European solidarity: an interview with Polish ambassador Zenon Kosiniak-Kamysz

2011 július 15 12:04 de.0 comments
Zenon Kosiniak-Kamysz

Poland assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency after Hungary’s turn at the wheel ended on July 1st, 2011, and at a time when the EU continues to face major economic challenges at home and a range of new opportunities abroad, particularly in its relationship with rapidly changing countries in the Middle East. Polish ambassador Zenon Kosiniak-Kamysz spoke with the Canadian Hungarian Journal about his hopes for a Europe driven by a sense of solidarity, and one which continues on the paths of integration and expansion. Mr. Kosiniak-Kamysz served as a diplomat in Budapest immediately after the transition to democracy in 1989/90–a time which he described as both moving and formative–when he not only gained a deeper understanding of Hungarian society, but also an impressive grasp of the Hungarian language.

Poland assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency at a time of great economic upheaval, with reports indicating that Italy might soon face a debt crisis, and with serious trouble looming in Greece, which already received a 110 billion euro bailout from the EU.  Within this context of uncertainty, does Poland begin its stint at the helm with apprehension, and how will the Polish presidency attempt to address the on-going economic crisis?

This is one of the biggest problems in the European Union, but I don’t think that the situation is really very critical. We have experience from the communist era and we really do understand what represents a crisis; maybe we understand it better, or on a different level, than our allies and friends from the western part of Europe. We have to think how to help other countries and how to find global solutions for Europe. We must be competitive, not only in Europe, but we have to be open to other countries, including Canada. We are just in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with Canada. I hope that this will help us to strengthen our mutual trade and cooperation with Canada, and this is one of the possible opportunities for further economic development.

I can remember Poland’s membership negotiations with the European Union. I remember how afraid so many western countries were about us, particularly Poland, because Poland was the biggest country from the former Eastern bloc. After seven years of membership, we can say that we are not the troublemakers of the European Union. Now, we’re leading the rotating presidency and we don’t think that the situation is at all hopeless.

You brought up the communist experience and one of the aspects of the transition to democracy in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe was referred to as economic shock therapy. This is when privatization began and unemployment skyrocketed. Is this one of the examples that you are alluding to when you note that Poland has experience dealing with severe economic crises?

Of course. In 1989-1990 we were so happy that finally we could have a political system that was not imposed on us by anyone. But the problematic aspect was the high unemployment rate and hyperinflation. Yet after a really short period of time, we managed it and now we are developing very well. We are able to think globally and we are able to share our experiences. These experiences allow us to develop our country and also to give a hand to other European nations.

The Polish presidency’s program mentions the fact that Europe is ageing and that the model of the welfare state model needs to be changed. What is the nature of the change that Poland is proposing?

 This is one of the most difficult of problems in Europe and one of the most sensitive issues. For the time being this is a big challenge for every single member state. We need to cope with these problems together. One of the important things to underline is the concept of solidarity. Rather than doing everything alone, together we can cope with these challenges much more effectively and we can also talk about solidarity in terms of this economic crisis. Generally, when you look at the EU, there has been growth and recovery after the big financial crisis, even though some of the states still face difficulties.

And of course the use of the term ”solidarity” raises important historic imagery as well.

Yes. And in all of this remember that the rotating presidency is not as strong as it was before. However, this is a good opportunity for the new member countries, especially for Poland and Hungary, to enjoy this historic achievement, to bring new ideas and programs to the table.

There is a continuing debate in the European Union  about further integration and expansion, with some suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive. The union either expands, bringing in more members and becoming more diverse as a loose political and economic confederation, or it halts expansion and concentrates on deeper integration of existing (or perhaps only a small core of founding) member states. Where does the Polish presidency stand on the issue of integration and expansion?

I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. We joined the EU seven years after very tough membership negotiations. We understand other countries that are interested in joining. It was not easy for the EU to take in ten new member states. The Schengen Zone is the most visible achievement of united Europe. But, coming back to your question: I am more than sure that we will go in both directions. We should be open to countries that strive to become members of the EU and that are prepared for membership, but on the other hand we have many ideas on how to cooperate deeper and deeper with each other.

There’s also the question of countries that will not be joining the EU any time soon. There is the concept of a so-called “Eastern Partnership,” referring, among others, to Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova and even parts of Central Asia. How does Poland envisage cooperation with some of these countries that have authoritatian governments? I am thinking in particular of Belarus, which borders Poland, and is still run by a dictatorial regime.

Belarus is one of our priorities. Not only because Belarus is our neighbour, or because there is a Polish minority in Belarus, but because this country is Europe’s last dictatorship. We can try to help the people in Belarus by giving them a glimpse of the outside world. The best thing to do is to show  that in other countries very close to Belarus, you can express your mind and feelings. This is why we are so involved in the Eastern Partnership. This is why we cooperate with NGO’s in Belarus and activities that bring information to Belarusians about other countries. This is connected with our experiences from the totalitarian times. It was very beneficial for us to get information from the free, democratic world. The people must see that they are strong enough to change their country. In Anna Porter’s book, the Ghosts of Europe, there is a really nice thought: you can’t export democracy to other countries, when the people are not eager to implement it. That’s why we are not interested to dictate what they have to do. The people in this country should have the opportunity to see the outside world and decide which direction to take.

Poland went through some of this in the 1980′s. On a similar topic, how does Poland propose to build on EU-Arab relations, particularly as many countries in the Middle East are experiencing such dramatic change and a move towards freedom and democratization?

The European Union is a huge institution of democratic countries and we should share our experiences with these new pro-democratic movements. Our foreign minister was one of the first to visit Benghazi, as an envoy of the European Union. Our former president and leader of Solidarność, Lech Wałęsa, visited Tunisia and shared his experiences from the 1980′s in Poland. The situation was more or less comparable.

Poland is taking over the rotating presidency from Hungary and one of events at the end of the Hungarian presidency was the completion of negotiation talks with Croatia. Does Poland envisage any further expansion of the EU into the Balkans?

Of course, there will be futher expansion into the west Balkans. Croatia will be a member of the EU very shortly, but other states are waiting to be invited and are trying to prepare themselves for membership. And there are other countries with which we would like to cooperate, even if they will not become members of the European Union.

Does Poland see the European Union as a source of protection, or even a buffer, against Russia, which might become more economically or politically aggressive in the region?

No. I don’t think that the policy of confrontation is the future of Europe and I don’t think that it will be necessary to create any buffers. We would like to cooperate with Russia and would like to treat Russia as a partner. At the same time, we too would like to be treated as partners by the Russian side. There have been some reservations about the export of Polish agricultural products, but I think when we look at all of this globally, these are small problems. The Polish mentality is more optimistic, rather than pessimistic and this is why we hope that Russia will be a reliable partner for the European Union.

In 2004, Péter Medgyessy served as Hungary’s prime minister. He was at a meeting of European leaders, where France was still represented by Jacques Chirac. At that meeting there was some discussion and debate on the role that new member states from Eastern Europe play in the EU, vis-a-vis western states. At a moment in the discussion, Medgyessy felt that some leaders in the west still viewed the former Eastern bloc members as being second class and of secondary importance. Today, do Poles feel that they are equal in the European Union with the French, the Germans, the Belgians and others?

That’s a very good question and I’m grateful for it. My dream is to forget about these divisions. It is now time to say that we are Europeans and members of the European Union. I don’t think that anyone has the right to say that you are not invited to this club or that you have to stay in the other room. No! I strongly believe that there is one room, one place and the same rights for everyone in the EU.

So there should not be any second-tier member states?

No. I spent many years abroad before we joined the European Union. I can remember during our membership negotiations the idea about the Europe of two speeds. One of the most important things, particularly for us, is European solidarity. It would be extremely difficult to explain to the people that we have European solidarity, but that there is a separate solidarity for the east and another solidarity for the west. I’m really very disappointed when anyone in the EU tries to argue that we have two kinds of members. And in fact, the current problems are not in the new members states of the East.

I know that you served as a diplomat in Budapest right around the transition to democracy in 1989-1990. How did you find this experience?

These were formative times, filled with hope. I can remember that the Magyar Demokrata Fórum’s election posters showed the back of a Soviet solider and read: “Tovarisi, konyec!” The process of transition was a long one and it began in Hungary in 1956, continued in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was followed by Poland in the 1980′s. There is also a special bond and friendship between Hungarians and the Polish people and I can remember how when people in Hungary discovered that I was Polish, they would say “Ah, Lengyel!” with a smile. I was a young diplomat in Budapest during the transition and this served as a nice, formative period in my life.

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