The Warsaw Voice » Polish Voice » Monthly - August 2, 2010
The Polish Voice: Special Issue
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Politics With Imagination
Foreign Minister Rados³aw Sikorski talks to the Voice’s Andrzej Jonas and Witold ¯ygulski.

The historic Message to the Working People of Eastern Europe adopted by the First National Congress of the Solidarity trade union on Sept. 8, 1981, was a highly controversial document at the time.

Indeed, I remember it very well. Throughout its history, Poland has been cursed with the tendency to overestimate its own influence, and in many cases that had tragic consequences. Meanwhile, the genius of Solidarity was that it defied the regime in a way that was difficult to counter. And so with this message to the people under Soviet domination we were asking ourselves: “Are we going too far? Are we overstepping the mark?” Looking back, it seems to me that it was the right compromise between our idealism and the political realism of the time. The message was not the primary cause for the Polish and Soviet communist authorities’ strong opposition to the Solidarity movement. The reaction it received was in no way extraordinary. At the same time, we clearly showed our solidarity with the people of the other Soviet bloc countries. In a way, I am now reiterating this message 30 years on in my annual parliamentary exposé—the point is to highlight the positive image of Poland as a country that loves freedom, knows how to fight for it and, once freedom has been achieved, is able to share it with others.

Thirty years have passed since that historic message. Which of the ideas expressed in it are still valid today? Were they at the root of the Eastern Partnership, an initiative that originated in Warsaw and has been successfully proposed to other European Union countries as a mechanism intended to encourage six former Soviet republics toward more integration with the EU and greater democracy?

This is where our ideals and our interests converge. By acting alone, in isolation from our neighbors, we cannot hope to secure lasting security and prosperity. We have always instinctively tried to place ourselves within a wider international environment that is similar to our own. In simple terms, this means that Poland will only be a normal European country if it has normal European neighbors on either side. So the idea expressed in that historic message 30 years ago and in the Eastern Partnership today is essentially the same—it reflects the same ideals.

The Solidarity message triggered an avalanche of criticism from the communist authorities in Poland and subsequently the Soviet Union, including a critical statement from the secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev. Do the reactions of Russia’s current authorities toward the Eastern Partnership initiative sound to you like an echo of those words in the past?

The Soviet grumblings of discontent in 1981 notwithstanding, the authorities in Moscow remained adverse to staging a military intervention in Poland. By the fall of 1981 such an intervention had become unlikely. Today, Russia is mistrustful and suspicious of the Eastern Partnership because it brings Central European nations together not around Moscow, but around the European Union—not only in terms of the value system but also in areas such as access to new markets and the free movement of people and goods.

Are you satisfied with the final shape of the Eastern Partnership initiative within the EU?

I am satisfied with the shape it has taken, but I am not yet satisfied with the practical implementation of the Partnership project. So far we have spent only 25 million of the 600 million euros set aside for the project until 2013. That is not a lot. But the same goes for the funding Poland received after it joined the EU in 2004. For a year or two the use of EU funds was at a frustratingly low level. One should remember, however, that the money will still be available for the three years following the end of the financial period; it must be spent by 2016.

If the great objectives of the Eastern Partnership project—such as economic integration, visa-free travel, programs of legal assistance for small business, energy efficiency, border management and environmental management—are achieved, our region will progress to a new level of development. The problem is that—to be tongue in cheek—the European Union resembles the Vatican in that “the mills of God grind slowly.”

What is the role of the Eastern Partnership project in the EU’s foreign policy?
I regard our initiative as a major success. It already has the same position in the European Union as the Mediterranean Union project, which has taken 15 years to take shape. When I talk to the highest-ranking EU officials, including the commissioner for enlargement, or my colleagues—the foreign ministers of the other EU member states—none of them have any doubts that the Partnership project should be carried out according to the same rules and be treated in the same way as the Mediterranean Union program. What is more, the Partnership should be more ambitious because some of the six countries covered by the Partnership project aspire to become fully-fledged members of the EU one day. This is something that, by their very nature, the Mediterranean Union’s target North African countries cannot do.

Will issues related to the EU’s eastern policy, including the Eastern Partnership project, be a priority of the Polish EU presidency, which starts July 1 next year?

Of course. At the ministry, we have already adopted guidelines for the Polish presidency. They have not yet been approved by the government, but I can tell you that the EU’s eastern policy will be one of the five priorities of our presidency. During our presidency, we will host a meeting of EU foreign ministers focusing on the Eastern Partnership. Before that, in spring next year, we will be supporting the Hungarian presidency in organizing an EU summit dedicated to the Partnership. A new directorate for the Eastern Partnership will most probably be formally created along with the European External Action Service. This alone shows just how important the project is for EU policy. The directorate will ensure that there will be a group of people within the EU whose professional success will depend on the success of the Partnership project.

How has the idea of the Eastern Partnership and the way it is being carried out been received by the countries involved—the six former Soviet republics?

Some of the countries, especially Georgia and Moldova, are very enthusiastic about the project. Ukraine, which is a much bigger country, has its own unique path, but it is represented at Partnership meetings at the highest possible level, that is by its foreign minister. This is also the case with Belarus, which has prepared some very good projects as part of the Partnership. This shows the importance of the Partnership project for these countries and their awareness of the value of its meetings.

Have you been able to convince your Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that the Partnership is not aimed against Russia?

During the recent meeting of EU ministers I hosted in Sopot, I persuaded my colleagues that a Group of Friends of the Eastern Partnership should be set up within the EU. If it wanted to join, Russia would be afforded the right to be kept informed in detail about everything that concerns the Partnership. What is more, Russia would be able to take part in some projects, including those associated with managing the border between Kaliningrad and Poland and Lithuania, or in regional healthcare and environmental projects. In my opinion, Russia should not feel threatened, but should take advantage of the Eastern Partnership.

It is worth adding that Russia has excluded itself from the European neighborhood policy, as it has decided that it is too important to be treated like the EU’s other neighbors. Or maybe the reason is that Russia knows that it has no chance of securing full EU membership.

Does the Eastern Partnership have an impact on Poland’s position in the region?

The Partnership is the first initiative by a member state that joined the EU on May 1, 2004 to be unanimously approved by the entire European Union. We have demonstrated not only our political imagination but also our ability to form the necessary coalitions for our idea to be carried out, and we did this in a relatively short amount of time. Six hundred million euros may not sound particularly impressive by EU standards, but compared to what Poland would have been able to spend on “Europeanizing” our Eastern neighbors, it is a vast sum.