Analysis

Will Sikorski be the next EU foreign policy chief?

23.06.14 @ 10:37

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - With leaders haggling over EU top jobs this week, Polish FM Radek Sikorski is the most talked-about candidate for the next foreign policy chief.

His reputation just took a blow in a Polish eavesdropping scandal.

But whether or not he gets the EU post will speak volumes on EU-Russia ties and on whether EU capitals want Brussels to play a bigger role in foreign relations.

For its part, Poland is sending mixed signals on Sikorski’s bid.

When asked by EUobserver last week if he wants to do it, his spokesman said: “Minister Sikorski is not an official candidate for the office of [EU] high representative”.

One Polish diplomat said the job is not as appealing as it looks.

He noted that member states make all the decisions on foreign policy and use the EU as a “scapegoat” when things go wrong.

He added that Poland should keep Sikorski as a “strong, independent” voice in the EU Council and go for the European Commission energy portfolio instead.

On the other hand, Polish PM Donald Tusk has called Sikorski a “natural” choice for the EU.

Sikorski has taken French lessons, indicating an interest in the role, and some Polish diplomats are talking up his EU credentials.

A second Polish diplomat told this website: “Sikorski’s statements on the Russia crisis have been factual and restrained, despite the fact it touches Polish interests in a very emotional way”.

Referring to Sikorski’s recent trips with the French and German FMs to Ukraine and Russia, the diplomat added: “He did not express the Polish point of view, but the European one … He has handled the crisis by using European processes and by working to find a common EU position”.

The 51-year old former journalist used to be known as a right-wing Russia hawk with a loose mouth.

He has bent over backwards to improve his image. But he still advocates EU expansion into Russia’s neighbourhood and a tough reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, his new reputation for “restraint” took a hit over the weekend.

Polish magazine Wprost published part of his private conversation in a Warsaw restaurant in January in which he says Poland’s security co-operation with the US is “worthless … bullshit”.

“It will lead to conflict with Germany, with Russia, and we’ll think everything is fine because we gave the Americans a blow job.”

It remains to be seen how the leak will affect his standing in EU circles.

The EU diplomatic post will be assigned as part of a package with the next European Commission chief and the next head of the EU Council.

It must satisfy the centre-right and centre-left blocs, old, new, north, and south EU states, and it should include at least one woman.

If Luxembourg’s centre-right Jean-Claude Juncker takes the commission post and a centre-left woman, such as Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, takes the Council job, the centre-right Sikorski could slot into the foreign service.

He has plenty of competition.

Other candidates being talked about include: Swedish FM Carl Bildt; French FM Laurent Fabius; Italian former FM Franco Frattini; Czech EU commissioner Stefan Fuele; Bulgarian EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva; French centre-left politician Elisabeth Guigou; Slovak FM Miroslav Lajcak; Italian FM Federica Mogherini; and Dutch FM Frans Timmermans.

Views from EU capitals

On Sikorski, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, told this website last week: “If I was still ambassador, I’d be all for it … He’s a talented, articulate, and thoughtful member of an important nation in the EU.”

He added that Britain wants better ties with Poland and thinks there should be “a correction” in EU-Russia relations.

“In my experience, the Russians prefer straight talking even if they hear something they don’t like … They would respect him even if they might not like him.”

Charles Grant, from the London-based think tank CER, said: “He’s got a fairly good chance of getting the job.”

“He’s a passionate pro-European and he recently talked about majority voting on some EU foreign policy issues, which didn’t go down well in London, but I’m pretty sure the British wouldn't block him.”

Rome and Madrid are also saying they would not go against Sikorski.

A senior Italian diplomat told EUobserver that despite Italy’s strong ties with Russia it would not help Moscow to stop a Polish candidate.

“Russia remains an important partner with whom we have to deal with, but with all due respect, it’s up to the Europeans to choose their own representatives,” he said.

Amid talk of Mogherini’s merits at a meeting of centre-left EU leaders on Saturday (21 June), the Italian diplomat said Rome is not first in line because an Italian, Mario Draghi, already runs the European Central Bank (ECB).

“It’s arguably the most powerful EU institution … so we are covered in that sense,” he said.

Spain is concerned the EU should not overlook its southern neighbourhood despite the Russia crisis. But a senior Spanish diplomat told this website: “We do not have a strong position on who should be the next EU foreign policy chief. We would not stand in his [Sikorski’s] way.”

Problems could arise in France.

Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the Paris-based think tank Ifri, said France might push its own man or woman for the EU diplomatic job: “There’s a feeling that we were passed over the last time and that we should get an important post, such as the commission [chief] or the European External Action Service”.

He said Sikorski has been “somewhat courageous, excessive vis-a-vis Russia … the Polish people are still marked by their tragic history [of Soviet oppression]”.

He added that small EU countries are more interested than large member states in having a more powerful EU foreign relations chief.

Michel Foucher, a French diplomat and academic, said France is keen to get the EU Council job for its former PM, Jean-Marc Ayrault, or a commission economic portfolio for its former finance minister, Pierre Moscovici.

He also cast doubt on Sikorski’s eligibility, however.

He said the Polish FM has “taken a very hard position on the Russia crisis.” Amid Sikorski’s US “bullshit” leak, he added: “I’m not sure if he would be acceptable because, whether you like it or not, the EU diplomatic post must be compatible with Washington, and the White House thinks Sikorski is too close to the Republicans [the US opposition party]”.

Foucher noted that his views are his own and do not represent the official French position.

Loose cannon?

The biggest obstacle could come in Berlin.

Sikorski is popular in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democrat faction.

Elmar Brok, a senior MEP from Merkel’s party, told EUobserver the Polish FM is “a well-known and well-respected man” in Germany. He added that Sikorski’s reaction to the Russia crisis has been “moderate … I don’t think this would be a reason to block him.”

But Merkel’s Social-Democrat coalition partners and German business leaders are wary of annoying Moscow.

Ulrike Guerot, a Berlin-based analyst for the ECFR think tank, said: “I think the Russia crisis has reduced Sikorski’s chances because he has been too outspoken”.

Judy Dempsey, a Berlin-based analyst for Carnegie Europe, noted: “The Germans know how much Poland cares about completing the unfinished 'Colour Revolutions' in eastern Europe, and somehow they feel uncomfortable about this.”

“There’s a feeling that Poland might be a loose cannon if it ran the EU foreign service … there’s a feeling that we’d be taking a huge risk".

She added that if Russia relations are used against Siorski “it would show that big Western countries really do see Russia as having some kind of veto over their decisions”.

The UK’s Wood agreed.

“I think it [Sikorski’s appointment] would send the right signal to Russia, but the question is whether the EU has the courage”, he said.

“It’s a test case for Europe. But there are some leaders who will be thinking ‘Why upset the Russians any more if we don’t have to? Let’s choose someone who is more accommodating so that we can get back to business as usual’.”

Georgieva's star rising

With Sikorski’s bid in doubt, contacts said Georgieva, Lajcak, and Timmermans are popular alternatives.

A senior government source in one Baltic state said Sweden’s Carl Bildt is not a realistic option because he is even more hawkish on Russia than Sikorski. Czech contacts said Fuele has no support from the current Czech government.

Timmermans is widely liked, but the Netherlands is believed to be angling for an economic portfolio in the commission.

Slovakia’s Lajcak has indicated he will run for UN secretary general in 2017 and Bratislava has nominated its current EU commissioner, Maros Sefcovic, to return to Brussels.

But it would be unlikely to say No to the prestigious EU diplomatic role. Lajcak has European credentials from his time as the EU foreign service’s director on Russia and former Soviet states, where he earned a reputation for quietism.

The Baltic government source said “he could be a compromise candidate for eastern Europe”. The CER’s Grant said: “He’s less controversial, less hard on Russia, and would cause fewer problems in Russia relations”.

Grant added that Georgieva is a “very strong contender”.

“She’s a woman, which could help in the EU calculations. Everybody thinks she’s highly competent, but she is not as confrontational as Sikorski and she hasn’t made any enemies.”

“A woman from eastern Europe is a very interesting proposal. Merkel has already showed that she likes the idea when she backed Grybauskaite,” France’s Foucher noted, referring to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who was a contender for the EU commission post, but who opted to stay in Vilnius in her current role.

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