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18th Nov 2018

Poland losing grasp on Europe, diplomat warns

The Polish government is weakening Poland's position in the EU and jeopardising its chances of running a successful EU presidency in 2011, the former director of EU affairs in the Polish foreign ministry, Pawel Swieboda, told EUobserver on Monday (31 July) after leaving his post on Friday.

"This government is focused on internal politics and EU affairs are a distant question. They don't adequately identify the impact of European policies on national politics," Mr Swieboda said, indicating that the "EU-wary" regime's Europe policy boils down to blocking new EU projects and protecting the status quo.

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"The cost of this is that Poland won't be among those EU countries shaping new political realities," he explained. "It is not pro-active, getting involved at an early-stage in the decision-making process. It is defensive. It reacts to events. There won't be any catastrophe, but Poland will not be a country with any real power of action."

The ex-diplomat added that losing influence in Brussels will also make Poland less attractive as a strategic partner for the US, saying "America increasingly engages with the EU as a whole rather than with individual member states. These days, the more you have to say in the EU, the closer you are to Washington."

Meanwhile, the new regime's EU mistrust is driving away seasoned officials like Mr Swieboda himself, who left his post after five years to run a new Warsaw-based think-tank. Mr Swieboda said eight senior diplomats recently quit the Polish EU embassy after becoming marginalised, to work for EU institutions instead. The Polish EU embassy in Brussels denies the report.

"They [the government] do not trust people with documented pro-EU views. If you have demonstrated engagement with Europe over the past few years, you are not part of the inner circle," Mr Swieboda indicated, warning that Poland could find itself short of qualified officials to run the EU presidency in 2011.

"The process is accelerating this year. It's risky. Poland will have the EU presidency in five years. And it's not easy to find experienced people from one day to the next, enough to manage over 200 EU working groups," Mr Swieboda said, linking the insular mentality of Poland's new leaders to their lack of contact with non-Polish politicians.

God and death

The rightist Law and Justice party led by twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski won elections last September, with Lech becoming Polish president and Jaroslaw taking over as prime minister in July. The party holds power in a coalition with two fringe eurosceptic groups - right-wingers the League of Polish Families and leftists Self-Defence.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has made EU-friendly remarks on the need for an EU constitution-type treaty and the importance of keeping in with fiscal rules. But Warsaw has also antagonised Brussels by trying to derail VAT and sugar reforms, block foreign takeovers of Polish firms, constant wrangling with Berlin and its Roman Catholic views on gay rights.

Polish president Lech Kaczynski last Friday called for the EU to bring back the death penalty, saying "I think that over time Europe will change its view in this regard." Although a new EU project of sorts, the proposal fits in with Mr Swieboda's analysis by appealing to right-wing voters at home while poking a finger in the eye of EU law and prevailing liberal values.

"This would not gain any support at EU level," one EU diplomat said. "It is one of the core principles of the European Union." Some of the new government's policies, such as extending control over the media and judicial appointments are also beginning to raise eyebrows about Poland's respect for European democratic standards.

But with Law and Justice leading Polish opinion polls, Mr Swieboda says the government has tapped a rich vein of anti-elite feeling in Polish society and cannot be easily dismissed. "People who have not done well in the past 17 years feel this government speaks their language. The EU project is very easy to portray as an elite project," he said.

Rebound possible

The diplomat-turned-analyst does not believe there will be early elections in spring 2007, but remains "optimistic" about Poland's future EU career on the grounds of pro-EU feelings among the population at large and the prospect of Jaroslaw Kaczynski gaining more exposure to EU colleagues around the table in Brussels.

"Polish society is strongly pro-EU. A June poll in the foreign ministry saw people against the idea of an EU president, but strongly federalist in all other areas such as having an EU army and an EU constitution," he explained. "At some point there will have to be a correction of social expectations into national politics."

"I don't expect any changes in the next few months," Mr Swieboda stated. "But as Poland heads for the EU presidency in 2011, in the next few years the issue of the presidency must become a priority in Polish society and politics and this will spark a debate [on Europe] sometime in advance."

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The European Commission has rebuffed a call by the Polish president for an EU-wide debate on reinstating the death penalty. "The death penalty is not compatible with European values," a commission spokesman said.

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