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31 March, 2017

“We are interested in helping reform the EU”

Poland’s Ambassador to Ukraine on the vision of the European Union, the evolution of his country's role and place in it, and Polish-Ukrainian relations

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

In 1991, Poland was the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence officially. A month later, in January 1992, diplomatic relations were established between the two countries. Today, as 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Polish-Ukrainian diplomacy in contemporary history, the two countries are at very different stages. Ukraine is fighting against Russia’s aggression in the east, while Poland helps shape NATO’s policy on its eastern flank. Ukraine is taking early steps to implement its EU-oriented aspirations, while Poland has an active voice in the EU, and an increasingly critical one.

How does Poland feel in the EU and about the EU today? How does it see its role in the its neighbourhood? And how it sees the future of relations with Ukraine? The Ukrainian Week spoke about this to Poland’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Pieklo.

How does Poland see the EU and its place in it now, compared to when it joined it?

When Poland joined the EU, there was a lot of enthusiasm there for the next enlargements, no problems with the euro zone. It was pretty optimistic and the best timing for Poland to join. Today, the situation is completely different. And Ukraine is in a much more difficult place in that regard. The EU is facing a deep crisis related to identity, economy, the migrants, as well as the relations with the US. Brexit may open the Pandora box. And it seems to be somehow linked to the wider global crisis of Western liberal democracy.

The Polish government and people as well are critical of what’s going on the EU. But it is a great beneficiary of EU funds. And we are interested in helping reform the EU. Disintegration of the EU would be a nightmare for the Polish people and political elite. We still believe that the EU is a great achievement, and an instrument for keeping Europe together. It was built on the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the French-German reconciliation. We would like to keep the EU in one piece, although it doesn’t look easy now.

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What would a reformed EU look like from the Polish perspective?

The main issue is that the EU is becoming more and more bureaucratic. And it’s not just Poland’s position, but that of other countries. It is difficult to understand decisions behind bureaucratic procedures. For Poland, it would be better if the EU became more responsive to ideas from Central and Eastern European countries which pretty much share one position on that.

Then, there is the issue of migrants. Germany decided to take huge numbers of migrants in violation of the EU’s internal rules. Then it tried to impose the quota for migrants on other countries. Poland’s response was that we have about a million migrants from Ukraine.

Brexit is also a sign that the EU is not working in a manner which could help us be together and share the same structure. Something is wrong. The best solution would be to try and fix it.

By these statements, Polish officials somehow integrate Ukrainian migrants into the European refugee/migration crisis, which is about something quite different. Therefore, they are taken controversially in Ukraine.

Here, it is important to differentiate between economic migrants and refugees. A large part of the people accepted by Germany is economic migrants, nor refugees. Polish officials want to tell our German partners that most of the newcomers accepted by Germany are economic migrants. I am afraid that this was not explained fully for some reason. We thought that accepting migrants from Ukraine was a better choice for us.

Yes, in the case of Poland it is not a problem with seeking political asylum and running from a terrible political regime. It’s a question of getting to Poland, finding a job, studying, investing, buying a house and contributing both to the Polish and Ukrainian economies: the money earned by Ukrainians are after all sent to the families in Ukraine.

I can’t imagine what would happen if those Ukrainians left: it would be a big problem for the Polish economy, as well as for the Ukrainian economy.

Ukraine is in the process of implementing the association agenda. The migrants who are working in Poland are the best manifestation of this implementation. Now, the Polish economic system and the Ukrainian economic system are adjusted to each other. I think that it’s an irreversible change. And I think it’s good for the Polish-Ukrainian relations. It also shows that this way of working with the issue could be better than the German scenario.

When you say that voices of Eastern and Central European states are still not heard enough in the EU, is that because of bureaucratic procedures or the difference in the political weight of different EU member-states?

I think that both factors play a role. We are still treated as newcomers, and not like mature democracies that old member-states are seen as.

Political weight also matters. Let’s say that we are not so important. Yet, it looks like this perspective is changing in Brussels, as well as in Germany. The best example was the latest visit of Angela Merkel to Poland and the talks she had with the Polish leadership.

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If Poland wants the EU preserved, how does it see its contribution to this preservation?

We are interested in contributing to the reform of the EU. It looks that some European politicians, including the leading ones, believe that the structure we have right now is working fine. It is then difficult to work with them. We need to negotiate.

And we have some political weight in that through V4 plus Baltic States, Romania. We can count on some help from Sweden and Denmark. It’s a diplomatic process that can last longer. And we can’t predict anything now.

We see more pessimism about the EU in older member-states. What does the EU sentiment look like in Poland right now?

For us, EU membership was a great achievement. It allowed us to travel freely. Polish young people were able to study and graduate from various universities in Europe. The Poles were the most EU-enthusiastic society. Just like for Ukrainians during the Revolution of Dignity, the EU goal was like a dream to which we were committed, an idealisation of sorts. Now, I must say, the most EU-enthusiastic society is Ukraine. Although I know that fatigue is setting in here as well.

What is Poland’s weight and voice in NATO? How do the Poles feel about the threat of Russia - do they actually understand it?

Poland was always allergic towards Russia. We fought with it several times, including together with the Ukrainians. We had partitions of Poland, then it was under Soviet occupation. Therefore, the threat from Russia is part of the Polish history and mentality. For us, NATO was the most important aim after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We managed to get there first, then we joined the EU. We treat NATO very seriously. Poland is among the few countries that fulfill the 2% of GDP defense expense criterion. We are now hosting American and NATO troops on our soil. And we truly believe that the Russian threat is a serious one. When Ukraine and Georgia asked for a MAP at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, we were supporting this move. Unfortunately, MAP was not given to these two countries. Putin invaded Georgia in the summer of 2008.

At that time, President Kaczynsky managed to take President Yushchenko and others on a flight to Tbilisi (In August 2008, the Presidents of Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia and the Prime Minister of Latvia arrived in Tbilisi to express support to Georgia at a rally led by Mikhail Saakashvili - Ed.).

President Kaczynsky said there that it was Georgia, then it would be Ukraine, then the Baltic States and Poland. It was like a prophecy. And it means that we are not overplaying the Russian threat. What is happening in Ukraine now is the best proof of that.

Therefore, we believe that we also need to have security cooperation with Ukraine. That Ukraine is important for the security of Europe.

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Can the current tensions between Ukraine and Poland around historical issues interfere with this cooperation in security, or economy and other areas?

I don’t think so. When President Poroshenko was in Poland in December, Defense Ministers Poltorak and Macierewicz signed the Agreement on Deeper Security Cooperation[1] It is very important as it opens a wide range of possibilities in cooperation in various fields of military industry. We have managed to set up a Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Brigade together with these countries. These are truly fantastic achievements in spite of some historical issues.

History is important. But what matters most is the common threat and the future. Polish and Ukrainian political elite understand this. We are trying to build up this strategic partnership.

At the same time, there are some right-wing or marginal groups in Poland and Ukraine that use history as weaponry. And there is a Russian network of agents working in both countries. They know that it is very difficult or impossible to build a pro-Russian party in Poland. Dividing Ukrainians and Poles is a much better idea.

The Russian factor is definitely present. But with this much reference to it in the context of tensions between Poland and Ukraine, are we not overplaying it and thus misdiagnosing the problem? Do you see this influence as a major trigger of tensions or a side one?

I believe that it is a side factor. It also very much depends on us - the Poles and Ukrainians - and our wisdom. We have recently had a series of incidents, from the devastation of the monument in Huta Pieniacka to the vandalisation of the Bykivnia cemetery, the incidents in front of the Polish consulate in Lviv and the embassy in Kyiv. But both sides will fail if we concentrate on this. We need to think about constructive common initiatives, our partnership, and about talking to each other. Not about these incidents. Because they were provoked by the third party, not by us. It’s against the Poles and against the Ukrainians.

How major is the presence of Russian business and influence in the Polish economy?

It is under control. Of course, there are Russian businesses in Poland. Sometimes it’s difficult to even figure out whether it is actually Russian. They use different banking jurisdictions: a firm can be registered in Cyprus and will not necessarily qualify a Russian company as a result. But it still will be Russian money. Russia operates through various offshore jurisdictions.

However, there are mechanisms and intelligence services that are able to monitor this and stop the influence which could spoil Poland’s national interest.

Also, look at energy: we were against Nord Stream. We were against Nord Stream 2. We understand quite well that Russia uses economy as a tool.

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How does Poland see its role in the region today? Does it see itself as a regional leader?

Being a regional leader is a pretty risky business. We are not positioning ourselves as the regional leader. But we believe that cooperation between the countries of the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea belt is a very good idea. These countries were always invaded and suffered along. The infrastructure in this belt is built from west to east, so it was a convenient way for, say, Napoleon’s or Hitler’s troops to go through Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, encircle these countries. Now, let’s think of a different combination: building infrastructure from the North, through Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania and then to the Adriatic Sea coast countries. This can help balance this west-east infrastructure. It is the Intermarium idea. And it’s not a new one. It was proposed to Symon Petliura and the Lithuanians by Jozef Pilsudski. At that point, however, we gave up on it as a result of the Treaty of Riga. Maybe now is the window of opportunity that would allow us to construct this kind of alliance in the economic way (we should keep in mind that economy was the most important foundation of the European Commonwealth of Coal and Steel).

At this point, is it a structured strategy or an intention?

It’s more than intention but it’s not a structure, although maybe it will become one. I know that some Ukrainian politicians are interested in this idea. The Baltic States are interested too: they are small and need stronger partners. Romania is interested.

In 2015, right after the election of Andrzej Duda as President, Poland initiated the meeting of NATO’s eastern flank countries in Romania. There is potential in that. But it will take time. It’s a process. And there are parties and countries - Russia for instance - that are trying to undermine this.

The Polish Foreign Ministry published a document recently titled the Notes on Poland’s Russia and Ukraine Policy from 2008. It was compiled under the Foreign Ministry led by Radoslaw Sikorsky. Where did this document and its vector come from?

At that time, when today’s President of the European Council Donald Tusk was Premier of Poland, Radoslaw Sikorsky was Foreign Minister and PO was in power, it was a global trend in Germany, the EU, the US to treat Russia as a partner and cooperate with it. That put pressure on Poland to maintain better relations with Russia. That’s why so-called resets took place.

Then, the tragic crash of the presidential plane in Smolensk hapenned, and that was the end of the reset from the Polish side.

Weren’t there any countries in the EU and the broader transatlantic community that led the dissenting voice to that trend? Especially given the developments in Georgia?

As a matter of fact, it was two countries. One was Lithuania. And Poland, to some extent - at least its President Lech Kazcynski. He managed to deliver the words I mentioned before in Tbilisi. Yet, most Western European countries took the side of Russia in fact, accusing Saakashvili of provocations, stupidity and arrogance.

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Where do you think the Poles lack knowledge of Ukraine and Ukrainians? Are there any gaps in that regard that would need to be filled?

There are a lot of them. First of all, it’s really amazing that a lot of Poles, especially those from the right-wing groups, are very critical of Ukraine, yet most of them have never been to Ukraine.

We need to stimulate the movement of Ukrainians to Poland and of Poles to Ukraine. There is even an instrument launched last year: the Ukrainian-Polish Youth Exchange. It was constructed based on the model of Deutsch-Polnische Jugendwerk, which contributed greatly to a better understanding and reconciliation between the two people. This kind of initiatives can be very helpful.

Another factor is that it is much more difficult for Ukrainians to travel eastwards because of the war and the way Russia behaves. So, the westward vector remains: this includes Visegrad countries, Romania. And it is already a natural trend. Ukrainians work and study, invest in Poland - and many are not from Western Ukraine. This is another trend we need to stimulate.

It would also be nice to start co-production of movies related to common history, organize tourist events showing common heritage. There are a lot of options.


[1] Signed on December 2, 2016, the Agreement covers cooperation in various areas, including defense policy and planning, R&D for military purposes, modernization and supply of defense equipment, military training, intelligence sharing, joint exercises and more.

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