The Worst Is Never Certain

An interview with Aleksander Smolar by Maciej Nowicki

Let us be clear: from the point of view of the Western EU countries the enlargement was a mistake. Creating a federation out of the original six countries would probably pose no serious difficulties—says Aleksander Smolar in conversation with Maciej Nowicki.

How did Western Europe react to the 2004 enlargement? Marcel Gauchet told me recently that Günther Verheugen, the Commissioner responsible for enlargement, should end up in jail, because the entire operation was carried out in such a way that the Union was unmanageable for a long time.

Such a position prevails in France today—that the enlargement was a mistake. Because in my opinion this is what Gauchet wanted to express, but he did not want to declare it outright. Even François Hollande, asked what he thought of the enlargement during a recent press conference, said: “We were not its initiators.” In a word, he very clearly distanced himself from it.

Let us be clear: from the point of view of the Western EU countries there are serious arguments in favor of such a position. Creating a federation out of the original six countries would probably pose no serious difficulties. It is true that there was Great Britain then, which wanted to stand aside from the outset. Or the Scandinavian countries, not attracted by the utopian vision of the United States of Europe, outlined by Victor Hugo back in the 19th century. But these countries were at similar levels of development—integrating with them was much easier. It was different with Eastern Europe. The West quickly realized that further integration would have to be put off for some time and that it would have to invest a lot of money in it.

And on top of it all the gains were not always obvious. Let us just recall the referendum in the Netherlands or in France in 2005, where people voted against the EU Constitution. An enormous role was played by a sense that it was all a bit absurd: “How come? New countries join. We will have to give them money being a wealthy country. But the enlargement means an inevitable decline of our influence in the EU.”

The West also had a feeling that it would suddenly find itself in the company of a group of unpredictable countries. You have to remember that after World War II a great revolution in awareness occurred in the West. A primary role was assigned to very stringent standards relating to human rights, minority rights, the rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions. It was not clear whether the new countries would be able to comply with them. And sometimes it is still not certain… Hungary is perceived as a country with increasingly strong authoritarian elements, the level of corruption in the Czech Republic is astonishing, not to mention Bulgaria and Romania. The last two countries are a constant target of criticism. And no wonder: in Bulgaria an idea recently emerged to put NGOs that use foreign financial assistance on a list of spying organizations, as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or as in Viktor Yanukovych’s project.

One of the consequences of the enlargement was a weakening of France and a marked strengthening of Germany. Berlin found its natural sphere of influence. What does it mean in practice?

The enlargement was not the only source of the power shift. Germany belongs to the group of countries, which have greatly gained from this process. First, a great country was created, numbering 80 million people, which has a great advantage over the rest of the Union in terms of demographics. Moreover, until 1989 Germany was of course divided, blackmailed by Moscow, controlled by the allies. Today, it has regained full sovereignty and dominates in Europe, at least economically—thanks to the bold reforms introduced by Gerhard Schröder.

In contrast, France has lost a lot of after 1989. First, the French foreign policy has always relied on the good old school stemming from Richelieu—on political realism. Charles de Gaulle was loyal to the West in matters of principle. But at the same time he perfectly played out the US-Soviet conflicts. When he had an opportunity to hurt Washington in order to glorify France, he did not hesitate to do that. Withdrawing from the military structures of NATO in 1966 was an excellent example of that.

But an even greater achievement of the French was to place its bets on Germany. Knowing the European history, it was not an obvious choice. You may remember the famous saying of François Mauriac: “Yes, I love Germany, I would be happy if there were one hundred of them.” In other words, the best Germany is a fragmented and weak Germany… But in the U.S. and Western Europe realism prevailed. France placed its bets on integration with Germany. Rebuilding French industry required German raw materials. This was the origin of the Coal and Steel Community. Which was later transformed into the EU. After the war Germany could not aspire to leadership. It desired vindication. Germany became the foundation for integrating Europe, its head and chief constructor being France.

One of my French friends put it cynically: “The EU is an organism in which Berlin pays and Paris thinks.” And then he expressed regret that all this belongs to the past…

France incredibly gained from the European construction. It punched above its weight. But the end of the Cold War marked the end of the French domination. Paris could not play out the conflict between Washington and Moscow any more—because the two hostile blocks ceased to exist. In addition, Germany struck out for independence. All this was joined by the permanent economic crisis—resulting from lack of necessary reforms and rising debt. The crisis France is mired in by no means results from fate, destiny. The elites are responsible for the decline, but the statist culture of the country, distrustful of the market, also plays an important role (In our part of Europe an example of an unexpected collapse is Hungary, which was in the best economic situation in our region after the breakdown of communism. And where is it now?).

And yet France is still a country with great potential. And its active role is indispensable for Europe. Germany cannot provide leadership on its own, despite frequent accusations of hegemony. Berlin knows very well from history that its dominance could lead to an increase of distrust, to growing fears on the part of other European countries and to the formation of a coalition against Germany. But fear is not the only reason for the political weakness of Germany. Germany lost a certain culture of greatness, which the United Kingdom and France certainly still have. Germany feels confident economically, but not in geopolitical thinking…

They have not been thinking geopolitically for years—and perhaps forgot how to do it. Germany is becoming increasingly isolationist. When a military intervention is mooted, Berlin promptly says “no”…

In Germany there are strong pacifist tendencies, although in recent months one can observe some changes in the language of the leaders in Berlin, highlighting their responsibility for the world. But the dimension of global and European politics to a large extent explains the need to maintain a special relationship with Paris. By the way, it also explains the need to build the best possible relations with Poland. Of course, it is ridiculous to expect— as it has occurred in Poland—that the Berlin-Warsaw axis replaces the Berlin-Paris axis. Berlin does not intend to break with Paris in any way. I might soon come to a clear rapprochement of the foreign policy of Germany and France. Such signals are already appearing, for example in a recent speech by Hollande. France needs Germany in Africa, Germany needs Paris which is more active in the East. Both countries also want a deeper integration of the EU, even though their visions of it are different.

In its policy Poland clearly follows the Germans. Everyone remembers Radoslaw Sikorski’s speech, where he called on Berlin to become more active and insisted that we fear nothing more than German inactivity. Whenever there is a vision of a foreign intervention, Donald Tusk says the same thing as Mrs. Angela Merkel: “We do not go.” This policy is obviously beneficial—Poland gained in its political weight. When I was in Prague recently, I was asked a question awash with jealousy: “How do you feel as a citizen of a European superpower?” But are we not going too far following in the footsteps of Berlin? Because when you talk informally with high representatives of Polish government, they are wondering if we should not somehow distance ourselves from Berlin…

Before I answer your question, I want to say one thing: I believe that placing our bets on Germany was a very good choice. And not such an obvious one, when you remember what Tusk and Sikorski had been saying before coming to power. It was a discourse almost straight out of PiS—so markedly anti-German. But for me it is a good indication of flexibility and intelligence of Tusk that in the end, together with Sikorski, he chose a completely different line. We have economic interests, which very strongly tie us to Germany. We have similar geopolitical interests. Germany is the only major European country interested in our eastern neighbors—a fundamental thing for Poland. In November 2011 Sikorski gave a great speech in Berlin, which is still often cited—and not only in Germany—and he proved perfectly capable of working with Guido Westerwelle when it comes to Ukraine and Belarus. He also has a good relationship with the new foreign minister. Not to mention the excellent relations between the Polish Prime Minister and the German Chancellor. Although it is not obvious that such a state of mutual trust will be maintained. And not only in view of the possible rising to power by PiS.

In the coalition agreement between CDU and SPD it is written that relations with Poland are a priority. We do not know what it actually means. But we do know that a return to the situation from the Schröder times is impossible…

You are right, it is impossible. Germany is clearly disappointed with Moscow. Germany was ready to take part in the modernization of Russia. But today we see that Putin has no program of reforms. His regime is reactionary, nationalist, and repressive. In addition, on the German side there is a sense of power. Russia is no longer so necessary to the Germans, even in the energy sector.

But to return to your question—sometimes Warsaw’s identification with Berlin’s policy is indeed far-reaching. Zbigniew Brzezinski stressed this in an interview for a German radio during the Libyan operation, carried out by the British and French, with the support of the United States. The initial reaction of Tusk to the preparations for an intervention in Syria was surprisingly anti-American. Our Prime Minister went much further here than Angela Merkel, who at least declared a political solidarity. Although the Prime Minister softened his position slightly in a speech at Westerplatte on the 1st September.

And President Bronislav Komorowski stressed in August that we would not take part in any military expeditions abroad (his advisers somewhat softened this position, reminding us about the NATO and about our potential obligations towards our allies).

Polish foreign policy emerges as a deeply realistic policy. This has serious advantages. But it also sometimes seems surprising, if we remember the role of Romanticism in Polish political culture, with such slogans as: “For our freedom and yours.”This realism is also sometimes not very coherent.

Because on the one hand we expect that NATO will defend us should the need arise. And NATO is first and foremost the United States. And on the other hand there are words or statements which may be received with astonishment in Washington. The current relative sense of security should not be treated as absolute and permanent. Unfavorable developments in Ukraine could significantly transform the security map. We must pay tribute to the difficult initiatives of Donald Tusk in Ukraine—after a long period when this country did not seem to occupy a high place on his priorities list.

In the 1990s it was thought that when we join the EU, the ties between the countries of Central Europe will be very much strengthened. Exactly the opposite happened—the ways of Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest clearly parted. Why?

The belief in a community of Central European fate was an illusion from the very start. It was a by-product of the dissident era, when such discourse played a significant role. Even more important was the pressure of the West. The Americans and the EU reiterated that they were afraid of regional conflicts in this part of Europe, bearing in mind that this is where both World Wars broke out. Therefore, in the 1990s they sought to impose some rapprochement between the countries of Central Europe.

However, a specific imperial logic dominates. All our countries were peripheral in relation to the West and the United States. And just like with any empire, we tried to build channels of communication with the metropolises rather than with the neighbors, who were as poor as ourselves. There was nothing to gain from interacting with them. An agreement was sought primarily with London, Paris, Berlin, Washington. And with Moscow, by the way.

In addition, Poland is simply much larger than its neighbors to the south. And it was this—the size of Poland plus the repeatedly declared leadership ambitions in the region—that aroused our neighbors concerns. This was clearly visible in the era of Václav Klaus, who openly conducted a policy of no-confidence towards Poland. It was similar in Hungary at times. Only Slovakia behaved differently—Warsaw was seen as a counterweight to both Budapest and Prague. But none of the neighbors showed a great enthusiasm—all these countries preferred to integrate directly with Germany and, more generally, with the Union. As was the case with Poland as well.

So there will never be a rapprochement?

I would not formulate it so categorically. Because we still have common interests. And maybe one day even the Visegrad Group will acquire a more serious content. First, we are all somehow connected with Berlin. Second, our level of economic development is similar. And when there were common problems associated with stringent organic standards proposed by the EU or with the EU budget, Sikorski was able to gather a dozen countries around the Polish position. We were a single lobby. Quite influential at that.

Shortly after the enlargement, in Western Europe and especially in France I heard very often that Poland would build a bridge between the EU and Russia. And that it would benefit from it greatly. That did not happen. Can we do anything in this matter? In Poland, doing business with Russia is a taboo. The Lithuanians, the Czechs, and recently Viktor Orbán behave quite differently…

I think that we could not do anything here. First of all, neither Russia nor the EU need a bridge. Second, it is often forgotten that on the Red Square there are two monuments —the Lenin Mausoleum, a memorial of the already closed chapter of the revolution. And the monument to Pozharsky and Minin, the leaders of the anti-Polish revolt in 1620. A national holiday commemorating this revolt replaced the Day of the Revolution. In the past, Poland was a regional rival of Russia. Distrust of Polish ambitions persists till this day. All Polish governments after 1989 considered it their priority to have good relations with the neighbors and pulling them towards the West and democracy. And this is why Poland was seen by Moscow as a geopolitical threat. Once again, paradoxically, it became a regional competitor of Russia, though not as mighty as in the past.

Because Warsaw wanted to promote EU values?

Not only that. It also had a cultural aspect. A notion of greatness played and continues to play a major role in Poland—which has always fascinated me by the way. And this notion of greatness usually materialized as a sense of mission in the East. (But we must also emphasize that after 1989 it never resulted in revisionist tendencies. We did not demand that Vilnius and Lviv were given back to us—although they had been great centers of our culture. Yet even in Germany such revisionist sentiments were very much alive.)

That is not all: Russia was unable to formulate a policy towards such countries as Poland. The Kremlin had a policy towards the old EU and this policy was modified—in the beginning it was pro-Western and then quite the opposite. The Kremlin also had a policy towards the “near abroad”: the former republics of the Soviet Union—except the Baltic states, which the Russians gave up. And for Poland and other countries in the region there was a lot of disdain and very little politics. This situation changed after our EU accession. One manifestation of the change was Putin’s visit to Westerplatte in 2009. It was a manly, courageous gesture. Putin was well aware that Lech Kaczyński would say things unpleasant for him. For example, about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and 17 September 1939.

But he came because he knew that the Polish position in the EU has changed.

He had realized that Poland had some—underestimated by Moscow—negative power. Poland is too weak to impose its priorities on the Union, but it may block some solutions regarding, for example, EU relations with Russia. Therefore, Putin decided to warm up Russia’s relations with Poland. It was the beginning of a policy towards Warsaw. Of course, a very partial policy. The Smolensk crash and such acts as the refusal to transfer the debris of the crashed plane to Poland hamper further improvement of these relations. Today, Russia remains extremely wary of the Polish. But at the same time it recognizes that Poland is an important country. This is evidenced by the recent visit of Sergei Lavrov, or by the meeting of Polish, German and Russian foreign ministers in Munich.

The first question concerned the enlargement in 2004. The hangover caused by it in the West resulted in Ukraine losing any chances of joining the EU. No one wanted Kyiv in Europe. The effects are seen today. Russia will probably not colonize Ukraine, but Ukraine found itself in the Russian sphere of influence. What does this mean for the situation in the region?

Let me also start with 2004. I spoke about the problems with enlargement in many Western countries. But today there is also a general awareness of the great success of Poland, the Baltic states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Today, the main line of division is seen not as running between the East and the West of the Union, but between the North and the crisis-stricken South. Returning to the case of Ukraine—EU has obviously made some mistakes, it realized too late how big geopolitical problem is posed by Ukraine. But I was not able to outbid Russia.

There was a dramatic asymmetry between the Russian proposal and the proposal of the EU, within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. An asymmetry of which neither the West nor the Polish leaders were fully aware. The Russian proposal promised to solve the personal problems of Yanukovych and his entourage, related to their greed. Second, it promised a weakening of social tensions—for example through lowering energy prices. And the EU did not offer fish, only a fishing line. The EU said more or less such a thing: “If you introduce reforms—political and economic—if you curtail corruption, in a while you will have it as good as the Poles—who in 1989 were at your current level of development.” The Union did not provide immediate solutions, did not guarantee the re-election of Yanukovych in 2015—on the contrary, the EU told him, in essence, “Go hang yourself, Yanukovych.” Because Yanukovych embodies both corruption and contempt for the law and democracy.

So what will happen next?

Russia did not buy Ukraine—it seemed to have bought the status quo… and instead it got a rebellion, which is spreading to the east of the country. Yanukovych is getting weaker by the day. Does this mean his inevitable downfall? The optimistic scenario is possible. Opposition leaders behave very responsibly. You cannot, however, exclude the possibility that Moscow will foster disruptive tendencies, which might bring anarchy or even lead to disintegration of Ukraine. South Ossetia or Abkhazia are models for many in Moscow. If an agreement is to be reached, it must, in fact, include four sides: between Yanukovych and the opposition, and between Russia and the EU. All this in a situation where neither of the sides has control over the events.

What does the worst case scenario mean for us?

As the French say: the worst is never certain. However, we — both Poland and the whole EU — must be aware that anarchy in Ukraine, the emergence of elements of civil war and greater intervention of Moscow will certainly destabilize Poland and the whole EU. They can also have a negative impact on the evolution of our domestic system. The struggle for Ukraine is also a struggle for our opportunities and prospects.

What will happen next with Polish?

Poland has made the biggest progress among all the countries in the region. These changes are quite remarkable. In the past when I was travelling abroad, when talking about Europe only Western capitals were mentioned. Today also Warsaw is always named. We have been put on the mental map of Europe.

Now we have a tough period before us. First, we may have problems on the eastern border, related to the situation in Ukraine, as I said before. A clear weakening of NATO and the weakening of America will reinforce these concerns. And in a few years a large change is to be expected. Poland is still admired, treated almost as a model, as a great European state. The policy of Germany, the weakening of France and the marginalization of Cameron’s UK in Europe are very helpful for us. But Poland could lose its very favorable position. Internal developmental factors will change for the worse. This is, unfortunately, inevitable. Due to demographics—Poland is getting old. These are the last years when we enjoy a rich labor market. And the big money from the EU, which have helped us so greatly, will stop pouring in.

In other words, there is a risk of many unfavorable factors coinciding…

Poland may fall into what economists call the growth trap—our economy is not prepared for a new phase of development, its creativity is weak. This will not mean a collapse. But in light of the aspirations of the consumers, clearly aroused, in light of the desire occupy an important position in Europe and the world, it will be far too little.

You often repeated the formula coined by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, meant to describe the direction of Polish foreign policy after 1989— “no experiments.” In short, we are mainly sup- posed to imitate the West. But is it not harder for us now? Because the EU is in a deep crisis. France, Italy and Spain cannot be called healthy states. There is hardly any model we could follow…

It is true—we have to make many decisions on our own. And this is certainly more difficult. But the problem is that we are not very active even in these cases where the path is already marked. Adenauer’s “no experiments” meant the choice of democracy and the market, a refusal to seek a “third way.” This was also our choice in 1989. Today the words “no experiments,” referring to the rule of Donald Tusk, describe its extremely conservative nature. The only significant change after the last elections concerned the prolongation of retirement age. Using the term reform—which this government has never liked anyway—for taking money from the pension funds is a grim joke. Basing our development and Polish hopes almost exclusively on money from the European Union cannot be enough—although funds from the EU have played an extremely positive role. And in this I see a significant risk in terms of the future.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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