European countries should lead EU reforms, says Bartosz Cichocki, deputy Foreign Minister of Poland

© Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland

Tento článek je součástí Special reportu: Czech-Polish visions on the future of the EU

Based on institutions chosen in indirect elections and in electoral cycles not reflecting the changing sentiment of the national constituencies, the EU does not have a democratic legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. A perfect EU would give Europeans the comfort of power to shape national parliaments and governments – Bartosz Cichocki, deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs tells EURACTIV.pl

Karolina Zbytniewska: What’s your view about the idea of a multi-speed Europe?

Minister Bartosz Cichocki: I have a critical stance towards this kind of ideas. They have been reappearing for years in the moments of crises, when some politicians fail to find solutions to EU troubles and embrace populist slogans. From every crisis the EU faced, it emerged stronger thanks to capabilities and determination of its true leaders. Now, the situation will be the same. After a bunch of resounding ideas that can never find serious support, we will finally sit down together and discuss really significant issues. For instance, reviving competiveness within the EU, its position on the global market, or restoring faith in benefits of the EU integration project.

Member states should be the pillars and also the leaders of reforms. They are particularly legitimized to work them out because it is national parliaments and governments with parliamentary majorities that resonate the citizens‘ expectations and sensitivities most adequately. They are the voice of the society. We in Poland support the renovation of the EU and strengthening of that community. We have one of the most stable political scenes, our economy is growing, we are restricting our economy’s grey zone, we improve the climate for businesses, but we also do not forget about the weaker parts of our society — all that is reflected in our country’s investor confidence rankings, including the most prestigious ones.

You say that we have the most stable political scene. Do you mean the enduring support for the ruling party? In that regard, PiS is losing only to Orban’s Fides.

For the first time in the history of Polish democracy the government is based on a single electoral bloc. It is with few other examples in the world that the government enjoys a support of 40% of voters for the third year in a row. Political predictability and stability are important for investors. Most of the business associations have a positive attitude towards Poland. Some may not like the conservative identity of the government, but at least they know the rules and they know they will endure. You cannot say that about many democracies in Europe these days.

Czech-Polish cooperation and the future of the EU: Consume benefits, avoid costs

Stay in the EU or not to stay in the EU? According to the experts it is not an issue for Poland and Czech Republic. For both countries is important to remain in the EU, to gain benefits and to avoid costs.

It’s not that bad though. Europe has come back on the track of growth. Economic growth in Germany and France will amount this year to some 2%. It is not Poland’s 4.5% but we still lag behind them and have a big gap to close.

Mentioning the decline of Europe’s competiveness did you mean that the EU’s share of the world market is still falling (this year 16.3% of the gross world product) compared with the rising role of China (18.7%) and that of other economies, particularly in South-East Asia?

I meant both a relative and an absolute decline. In some European countries, we can see irrational balance of expenses and incomes. Because of big fiscal burdens, overgrown administrations, and smaller flexibility of the labour market, European competiveness is in danger. National debt is growing dangerously. The rise of China and other new economic centres is an objective factor. Naturally, things are getting more difficult, but why do we make them even worse by using populistic slogans, such as the idea of restricting the freedom of services by restricting the posting of workers?

You said that member states should lead European reforms. But they actually do; they, especially France and Germany, want a closer coalition of the willing centred around the euro zone.  Besides, the EU itself is a union of states and, I suppose, it expresses the will of the majority of states, not of some obscure institution from Brussels.

Even if we are not unanimous in every aspect, or have different ideas about reaching the same goal, it does not mean that the EU’s institutions will take better care of our problems. After all, national parliaments and governments are the ones with the best contacts with citizens and taxpayers, so they should lead the decision-making process. All European countries should also accept these reforms. This set-up will extend the time of healing but finally it will restore the permanent health of the integration project.

By definition, we are not enemies of community institutions. We successfully work with the EC and the EP on many issues, such as energy security and neighbourhood policy. We just have a feeling that in cases not clearly defined by treaties, or even when treaties do not give the Commission competence, the Commission wants to create faits accomplis that will work in its favour. In a short run this approach may secure effective decision-making, but in a longer run it may threaten the European project as a whole.

In your opinion, what interest may the European Commission have in acting like that? Considering that it is an institution representing the EU as a whole.

To get more power. By looking at the sources and results of Brexit or election results in some of the EU-15 countries, we can see that voters not only in Poland react to these trends with anxiety. Hence that is the wrong way to go.

Negotiations on the EU’s future budget means fight for cohesion in Czech and Polish perspectives

No cuts in cohesion and agricultural funds, greater flexibility and less administrative burdens. That’s how the Czech Republic and Poland see the future EU’s budget.

Going back to what you said about Western companies investing in Poland, do you think we should remain on the path of being a subcontractor for the West? When it comes to that, our main competitive advantage is low labour cost. And because of that we have problems with, for instance, a new European legislation regarding posted workers.

Slowly this role of, as you phrased it, „subcontractor” is changing. But we should not feel offended by the fact that big industrial companies want to build their plants in our country – we provide them with better business environment, well-educated and dedicated workers who accept lower salaries compared with those in Western Europe. The PiS government places great importance on new technologies, creativity of small and medium-sized enterprises, start-ups, e-industry and e-services. We do our best to promote Polish know-how, which – combined with Western capital and the scale of global networks – will be the source of our competitive strength. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s strategy to transform Poland into one special economic zone favours development based on quality. Sure, we earn less even though we work harder than they do in Western Europe. And I am afraid it will not change quickly. We have an enormous agricultural sector, coalfields, unspoiled landscapes. We are not ashamed because of that, we are proud of the traditional pillars of our economy and we are still willing to successfully utilize them in our economic strategy.

You’ve mentioned coal. We import more and more of it, mainly from Russia. You said that the government supports strengthening the European Union, but it not always comes in line with the words of our politicians. I think about the words of President Duda about the „imaginary community”, or those of PM Morawiecki when he was saying how much we have invested in our infrastructure, and even though a great share of those funds came from Brussels, we would have made it on our own any way. Professor Ryszard Legutko is repeatedly talking about the “fifth column” and you have just said that the European Commission is trying to dangerously empower itself. It does not seem like PiS wants to reinforce the EU.

Some Western editorial offices and political groups of influence invent Eurosceptics where there are none to target the rise of anti-establishment sentiments in their own vicinity. We want to reinforce the EU. We cannot build new quality on the foundation of an uncritical acceptance of every idea that gets the most “likes” or “retweets” at some particular moment in time. We want to reform the EU, not preserve the status which is responsible for current problems – Brexit, debt burden, porous borders.

“Some imaginary community from which we don’t gain much” – I would say it is pretty critical and it neglects the importance of the integration for Poland.  

The meaning of these words was explained many times. Using scientific language, president described a simple fact that the European community is not a natural-born community – based on kinship and common language. It was created, which means we can change, reform it. In fact, it has been going through a constant change and it now differs significantly from what it looked like 10, 20, or 30 years ago. By pointing out that external subjects, producers or banks get more in dividends and spreads than we as a country receive EU funds, PM Morawiecki also stated an obvious thing.

Our benefits cannot be diminished by the gains of the “external subjects”. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister says that we would have made it even without the help from EU. Disrespectful tone again.

If we look at the discussion about the EU in France, Germany, Spain, not to mention the discussion behind Brexit, you see serious questions about the EU’s future there, and no one gets offended. Our questions and proposals cannot be considered Euroscepticism. Conversely, we do not have any serious party or organization inside or outside the Parliament calling for exit from the EU, while in the countries of the EU15 that’s a reality. In those countries, such parties enjoy support at or above 20%. It is not Poland that threatens European integration.

Poland and the Czech Republic: How to “Renewable” the Energy Mix?

In both Poland and the Czech Republic, coal is the main pillar of power generation. For Poland, it stands behind around 80% power generation. In the Czech Republic, coal’s share in the energy mix is twice lower.

You talked about declining importance of the EU and its smaller share in the global GDP, which is the case also with the US. In this year’s State of the Union address Jean Claude-Juncker said that Europe should become an architect, not only observer of the new global order. One of his ideas is the resignation from the consensus mode of decision-making in the field of the EU global policy for voting by qualified majority. What do you think about it?

I think that some European leaders did not understand why Brexit happened and why we got such election results in Italy and Austria. There are people who tend to mistake the EU for the Franco-German interests, but it is not a community we and other nations entered. I do not mean only Central European nations. Building consensus is harder than submission. But it gives a more permanent result than decisions imposed by more populous and affluent countries.

Could I say that you would like to see a community focused mainly on economy, a more pragmatic one?

Yes, it is where we see its role. By gaining more economic power, we would be able to influence the creation of the international order, global trade rules, face the threats such as climate change and we could stabilize our neighbourhood.

To succeed at the latter, we must first and foremost remain an open project, which Poland firmly supports, speaking about both the EU and NATO.

The EU is still an economic power and despite the rise of Asian markets it will remain one for a long time. It successfully develops standards in international trade, fights with tax havens, forces external corporations to pay taxes in places where they make their revenues and promotes an ambitious strategy to fight climate change. And besides Brexit, we should not expect other exits.

But the EU cannot be only an oasis for those inside it, but also needs to present itself as an achievable promise for the European countries that remain outside. If you take away that promise, what incentive is left for – for example – Western Balkan countries to reform themselves? We learned this from our own experience. Would we have taken all those difficult decisions without a chance of joining the EU? It would have also been much harder to secure popular support for socially unpopular decisions.

There will be no war with Russia, say Czech and Polish experts

The major security threat for Poland and the countries on the Eastern flank of the EU and NATO is the aggressive politics of the Russian Federation. Czech Republic’s experts don’t mention Russia in the front line.

Would that Union that you depict – being an economic and pragmatic community and promise – be based on any values?

Of course, it is a community of shared values.

Those from the article 2 of the Treaty on European Union? So, we won’t have to be scared about the perspective of linking funds to the rule of law then?

Indeed, we support that initiative but only if we find some clear, measurable, and objective criteria. It cannot be only the ambition of some European leaders to compensate for their demise on the national political scene with career on the community level based on a campaign against Poland reforming its judicial system. Maybe we should focus also on debt burdens of some countries or implementation of verdicts of the Court of Justice of the European Union given the fact that many countries aren’t too keen on that?  Freedom of speech and religion is something we all share. We do not undermine the autonomy of Polish courts. It is an interpretation dispute. We are free to reform a system which did not and does not work even now because it hasn’t been fully reformed. We are committed to continue dialogue with the European Commission and we take into consideration many of its remarks. Unfortunately, most Member States repeat the „dialogue mantra” without addressing the arguments. Sending the case to the Court by the Commission makes the political process even harder as we cannot put pressure on the judges.

They want to motivate the Polish government to changes by all available measures.

And we will point our arguments and encourage our interlocutors to address them. For the time being we are suspended in a strange vacuum.

According to Eurobarometer, 87% of Polish respondents view affiliation of Poland to the EU as something positive. But this view seems quite superficial. What could be done for Poles – and the government – to stop complaining about the EU and be genuinely happy about it?

I think it is a genuine emotion and the Polish government „complains” about the EU incomparably less than governments of many other EU member states. Poles want the EU to be given instruments for providing them security and growth. We see that the solutions proposed e.g. by liberal or socialist governments in response to the migration crisis have no popular support unlike solutions from the Visegrad Group governments. People want to be sure about their future. The EU, based on institutions chosen in indirect elections and in electoral cycles not reflecting the changing sentiment of the national constituencies, cannot give such legitimacy. A perfect EU would give its citizens the comfort of ownership through their power to shape national parliaments and governments.

But they themselves must work for that perfect model to be realized. But the average turnout in previous European Parliament elections stands at 23%. Except for the EP, the EU is an example of representative democracy with representatives of national political groupings legitimized by elections and apolitical officials representing all 28 countries.

„Apolitical officials representing all 28 countries” is a fairy tale. Please have a look on the national composition of the middle and top posts in the community institutions. To be a good European you have to think about your voters and be able to find a consensus accepted by all governments inside the EU.

Czech foreign affairs official: Unlike the Czechs, Poles would like to influence the EU values

Close cooperation in defence politics or increasing trade exchange is typical for Czech-Polish relations, says Tomáš Kafka from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.