignty, through economic growth and expansion of trade. Is this correct?
A state with strong economy will also be strong in the political and military domains. Poland experienced an apocalypse from two totalitarian regimes created by deep social crises, which, in turn, were largely the result of economic crises. This was the case both in the 1917 Russia, and in the Weimar Germany in 1933. Today, economic problems contribute to severe tensions again, from the trade imbalances between the United States and China, through the lingering crisis in the Eurozone and economic instability in South America, to armed conflicts in Africa. That is why, although some may find the idea eccentric – Poland should generate ideas for the world, suggesting ways to defuse social unrest and to return to healthy, balanced growth. Our example shows that social inequalities can be addressed, economy deregulated, and taxation for small business lowered, with fiscal discipline maintained. We are currently building one of the most modern and effective tax systems in the world. I would not hesitate to say that Poland is in the avant-garde of modern democratic capitalism.
So how would you advise your international partners to deal with global economy challenges?
What is needed is more democracy with a greater degree of consensus than has been accepted so far. We should aim for consensual solutions to global problems, through such forums as the Bretton Woods, which should be recreated in a new form. Let us not forget that ideas have consequences. The fact that chancellor Brüning of the Central Party decided to implement deflation policy when Germany faced the Great Depression led to an economic disaster and the subsequent victory of the Nationalist Party, with Hitler as a leader. There would have been no Nazi crimes in Poland if it weren’t for chancellor Brüning’s economic mistakes.
What does sovereignty mean today? What is the significance of an independent, sovereign state in today’s globalized world?
Sovereignty is the right to shape your own fate. For the Polish people, independence has almost ontological status. Having no state, we were deprived of participation in the first and second industrial revolution. We couldn’t fight poverty, Polish education was banned, and Polish taxes supported foreign empires. There are people who claim that partitions were in fact the driving force of modernization in Poland. Really, one has to have no knowledge of history to believe such nonsense. An independent state is always the best vehicle for modernization. It is the only system, which can take care of all citizens. No empire is going to prioritize the well-being of the inhabitants of conquered lands over that of its own people. If you took a walk through the post-imperial Vienna, you would find it very hard to spot any evidence of the Galicia of the Habsburg times and its achievements in art, science or industry. In Krakow, on the other hand, examples of the Kaiser Franz Josef cult are not uncommon.
President Macron is advocating for “European sovereignty,” defined as “the ability to act in certain circumstances to protect ourselves and our values.” How would you interpret this agenda? How, or under what conditions, can the sovereignty of particular European states be transformed into “pan-European sovereignty?”
President Macron definitely has a point, especially as far as technological, commercial and space research co-operation goes. For various reasons, no EU country on its own is able to build from scratch a technological enterprise to rival Google or Amazon. If, however, unnecessary barriers to growth are discarded, a Polish or French company could expand within the EU to such an extent that it would ultimately be able to compete with the world giants. In the world of digital monopolies, the negotiating power of the European Commission is greater than that of any single member of the EU.
At the same time, the president of France calls for a faster and deeper integration of Europe, more authority to European institutions, as well as for creating new ones. In short, further steps toward European federalization…
This is why we cannot forget that the European Union is founded upon its member states and it is these states that legitimize the EU. European nation states are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. What is more, the elections in recent years show that European societies would like to regain some control over their fate, so I can’t see a threat of European federalization any time soon. Let us always keep it in mind that democratization of Europe means more power to the member states. There is no such entity as a demos, or people, in the pan-European sense – only in the national sense.
As we are discussing political and economic sovereignty, I would like to ask about the currency, which is one of the symbols of sovereignty. During the accession to the EU, Poland agreed to join the European Monetary Union and adopt the common European currency, the euro. Not automatically, of course: the decision is to be made by the Polish government, but let’s discuss the pros and cons. What factors should determine the decision to relinquish this aspect of Polish sovereignty? Just the cost calculation or other factors as well?
There is no such thing as good policy based on bad economy. It is true that Poland declared to join the Eurozone, but we are not bound by any deadlines. The pre-requisite for the introduction of the common EU currency in Poland is economic convergence with the eurozone – without this, we would be in danger of slowing down the process of our civilizational growth, or even of its coming to a halt. Greek case clearly indicates that economic convergence does not occur automatically on joining the Eurozone. When Greece joined a Monetary Union, financial markets began to estimate Greek debt as equally secure as that of Germany. In 2009, that equality proved a painful illusion.
The future of the Eurozone still presents many challenges, especially in light of the rising popularity of parties which propose that their countries should leave common currency. Meanwhile, the world economy is struggling with many unresolved problems. We must also remember that it is difficult to maintain a unified monetary zone which is not a unified currency zone and has no basis in common nationality. History demonstrates that this is virtually impossible.
A few months ago in Brussels, you said that we need “a stronger Europe, one that is more intelligent, and demonstrates more solidarity”. You also offered a number of concrete suggestions about how this could be achieved. Whom do you see as potential allies? Who shares Poland’s perspective on the opportunities and challenges facing the European Union today? How to win support for those views?
I am certain that more and more governments in Europe will gravitate toward views resembling ours. Even today, every election cycle increases the number of European governments whose opinion is very much like Poland’s – on the need of increasing authority on the national level, fighting tax havens, and finding a new formula for economic growth. Good diplomacy requires the ability to build coalitions in order to promote common viewpoints. With regard to particular causes, there will be coalitions with different countries. Poland is already doing this, and succeeding. For historical reasons, our part of Europe understands Polish point of view better than the West. So it is quite easy to form coalitions within our region. But when competing for structural funds, for example, we have an ally in Spain; in common agricultural policy, in France; in military defence, our interests are most aligned with those of United Kingdom. Our approach is very pragmatic.
Europe is slowly pulling itself up from the economic slump. Growth in the Eurozone is picking up its pace, which is good for Poland as the EU is the main recipient of our exports. Nevertheless, it seems that the debate on the EU’s shape and identity will take place on another platform, namely, the migration. Last summer such debate almost broke up the Christian Democrats in Germany. It also causes disagreements between the member states. Does your government have an idea how to deal with the migration issue? Spending more money? Increasing the number of sea patrols and tightening controls on the land borders?
Because of the demographic tendencies in Africa and the Middle East, Europe simply cannot adopt an open borders policy. Incidentally, there is no justification for such a policy: a significant majority of migrants reaching Europe in recent years were economic migrants, not refugees fleeing the war. We must help these people build a better future for themselves in their own homelands, and simultaneously strengthen the external borders of the EU. Every country has the right to adopt any migration policy that is supported by its society. Poland is exercising this right, which is one of the reasons why there is no social tension caused by migrants, nor terrorist threat on Polish territory. Many people living in Western Europe notice this and are envious: this is fact, not propaganda. Obviously, in the sphere of economy we still have a long way to go before we reach the level of other EU countries, but as far as security goes, we have long been at the top.
President Ronald Reagan used to say that the state, its institutions and their activities cannot be the solution to any crisis, since the state is the source of problems. Today this idea of liberalism seems to lose popularity. There are arguments, which are gaining more traction, that globalization has gone too far and that the state should be more involved. It seems that the state institutions gradually reclaim not only authority, but also influence on some areas of social and economic life which the state neglected for the last thirty or forty years. Would you agree, that there is some sort of “the comeback of the state”, not only in Europe, but in the whole Western world?
Different times, with their particular problems, call for different solutions. United States under Reagan was different from the United States of today in terms of demographics, working class income, cost of medical care or education. I am not at all surprised that the vital role of the state has been rediscovered. Utopias don’t last forever. A state which fulfils its role appropriately is the guardian of the community, protecting it from the domination of oligarchies, monopolies and cartels – both in economy, and in politics. It is also the state that should be the driving force of modernization. Abdication of the state entails a weakening of national communities in global dealings.
In the United States, however, the rejection of Reagan’s idea means that the US begins to withdraw from the role of guarantor of global security. For Poland, this is not a favourable trend. Since the end of World War Two relations between Europe and the United States have been based on the assumption of asymmetry: the US guaranteed Europe’s external security, including the nuclear umbrella. Europe in return was to strengthen its internal security, invest in its economic potential, build the welfare-state rooted in social solidarity. It was supposed to boost its immune system and protect itself from the disease of communism. It seems that today, on both sides of the Atlantic, societies expect a re-definition of transatlantic relations. How is Poland going to participate in the debate? What model of transatlantic relations would correspond with our raison d’état?
The problems have been accumulating for years. The US Department of Commerce repeatedly pointed out to the growing trade imbalance between America and Europe. Another serious problem is the defence budget. Many European countries do not meet the criterion of two per cent of GDP for defence, even though they voluntarily declared to spend that amount as members of NATO. For decades, the United States have been demanding more substantial European financial participation in upholding peace in Europe. This led to recent confrontation between the U.S. administration and Europe on the issue. Despite various disagreements, periodical improvement or deterioration in mutual relations, the EU-U.S. partnership is absolutely fundamental for both parties. Both sides may not fully agree with each other in some matters, but the bottom line is that everyone benefits from the cooperation. Poland has always tried to strengthen the transatlantic relations and I think that it is unlikely to change for a long time to come.
But tensions in transatlantic relations have a new international context. Peace in Europe is under threat. One of Poland’s neighbours is a superpower, which uses force to change borders. What consequences does it have for Poland? Can you imagine a “reset” in the relation with Russia, and if so, under what conditions?
Poland calls for realistic policy vis-à-vis Russia, with the main goal being the protection of peace and security in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia starts wars in Europe and resorts to armed aggression in foreign affairs. It invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014; the Ukrainian Donbas region and the Crimea are still occupied, civilian planes are being shot down, cyber-terrorist and cyber-war attacks occur. Lately there have also been political killings with the use of weapons of mass destruction. Russia is a danger to peace and stability. It is not interested in maintaining dialogue on the most basic human level, even addressed to to children and teenagers. Taking all this into account, it is really difficult to imagine any kind of “fresh start.” The obvious conditions for welcoming Russia back to the family of civilized countries are refraining from aggression toward its neighbours, respect for international law and principles of the democratic world in international relations. We would be more than happy to see such changes in Russian policy, but they will not materialize if we turn a blind eye at what kind of state Russia is.
Let me conclude with a “behind-the-scenes” question. How would you comment on the claim that there is virtually no difference today between internal and international relations; that home and foreign affairs are inseparable? Is it true, as far as state policy decision-making is concerned?
Policy regarding internal and foreign affairs will always be different. The two are of a different nature, they have different goals and a different public. The media often put an “international spin” on politicians’ words, even those regarding local matters. But it does not change the fact that politicians are responsible to their voters, and not to the heads of foreign newspaper newsrooms or self-styled spokespersons for some foreign elites, let alone to politicians representing other countries or their interests. International context does matter in key decisions, but it cannot be a decisive factor where fundamental internal reforms are involved. No patriotic elites, in charge of a state with a tradition of respect for statehood, would accept that – independently of their geographical location.
Interview by Sławomir Dębski