Conversation with Aleksander Kwasniewski

EU, eurozone and the role of Poland. The former Polish president speaks out about affairs in Europe and elsewhere.

Kwasniewski opens with an assessment of his ten years as president (1995 – 2005) during which Warsaw joined NATO and the EU. These were major turning points for Poland, a country that during the ‘90s transitioned from being a post-Soviet state to a more democratic, modern system with greater economic horizons.

“(Being a member of) NATO has provided us with a strong sense of security, and events in recent months in the Ukraine have borne this out. But it has also meant aligning ourselves militarily and politically with Germany, our complicated neighbour, for the first time in many centuries. The decision to join the EU was made with the country’s economic but also moral and political future in mind. After the period of Soviet domination, it enabled us to return to the European fold to which we have always felt we belonged”.

After 25 years of independence and ten years of EU membership, Poland is one of the more enthusiastic EU member states thanks to its successful economy and its belief in a future of European integration. Poland aims to contribute to a new balance within the EU which, as the former president admits, is living through fairly “turbulent” times. 

Kwaśniewski is troubled by the Greek crisis and the Ukrainian situation. But there’s also the EU membership referendum to be held in the United Kingdom by 2017. In this context, he has no problem acknowledging Angela Merkel and Germany’s leadership – a European Germany that has turned its back on its tragic past. The problem is understanding the extent to which other member states intend to go along with the German integration policy. And Kwaśniewski portrays Poland as the catalyst for a rebalancing of power within the EU. The appointment of Donald Tusk, a Pole, as president of the European Council can be seen as a first step in this direction.

“Tusk has a level-headed and moderate approach but is also determined to solve a number of problems. He’s a man of Europe and realizes our future depends on strong integration rather than disintegration. The road ahead calls for stronger European institutions, not a return to national egotisms. Tusk’s to-do list is long and complex, but he’s ambitious and firmly believes in the European ideal and its values. And I wish him all the best”.

European values are also dear to Kwaśniewski, who in an interview in 2010 said he was convinced that the only way forward was greater cooperation –without forgetting the threat of nationalism, a threat that feels even stronger these days.

“Take the Olympic Games. In the past we supported either US or Russia. In recent years, it’s China we’re keeping an eye on in the medal tables. But if we combined all our European medals, together we could compete with all of them”.

No European country on its own, not even Germany, can hope to compete on an economic front. Even in terms of geopolitical influence, it is the BRICS countries that are changing global equilibria. On the other hand, “an economy backed by 500 million people” would certainly have leverage.

But the European project should not only be viewed from an economic point of view. It is also a union of countries that have a complex and dramatic common past and thus share many of the same ideals – democracy, freedom and concern for human rights. And although Kwaśniewski views nationalism, historically speaking, as a marginal issue that we have learned to recognise and criticize, the same cannot be said of egotism which makes people lose any capacity for selfcriticism and is often the most instinctive reaction to problems.

To counter the risk of disintegration, which the former president views as the “union of single national egotisms”, one has to emphasise the potential of the Union.

“In Europe all we do is criticize our health and social policies, which can certainly be improved. Yet we have them, while other parts of the world, including the US, do not. Over the last 200 years, we have built something and should make the most of it!”

For Kwaśniewski, it’s not just the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s illegitimate annexation of Crimea that will trouble us over the coming years but rather the strong anti-European stance that Russia’s policies seem to indicate. The former president believes that the Ukrainian dilemma, in which a country is torn between allegiance to its Soviet influences and the dream of European annexation, is likely to repeat itself in Moldavia and other countries of the Caucasian peninsula – with Georgia heading the pack. The answer, once again, must be cooperation. The Greek crisis has shown how “democracy, dialogue and patience” must always lead the way.

“The issue is now closely linked to the future of Europe itself”.

When asked whether the positive outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran could herald a new relationship between Moscow and other world powers, Kwaśniewski’s answer was rather laconic.

“Beyond providing additional proof that once divisive problems are removed, working together is more effective and successful, I’ve been in politics too long to be optimistic. I would like to be, but, as the saying goes, a pessimist is nothing more than a well-informed optimist”.

Returning to the topic of the economy and the eurozone, we asked when Poland can be expected to join the euro.

Although he supports a single currency, whose adoption would complete Poland’s EU integration and help the eurozone, Kwaśniewski doesn’t have an answer. Warsaw lost its chance under the Tusk government due to the advent of the crisis and the failure to meet all requirements (particularly over its public debt). According to the former president, the next four to five years would be ideal for launching the debate and preparing for a possible adoption of the euro.

Much will depend on who wins the next elections in October 2015. If the opposition coalition led by the Eurosceptic Jaroslaw Kaczynski should come out on top, Poland would be unlikely to draw any closer to the euro objective. Whatever the outcome, Kwaśniewski hopes that the people are correctly informed.

“One of the paranoid theses in circulation, based on today’s exchange rate of 4 zloty to 1 euro, suggests that with the introduction of the single currency, everything will become four times as expensive. That is madness. But I’m convinced that if a serious campaign is mounted with the right arguments, people will vote in favour of the euro”.

In any case, Poland is increasing its exports and is expected to close out the year with a 3.7% growth in GDP, among the best in the EU area. Three main elements are currently supporting this economic expansion: competitiveness, innovation and the symbiotic relationship between the education system and the labour market.

“We have to train people who can be more effective within and for the market: less psychologists, sociologists, journalists and lawyers; more engineers and IT experts. Because without these kinds of professions, we won’t be able keep up with our economic progress”. 

@FGoria  @giu17raffa

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