Poland is a Normal, Secure Country
August 29, 2014
Polish government spokeswoman Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.
What does the government consider to be the major political, military and economic risks facing Poland today?
The signals coming from Ukraine are alarming; the situation there is dangerous in military terms, and it also undoubtedly affects the Polish economy and the European economy as a whole. Nevertheless, I believe that Poland is a safe country today. I cannot imagine the Ukrainian-Russian conflict spilling into Europe, into Polish territory, at this stage. Certainly we are dealing with a nervous situation—a hotbed of conflict near the country’s borders always causes nervousness. However, it needs to be emphasized that, as a country, we are in a completely different situation than 10 or twenty ago—we are now part of the European Union and of the Atlantic Alliance. We are secure.
Of course, economically, trade with Russia is important, but Russia is not our main or primary partner. Our most important export market is Germany and trade with that country will not be subject to any disturbance. Today trade with Germany is responsible for 26 percent of our total exports, while Russia accounts for 4 percent.
Our economic cooperation with Russia was difficult even before the Ukraine crisis broke out. When it comes to the food and agriculture sector, we’ve had problems with exporting goods such as meat, butter and milk [to Russia] for many years. Month after month we’d hear that Polish shipments had been stopped somewhere again and again. There was always some excuse cited, such as failure to meet sanitary standards. Meanwhile, our food was and is very keenly purchased throughout the European Union, even though EU norms and standards are far more stringent than those in Russia.
So what’s happening now, after Russia imposed an embargo on a large amount of food products from markets including the European Union, is not really a new situation for us. We’re used to it. In fact, this situation applies to everyone and the EU as a whole must deal with it. We will certainly have the biggest problem with fruit and vegetable exports because we are the strongest in this area. By the same token, the Netherlands will have problems with milk and butter, and Denmark will have problems with meat.
Do you think the attitude to sanctions against Russia has changed in Poland now that the EU’s economic sanctions have resulted in Russian retaliatory measures?
Opposition politicians in Poland have been the most vocal supporters of the sanctions for months. It is always the easiest to call for decisive and spectacular decisions when you don’t have to be responsible for their consequences. Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government has always taken a very rational approach, much as the European Union as a whole. If you want a good and effective foreign policy in place, you must define its priorities. A stable Ukraine is of primary importance to both Poland and Europe. Ukraine neighbors Poland; we have a long shared border and we want to have normal relations meeting European standards when it comes to political cooperation and trade. Besides, if Ukraine found itself permanently anchored in the European value system, Poland would finally cease to be a borderline—in a sense frontline—state between two completely different systems in terms of how society and the state are organized. Finally, we would be in the middle of Europe and not on its eastern edges. This is obviously still a distant prospect, but after Ukraine signed its association agreement with the EU, I hope the road of development and the specific direction in which the Ukrainian state will be headed has been mapped out. After all, Kiev’s pro-European ambitions are a case of choosing not just democracy and prosperity, but also the entire value system on which the EU is founded.
Speaking about the risks related to the Ukrainian crisis, what measures is the Polish government taking to reduce the impact of these negative developments?
For many months we’ve been looking for new markets, especially for Polish food. We’ve opened the Chinese market to Polish milk and meat. We have also secured the opening of the Japanese market to Polish beef. Some more affluent African countries also seem to be a promising market. The government must support businesses in this area and give a strong and clear signal that we want to find new customers and do business with the whole world.
Regarding the implications of the Russian embargo, we above all need to estimate the actual extent of the losses. Today we are facing a situation in which there is a lot of nervousness, a lot of speculation, which is actually one of the objectives of the authorities in Moscow, who are seeking to instill fear and insecurity in countries that oppose Russia in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, it is unclear for now what the real effects of the Russian restrictions will be.
How do you assess the solidarity of the European Union in the face of the Ukraine conflict?
Despite the many differences in [how individual member countries] approach sanctions against Russia, an agreement was finally hammered out—the EU spoke with one, unified voice. Of course, some countries expected a tougher stance, while others wanted it to be much softer. I think the fact that a decision was made to impose economic sanctions together with the United States, Canada, Norway and several other countries is a clear success. It’s been a long time since unity of this kind was last mustered in the defense of democratic values—a situation in which we are calling a spade a spade with regard to what is happening in Ukraine.
Poland immensely contributed to this success. Let me remind you that as early as December, when the events on Kiev’s Independence Square started, Poland consistently briefed its European and transatlantic partners on all possible scenarios, including the worst-case one. EU countries were listening to this in disbelief at the time. But it turned out that our warnings have unfortunately proved to be prophetic.
It’s often claimed that Poland is not being listened to in Europe. In reality, when it comes to Ukrainian affairs, or more broadly, European-Russian relations, Poland’s voice is very important today. Our historical experiences give us a better insight into this region of the world, into the mind set of its residents and the political methods used. Therefore, Poland’s voice has been listened to exceptionally carefully in recent months in Europe’s corridors of power.
Recent events are proof that the policy of the Polish government was and is effective. In the beginning, the opposition, mainly the Law and Justice (PiS) party, conceded that we were right, but at the same time claimed that Poland would not manage to bring the West round to this position. Meanwhile, the West has introduced tough, sector-specific sanctions against Russia. Moreover, the opposition claimed that Poland would be left alone and that we would be the only country to lose out on these sanctions, while the West would be making profits on trade with Russia at our expense. This claim too has proved to be wrong.
What is Poland doing politically today to ensure greater security for itself in the face of the changes in the international situation?
Politically, most key decisions are made in the European Union, where Poland’s voice is really being heard. Take the issue of the energy union, which some said had no chance of taking effect. Meanwhile, most of the points proposed by Warsaw have been approved. The issue of energy independence, which Prime Minister Donald Tusk raised many months ago, has turned out to be just as important for Poland as it is for all of Europe.
What about military matters? What are Polish officials going to say at the NATO summit in September?
Poland’s priorities have been clearly presented by the prime minister and the defense and foreign affairs ministers. They result from how a vast majority of Poles feel and the fact that they want to be certain that NATO would take action to defend Poland in case of threat. For many years, Europe seemed to be less interesting as a region for NATO, which was instead preoccupied with conflicts in other regions of the world such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and so on. Today, NATO leaders must take note of the fact that serious risks are appearing on European territory. We believe that the main forces of the Alliance in Europe should not be deployed exclusively in the western part of the continent, primarily Germany, but should in part be moved to Poland’s eastern borders, which represent the eastern edges of the EU and NATO. We will therefore be seeking to ensure the creation of a NATO base in Szczecin, among other decisions. Strengthening the eastern flank of the Alliance in a real way, not just on paper, is in our view an unquestionable priority for the coming years.
Let’s talk about domestic affairs. The term of Donald Tusk’s government ends in just over a year. Is there a list of issues that it needs to resolve during this time?
This includes all those matters that the prime minister talked about in his key policy speeches. The top priority is the completion of all the legal and system reforms related to the family in a broad sense. These are social, educational, medical and other issues, including the issue of paternity leave for fathers, a change in the way nurseries and preschools function, and the issue of flexible working hours.
In second place I would list further reform of the healthcare system. This applies to all citizens, for whom—as sociological studies have shown for years—health issues are the most important. Another important issue is education, which, as research shows, is important for all citizens, regardless of their age. A growing number of not only middle-aged Poles, but also people of retirement age, want to be able to continue their education and acquire new skills. The role of education has increased significantly in the public eye, which on the one hand is reason for satisfaction, but on the other hand forces the government to take action.
A separate issue that is a constant priority for the government is obviously the spending of EU funds including structural funds. In this area, we are absolutely in the forefront in the EU. Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Elżbieta Bieńkowska prepared the necessary set of documents so early that officials in Brussels were not yet prepared to review them—they simply did not think that any country would manage to complete this paperwork so quickly.
Are any reshuffles expected in the government after the vacation season?
The ongoing negotiations on the staffing of posts in the European Union may become a factor determining the need for such changes. If Polish candidates are selected, of course, this will lead to the need to reshuffle the Cabinet. Otherwise I don’t think there’s a need for any changes in the Cabinet lineup.
Do you think anything has changed in Poles’ collective mind set during the seven years the current Cabinet has been in power—the longest any government in Poland has stayed in office since the fall of communism in 1989?
Opinion polls confirm that Poles are increasingly satisfied with their lives. They have changed in a very positive way and gotten rid of their complexes. They are proud of Poland’s achievements as a nation but they’re also proud of their own achievements. In their day-to-day activities they continue to confirm that they have a big appetite for success, that they have grown aware of their strength and effectiveness. They have discovered and appreciated the fact that Poland is respected around the world and that it has finally become a very good brand internationally.
Opinion polls confirm that Polish people are increasingly satisfied with their lives. Of course, they are aware that the state as an institution should look after its citizens; it should create good conditions for them to pursue their challenges, but without taking over from them—Poles want to make their own decisions about their lives.
Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska was born May 5, 1957, in Warsaw. She graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Warsaw in 1983. From 1994 to 2005, she was a film producer.
Her career in politics began in the Freedom Union (UW) party. Kidawa-Błońska has been a member of the Civic Platform since 2001 and from 2006 to 2013 she was head of the party’s Warsaw branch. As a PO member, she has been a deputy since 2005, elected in three consecutive parliamentary elections. She is deputy chairwoman of the PO caucus and Jan. 7 this year she was appointed the government’s spokeswoman.
Kidawa-Błońska is a great granddaughter of Stanisław Wojciechowski, the president of Poland in 1922-1926, and of Władysław Grabski, the prime minister of Poland in 1922 and 1923-25. She is the wife of film director Jan Kidawa-Błoński and has a son, Jan.