Adrian Zandberg: The Mentality from Margaret Thatcher’s Times still Dominates among the Leaders of Visegrad

The left-wing story has to be built on recognising what really unites us. We are the periphery and like every periphery we have the ambition to stop being periphery. This can only be done by deepening European solidarity—says Adrian Zandberg in an interview with Jakub Majmurek.

JAKUB MAJMUREK: “Poland’s real security is Europe, it is cooperation with our neighbors from the north, with our neighbors from the west”, you said in your speech during the debate on the vote of confidence for the second government of Mateusz Morawiecki. You did not mention the countries south of us, that is the Visegrad Group. Was this a deliberate omission? Is the Visegrad Group not an important point of reference for today’s Polish left?

ADRIAN ZANDBERG: Relations with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are not the most neglected foreign policy front that the left would like to bring to the fore during such a debate. On the contrary, Law and Justice has made many very friendly gestures towards the partners from the region, often encountering a marked lack of reciprocity, especially from Hungary. For a very long time, we have perceived our presence in Europe in terms of “squeezing out the brussels sprouts” together with our brothers from Visegrad. But for the future of Poland, relations with Northern Europe are as important as relations with Central Europe. And for the future of Europe it is crucial that we rebuild our relations with Germany and France.

So the Visegrad perspective is not important for the left?

Of course it is important. Ignoring Central and Eastern Europe would be stupid. Our four countries have similar needs in the context of the next EU budget perspective, European funds, or a common industrial policy—although unfortunately the current governments of the Group are not very inventive on how to cooperate in these areas. But if we think about the future of Europe in a slightly longer term perspective, our interests are not always the same as those of the other V4 countries. Sometimes they are close to Scandinavia or Southern Europe, that is Spain or Greece—a direction completely neglected and forgotten in our policy.

The lines of division in ideas about Europe do not necessarily follow geography. We are closer to a new left-wing government in Spain than to those in Budapest or Bratislava on many issues.

Finally, looking at Visegrad, you cannot ignore the obvious differences between the political parties in particular countries. The Polish left has different ideas for European integration than the current Polish government or the government of Viktor Orbán. The lines of division in ideas about Europe do not necessarily follow geography. We are closer to a new left-wing government in Spain than to those in Budapest or Bratislava on many issues.

At the height of the Ukrainian crisis, the number two person in the Spanish government, Pablo Iglesias, called Maidan a ‘coup d’état’, spoke about the ‘double standards’ of the West in its approach to Russia, and later was a vocal opponent of the sanctions against Russia. This view is probably rather distant from how Poland and other countries in the region see this key issue for their security. Do we have a problem with the fact that the left in Europe often does not understand the distinct nature of our region?

It is true that the Western European left has not been looking very carefully to the East for many years. But a lot has changed since Maidan. Today, in parties like Podemos, it is difficult to find lovers of Putin’s authoritarian, conservative and extremely anti-social regime.

Even if so, you do hear voices saying that Russia, however authoritarian it might be internally, is a barrier to ‘Atlantic imperialism’ and offers hope for a ‘multipolar world’.

Fortunately, you hear them less and less often. Just to be clear: Putin’s Russia is not a hope for a ‘multipolar world’, but a country whose reckless policies pose a threat to security in the region. To use a language comprehensible in Spain, Russia is an imperialist country. When you look at it from the distance of 1500 kilometers, you may miss it.

In the case of the European left, especially the one to the left of mainstream social democracy, the problem used to be that for years it had no meaningful partners in the countries of our region, partners who would explain the situation to them from the perspective of the left in Warsaw or Riga. This has changed only in recent years. In the Razem Party we make sure that this perspective is present in the discussions of the European left. Either way, Visegrad, or more broadly the whole of Central Europe, shares some common interests with the European South, resulting from the status of these areas as the EU’s semi-periphery.

But isn’t the peripheral nature of these two regions different? Greece, Spain and Portugal rebelled against a Europe that in their mind was geared for the export-oriented German economy. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are to a greater or lesser extent economically ‘plugged in’ to the German export engine and they have built their development on that in recent years.

There is some truth in this, but the matter needs to be looked at more broadly. For the left, it is important that the inhabitants of a peripheral country pay for the development of the center with their living standards. Regardless of whether this happens through a trade balance crisis, a debt crisis and an imposed policy of cuts, or through pressure on wages, taxes and so-called labor costs, the effect is similar. And the political response should also be similar—levelling of inequalities.

Putin’s Russia is not a hope for a ‘multipolar world’, but a country whose reckless policies pose a threat to security in the region. To use a language comprehensible in Spain, Russia is an imperialist
country.

In fact, the model in which Central Europe is a pool of customers and sub-contractors for Germany and other countries of the north-western part of the continent is slowly reaching its limits. We will see this with the upcoming economic slowdown, especially if—which is not impossible—it turns into a recession. The situation of the Polish economy may be completely different than during the 2008 crisis. Europe needs more sustainable development and a bolder industrial policy. It is not only a question of levelling the potentials between the East and the West. If we look at the most obvious engines of development, such as artificial intelligence, there are two development centers here today.

Europe is three steps behind despite all its potential. This will not change if Europe remains stuck with the dogmas of the 1990s about government aid—especially that nobody in the world today has such scruples.

One is the United States and the other is China, with powerful government support. And we have Europe, which is three steps behind despite all its potential. This will not change if Europe remains stuck with the dogmas of the 1990s about government aid—especially that nobody in the world today has such scruples and government aid is freely flowing everywhere. This will not change if Europe blocks mergers of European companies, effectively preventing them from competing in global markets. Finally, this will not change if Europe does not launch a stream of public investment to unlock the potential of more peripheral areas like ours.

But won’t the consolidation of European players geared for global competition leave our region behind, further strengthening the strongest players?

Letting market forces loose would, of course, have such an effect, that is consolidation would serve the center. But this is where active public policy can come into play.

What would it look like in specific terms?

We have the European Investment Bank. We have tools that at current interest rates cost really little. We can create a large European public investment mechanism that will at one go strengthen Europe economically, make it more coherent and tackle the climate crisis. The new European Commission is preparing some mechanisms under the so-called European Green Deal. A Just Transition Fund is to be created. This means the success of progressive movements across Europe. The European elite could not ignore their voice, but unfortunately the details are disappointing. They make costs public and privatize profits.

Even in the face of the climate crisis, the Christian Democrats—because it is them who play the first fiddle—don’t have the courage to say that public investment financed by government bonds is the most effective way to overcome stagnation. Not accidentally, the ‘European Green Deal’ is not called the ‘New Deal’, as activists from across the continent wanted, invoking the program of huge public investments from the Roosevelt era. For our region, shedding this dogmatism and launching large European public investments is very important, for it would provide an opportunity for a development leap.

New investments should create jobs different from those to which our region is accustomed: well-paid, with stable contracts, with participation of employees in the management of the company, with limits on the spread of wages between management and staff. What we need here, more than anywhere else in Europe, is a change in thinking about labor.

New investments should create jobs different from those to which our region is accustomed: well-paid, with stable contracts, with participation of employees in the management of the company.

The same goes for the European Pillar of Social Rights. A well-conceived plan guaranteeing minimum social security for all would be a breath of air for the region—with its dismantled social security and underfunded public services. The problem is that the Visegrad governments rarely think in such terms.

Even if there are good ideas, such as the Intermarium Fund, the mentality from Margaret Thatcher’s times still dominates among the political leaders of this bloc. There is a belief that the market alone will guarantee the region’s sustainable development. Moreover, there is a lingering conviction that competing through low taxes is the way to go. Recently, Poland has become a kind of one big special economic zone, where investors are discretionally exempt from paying their dues. This is a blind alley. It ends with a lack of money for public services, but it also strengthens the kind of capital that is looking for cheap labor in our region, petrifying its semi-peripheral character.

The Law and Justice party, which consolidates state-owned companies and focuses on economic nationalism, does not see these problems? And what about Orbán? The right-wing populist leaders, seeing the weaker potential of Central Europe, favor consolidation of national capital, believing that this is the way to discard our peripheral status.

Orbán is more of a Thatcherite than he seems at first glance. Orbán has an amazing ability to combine very militant rhetoric with ministering to the interests of German export industries on key issues. The Hungarian economy remains dependent on them. But yes, the idea of building ‘national champions’ is not fundamentally bad. Only the actual practice is flawed. And the question of scale remains. Even the biggest ‘national champion’ in Hungary is still a minor player on the global market. That’s also why the belief that our countries can emerge from their semi-peripheral status is illusory. The real interest of Poland or Hungary is deeper integration based on solidarity rather than acting as a brake on such initiatives. In the intergovernmental “Europe of strong nations” of Kaczyński and Orbán’s dreams, economically weaker countries would also be politically weaker.

There is a belief that the market alone will guarantee the region’s sustainable development. Moreover, there is a lingering conviction that competing through low taxes is the way to go.

An opportunity for areas like ours is the strengthening of community mechanisms and democratic mechanisms in the EU—which today means above all the European Parliament. This provokes opposition from the right in the region, because a strong European Parliament does not fit their picture at all. No longer only the Left is now speaking about the need to deepen integration, joint investments and social policy to alleviate the current imbalances. The elites from the center are slowly becoming aware of this. To some extent, this can be seen in Macron’s proposals.

Macron’s proposals are criticized as being blind to our region, focused solely on the Eurozone, if not on Carolingian Europe.

That’s why I say ‘to some extent’. Macron, like many French leaders, tends to look at Europe within the ‘Carolingian’ borders. However, unlike the German Christian Democrats, he at least notices the need for a systemic correction of the inequalities created by the current model of integration.

I say this, although Macron, with his disastrous domestic policy, is not my cup of tea as a politician. Correction will be necessary once Europe is affected by the slowdown. Without it, the economic crisis can trigger off powerful centrifugal movements and have lamentable political consequences.

Macron’s proposals are also criticized for their anti-Americanism, willingness to reach an agreement with Russia and scepticism about NATO. Isn’t this another important feature of our region—the attachment to transatlantic ties? Can one imagine the security of countries like Poland without them?

There are many indications that imagining our security without them will be necessary in the future. This is not about trying to outcompete Macron in dire descriptions of the NATO situation. It is hard not to notice that the importance of our region for the United States is in decline.

The Polish government may get excited about stationing rotating American forces in Poland, but the attention of the US is focused on other places: China, the Middle East and so on. Now it is necessary to work on strengthening European security policy, cooperation on cyber defence or standardisation of defence industries. In the face of unstable, troubled Russia, a common European policy is the only way to ensure security.

Polish elites, when they hear such a proposal, have two concerns in the back of their minds: ‘German Europe’ and a new Rapallo.

You can swap historical analogies forever and each side will find some nice one to support its claim, but they must not paralyse politics today. As far as the threat of ‘German Europe’ is concerned, the advice is simple: more democracy in the Union and a common industrial, fiscal and social policy that levels the economic potential.

What partners in the region would you like to build a ‘left-wing Visegrad’ with?

It is no secret that the power of the left in our region is not dazzling. On the map of the region Poland is almost an exception—because the left is both present in parliament and promoting left-wing views. Parties such as the Slovak SMER unfortunately play with very ugly social sentiments and flirt with nationalism. We can hardly admire their successes, not to mention the parties in Romania or Bulgaria, which are difficult to consider as leftist either economically or in relation to human rights, and are extremely corrupt.

Of course, we have a network of contacts with many parties and organizations throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. When will Visegrad be left-wing? Once the left takes over political power in Poland and other countries. The opposition and civic organizations can, of course, say how they see the future of the region and the future of Europe. But of real importance is the voice of those in power, because they have the means of changing things.

Visegrad has an opinion of the region drifting towards authoritarianism. How did it find itself in this place?

The liberal project is exhausted. It sometimes took the guise of the former democratic opposition and sometimes of post-communism, but it had similar features: unambiguous economic liberalism plus often quite naïve pro-Europeanism, not taking into account the relationship between the center and peripheries. Joining the European Union was supposed to be the end of history, after which there would be no more politics, apart from preserving a vague ‘Europeanness’. Liberalism became sterile because it offered no vision of the future, no hope of change for the less fortunate ones.

It is hard not to notice that the importance of our region for the United States is in decline… the attention of the US is focused on other places: China, the Middle East and so on.

So it got weaker and weaker, gradually changing into a generational identity of 55+ voters. It did not respond to the needs of people who entered adulthood already after joining the European Union by their country. What’s more, the next generations saw the ‘Europeanness’ of the liberal elite as obsequiousness—perpetuating the subordinate position rather than breaking away from it. This sense of disappointment with being second-class Europeans was one of the things that the right-wing populist movements grew out of. Of course, the right, with its sword brandishing and ‘Respect Us’ campaigns is the other side of the same coin: it has not broken away from the periphery, but gradually revealed  its own powerlessness. This is the result of a generational change. People who do not know adult life outside the EU enter politics. This is the greatest challenge and opportunity for the left in the region.

Isn’t the experience of the generation you are talking about, the memory of the ‘Autumn of Nations 1989’ from our region, a useful symbol in the fight against the authoritarian drift?

I’m afraid that far from being a useful symbol, it is a trap. It is impossible to talk about the future, to build an alternative to right-wing populism in these costumes. This was seen, for example, during the extremely ritualistic celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Prague, but also during the recent disputes about the transition in Poland.

The matter was seemingly innocent—it concerned the overall effects of housing policy. It turned out that for the founding fathers of Polish democracy the only acceptable form of conversation about the past was to pay tribute to them. Every critical opinion about the elections in 1989 was seen as sacrilegious. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer people willing to make sacrifices at this altar every year.

Liberalism became sterile because it offered no vision of the future, no hope of change for the less fortunate ones. So it got weaker and weaker, gradually changing into a generational identity of 55+ voters.

A practical example was the exhaustion of the formula of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy in Poland. Sentiments fuelling right-wing populism also stem from the fact that the heroic story of the ‘Autumn of Nations’ that we were fed blatantly differed from the experience of large social groups.

And it is not only about the costs of economic transition. The breakthrough of 1989 established a new political elite and a new framework for the circulation of ideas in the region, but it did not give everyone a sense of participation in democracy.

A significant part of society did not participate in this story. Look at the turnout in the first, partially free, Polish democratic elections in 1989. What did the new elites do? Instead of asking themselves what they had been doing wrong, they coined an exclusionary story about ‘homo sovieticus’, supposedly not mature for democracy. The practice of the democratic breakthrough was not particularly democratic.

The result is that politics is quite removed from the everyday life of most citizens. And this is a huge failure of the ‘Autumn of Nations’. After thirty years, Polish political parties have ridiculously several members compared to the British Labour Party, where hundreds of thousands of citizens are involved in party work.

For the founding fathers of Polish democracy the only acceptable form of conversation about the past was to pay tribute to them. Every critical opinion about the elections in 1989 was seen as sacrilegious.

When you look at the last election of the president of the Civic Platform (PO), you see that there are actually eight thousand active PO members—more or less as many as the number of professional politicians in this party. So OK, let’s talk about the legacy of the ‘Autumn of Nations’ in Central Europe, but let’s also talk about how the dream of democratization diverged from the practice of the party systems, with decisions taken outside the democratic debate. After all, this was the case with the favorite achievement of the Polish elite—Balcerowicz’s plan, pushed through the Sejm without public consultation in December 1989.

Central Europeanism, often defined in the manner of Kundera, was a very important part of the identity of the so-called Round Table generation, especially its liberal part. What about the left born in the late 70s and early 80s? About you personally?

The story of Central Europe being kidnapped by the East seems deeply unfortunate to me. I like our region. I often spend my holidays here. Last year, I was in the Ukrainian-Moldovan borderland. I recommend it—pretty nature; great vineyards, founded in the eighteenth century by Swiss emigrants. This is, no less than Prague or Budapest, our part of the world. Just like the Serbian mountains, like the Sandžak region around Novi Pazar. This is a ‘we’ wider than Visegrad—a ‘we’ with room for Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Croatia.

The countries of the Intermarium.

It seems to me that this is a sensible and capacious form of cooperation.

So what would the left-wing narrative about the region be? The liberals more or less speak the language of Kundera, only today, instead of Russia, the region is being torn away from the West by right-wing populism. The right says: we represent the true Christian identity of Europe and defend ourselves against
the West imposing its novelties on us, trying to get as much from it as possible. What about all of you on the left?

The left-wing story has to be built on recognizing what really unites us. We are the periphery and like every periphery we have the ambition to stop being periphery. This can only be done by deepening European solidarity. Not by conflict and not by ad hoc, often changing alliances. The left-wing story of Central Europe is a story about cooperation. About solidarity—not abstract, but expressed in specific actions. About the fact that workers from Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany can gain more from organizing a strike together than from letting themselves be used against each other. Without solidarity, the European project will be blown up by anger, frustration, the feeling that you are a second-class citizen.

The breakthrough of 1989 established a new political elite and a new framework for the circulation of ideas in the region, but it did not give everyone a sense of participation in democracy.

There is no magic powder with an instruction: “Take two teaspoons and tomorrow Visegrad will be democratic and left-wing”. Building a strong left in the region is a long way off. But the good news is that we’re already going this way.

Adrian Zandberg

is a Polish historian and computer programmer, doctor of humanities and left-wing politician, MP for the Razem (Together) party. His parents moved in 1967 from Poland to Denmark, where Zandberg was born in 1979. In 1985 his family moved back to Poland. After studying history at Warsaw University, he received his doctorate for his dissertation about British and German left-wing social democratic movements. He also studied computer science at a Polish-Japanese computing academy.

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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