Wednesday

22nd May 2019

Interview

Sikorski: Let's give Trump time to be 'educated'

  • Sikorski: "I hope EU leaders will have enough statesmanship and persuasive power on things that are out of the ordinary." (Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland)

The election of Donald Trump has added to the "deep trouble" that Europe is in, but the new US president might change when he learns how the world works, according to former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

Europe's challenge "is not just the American election," Sikorski told EUobserver.

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  • Trump's "erratic style" and "hostile tone" add to Europe's troubles. (Photo: Reuters)

"It's also the continued assertiveness of Russia that is a revisionist power that has changed borders by force; it's the failure and defeat in Syria, and also in the eastern neighbourhood; and Brexit; and the continuing reverberations of the euro crisis and the creaking of the Schengen zone," he added.

"We're in deep trouble," he went on to note, while seeing "one bright spot" - that "the European economy seems to be picking up a bit."

Sikorski, who led Poland's diplomacy from 2007 to 2014 in a government chaired by the current European Council president Donald Tusk, said he hoped that European leaders "will have enough statesmanship and persuasive power to handle things that are out of the ordinary."

The first priority, he said, was for Europe to "regain control" of the situation on its external borders.

"We need to persuade our citizens that Frontex and the Schengen zone are in charge of who comes and goes," insisted Sikorski, in an interview on the margins of a forum on migration and the EU's neighbourhood policy organised in Valletta, Malta, by the Delors Institute, a French think tank.

Sikorski, a staunch advocate of transatlantic ties who is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies, admitted that he was "perplexed and mystified by the erratic style" of the Trump administration so far.

He added that Washington's new "rhetoric against the current arrangement on international free trade" was "a very dangerous obsession".

But he suggested that the populist billionaire who turned president might come to his senses.

"We should give president Trump a chance to get educated on about how the world really works," he said.

Referring to Trump's claim that he gave government back to the American people, Sikorski noted that "Washington is being returned to the people, who just happen to be billionaires and generals."

"Let's just hope that they will explain to the president how the world works," he said.

Trump right on defence

He said Trump was right to ask European countries to increase defense spending up to 2 percent of their GDP, however.

The 2-percent bar has been a Nato recommendation for a long time, but only four European countries are currently meeting it.

Last month US defence secretary James Mattis told Europeans that the American taxpayer could "no longer carry a disproportionate share of the defence of Western values".

Europeans are "unserious" when they "proclaim how threatened they feel" but do not increase their defence budgets, Sikorski said.

"Our bluff is being called and we'd better step up," he said. "Americans have been sick of our free-riding on their defence guarantee. We're at the point where we might lose them and it will be our fault," he added.

Europeans have reacted warily to Mattis's call, with German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker saying that development aid should also be considered as security spending.

But since Trump was elected, and despite his "hostile tone", "both the substance and the tone" of Europe's reaction were "correct", Sikorski said, describing it as "respectful, concerned, friendly".

As Poland's diplomacy chief in the years that followed the country's EU accession, Sikorski was often credited for making Warsaw one of the main players around the bloc's negotiating table.

'Authoritarian international'

Now, under a government led by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, Poland is one of the main critics of EU institutions and policies.

"I would like Poland to be a source of solutions and of bright ideas for how to position and reform Europe in these increasingly challenging environment," Sikorski told EUobserver.

He noted that PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's recent warnings on European defence were "perhaps hopefully a sign that thinking is evolving".

Sikorski deplored that the Visegrad group, a political club that contains Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, had begun to present itself as an alternative model to the EU.

"It should not be used for somehow balancing Germany inside Europe or as some kind of authoritarian international," noted Sikorski, who once said that he feared Germany's "inactivity" more than its power" in Europe.

He said that the Visegrad group was "as legitimate as Benelux or the Scandinavian group" and that other Europeans should try to understand the region better, however.

"We still need to persuade Western Europeans that our history, of Central Europe, is as valuable and as characteristic of Europe as their history and that the two narratives have to merge," he said.

Europe must make a judgement on Poland

While Hungary's leader Viktor Orban has said that he wanted to build an "illiberal democracy", the Polish government is undergoing EU rule of law monitoring over a controversial reform of the constitutional court.

Sikorski recalled that, as a minister, he took part in discussions to establish the EU monitoring mechanism launched a year ago.

"In my worst nightmares I would not have expected that it would apply to Poland that was breaking its own constitution," he said.

He said that he was not sure if the European Commission should take the next step in the procedure and trigger Article 7 of the EU treaty, which can lead to sanctions.

"Europe has to make a judgement whether it will work," he noted.

Last week, the Commission said it was "examining" a letter from the Polish government that denied wrongdoing.

The EU executive is consulting member states before deciding on whether to trigger Article 7, but several diplomats have told EUobserver that a majority of countries would not support the move.

Sikorski said that even as "the rule of law [is] in danger" in Poland, "threats should only be issued when they are going to be effective."

"There's nothing more pathetic in politics than empty threats," he said.

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