Between scepticism and enthusiasm


Poland is considered a problem child in the European Union. Although Polish people remain enthusiastic about the EU, there is a great deal of friction at the political level, not least because of Poland's violation of the rule of law. However, diplomat Dr Marek Prawda sees opportunities for a better Europe in German-Polish cooperation.

Interview with Marek Prawda

Joanna Maria Stolarek: Polish people are considered enthusiastic about the EU. On the other hand, the country has immense problems with the EU as regards the issues with the rule of law and the recovery funds which have been withheld from Poland as a result of these issues. How are current relations between Poland and the European Union?

Marek Prawda: It’s a mixture of enthusiasm, confidence, and the scepticism people have been taught over the years. I think that Polish people actually know very well what the advantages of their EU membership are and why they should stick with it. On the other hand, there is an attempt in domestic politics to present the European Union as the culprit for all possible problems. In Poland, polls show over 80% support for the European Union. When asked in more detail, people often respond with some scepticism towards the EU, but hardly anyone can explain where it comes from. This is again a clear sign that the government's anti-European rhetoric is working. The ruling party is offering people a package, so to speak. In this package, there are many gifts and social benefits, but there is also a world view that includes a dislike of the EU and Germany. Many accept this because they don't want to bother to understand. They’d rather use a remote control. That is the shortest explanation I can offer for this ambivalence, because it is not really possible to understand in rational terms why a pro-European population would vote for an anti-European party.

What role do the EU and the attitude towards the EU now play in the election campaign in Poland?

On the one hand, many parties refer to the EU in their campaigns. They promise that our relations with the EU will improve after the elections and that Poland will receive the EU funds which have been blocked. On the other hand, Polish politicians know that the real issues connected with the EU, such as the rule of law, are difficult to communicate to people at large. Often, personal experiences are used as arguments to explain what citizens stand to lose. In the end, however, that doesn't work either. Europe could play a bigger role in the election campaign, but it does not.

The younger generation takes Poland's membership of the EU with all its advantages, such as the free movement of people, for granted, doesn’t it?

The older generation understands the European Union as a community of destiny and sees that our membership was the solution to Poland's geopolitical problems and burdens. Therefore, they have a broader perspective. Young people need to have this explained to them more because they have only known Poland as a member of the EU. The other day I spoke with young people in Wrocław, students who are already working as entrepreneurs. For them, the EU also means free markets. They have registered their companies in Denver, for example, because it is more profitable to do so. This generation travels around the world and knows about the advantages of the EU. For them, borders only exist on paper. By the way, Germany is a pretty difficult country for these young entrepreneurs, that's what I hear. They say it is easier to establish business relations in some other European countries. What they criticise is also the type of cooperation they can have with German businesses. They say it is difficult to do business in Germany if their expectations go beyond merely being a subcontractor.

The EU is increasingly seen as part of the global economy and is judged by how far it fits into this picture. When I talk to people in different Polish regions, I often explain to them how important our EU membership is, also in terms of our access to other markets. Let me give you just one example: In Bolesławiec, we have a traditional manufacturer of wonderful Polish ceramics. It is world-famous. It was struggling to survive but received a fresh impetus when the EU signed a trade agreement with South Korea in 2011. That changed the whole area and the lives of the people who live there. For them, EU money is only of secondary importance. What they really care about is access to different markets. I use this example to answer the question of how to explain to young people that the EU is worth something and that we really need it.

But then for Poland, if I understand you correctly, the EU is more of an economic community than a community of values. Or is that too simplistic? Perhaps I should rephrase my question: Poland became a member of the EU almost 20 years ago. How has Poland changed the EU?

I would like to answer this question in a provocative way: Poland has produced problems with the rule of law and has thus changed the EU a lot by forcing it to develop instruments to act more effectively against the forces that weaken it. The problems with Hungary and Poland have resulted in the introduction of the mechanism of conditionality, i.e. the EU 7-year budget is now conditional in nature. This means that some basic conditions must be fulfilled in order for a country to receive money from the EU. This also existed in the past, but a general assessment before the beginning of a 7-year period was sufficient. Now, compliance is monitored on an ongoing basis. The EU used to be a community of solidarity. Now it has become a community of conditional solidarity.

However, Poland has also contributed to the Easternisation of the European Union by making the experience and expertise of the Eastern countries an indispensable element of European identity. This has been brought about above all by the war in Ukraine. I believe that we may now even be witnessing a re-founding of the European Union, if I may exaggerate a little. This means that the EU is not just a factory manufacturing laws but a community of destiny again, as it has to act as a great power. The holidays are over in geopolitics. It is not enough to create rules and stick to them; we must also be able to defend ourselves. The sun does not always shine. Sometimes it hails, and when it hails, the rules we are supposed to follow are not enough. Democracies must also be able to win wars. And that is an understanding that was, of course, somewhat more clearly anchored in Poland and in other countries in our region for historical reasons. Now, following the Russian invasion, this understanding has spread across all of Europe. This can also be an important contribution of Poland in the future, or a contribution of German-Polish relations, to better understand the regional perspective on security policy and to integrate it into the common perspective of the EU.

Poland has changed Europe both positively and negatively. In Poland, the opinion had long been held that the EU was too weak and would just let it go if the rule of law was violated. The EU has taken this to heart and has been forced, so to speak, to set new framework conditions not by the European bureaucrats, but by the citizens in its member states. Those are also relevant for the economy, because the world of values must not be separated from the world of money. Through the economy, we do indeed come to the fundamental importance of values.

So, in this sense, many of those who somehow missed the fact that the European Union must also be a community of values were reminded, most recently with the conditional mechanism, that you cannot only use the EU when it happens to suit you.

You said that Poland's membership has resulted in a kind of Easternisation of the EU, that the EU has shifted towards the East. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has also been given a new role in the EU. How can the country fulfil this role?

It used to be like this: the East wanted to become the West. That was the ambition of my generation and we understood we had to adapt. But in all this, the merits, the history, and the knowledge of the East, which were and are important for the whole EU, were overlooked. The Russian invasion clearly demonstrated this. The same could be said with regard to German reunification. What do I mean by Easternisation? Firstly, I mean that the experience of the year 1989 must finally be processed and dealt with somehow. The failure to do this so far has resulted in people in Germany seeing everything from the Russian perspective. The Germans thought they knew everything about Ukraine and Georgia when in fact all they knew was the Russian narrative about these countries. That’s why it was so easy to make Germans believe that Ukrainians are fascists and nationalists. This happened as a result of – I use this phrase in inverted commas – ‘the typical German attitude towards another great power’. We are someone and the Russians are someone. The others were mostly overlooked. Today, Easternisation means that the Eastern neighbours must be part of the solution and the West should change their way of thinking in this respect. It is not enough to say: ‘we’re about to solve a problem, you can join us or not, if you don’t, we’ll do it ourselves…’. No, there are problems that we can only solve together. Only together can we defend democracy.

You also mentioned German-Polish relations earlier. Often, when the relations between Poland and the EU are mentioned, people immediately think: ‘Berlin is Brussels, Brussels is Berlin’. There is also very strong anti-German resentment in the election campaign, and German-Polish relations are not in a good state. How can the European idea help improve German-Polish relations?

The European idea can free us from being concerned only with ourselves. It can give us a task we can solve by working together. And that will also be good for German-Polish relations, because it will help a broader community. We can no longer impress anyone by merely somehow getting along. We must show the others that we are capable of producing added value in the European Union. Only then will we really be appreciated. And that can be the benchmark by which we also measure German-Polish relations, instead of the historical issues that have been repeated a thousand times. And today, in the phase of Easternisation, Europe can’t help but deal with new topics. There is room for Poland to be cooperative. There is room for Germany to reflect and ‘fix’ the one-sidedness of its Ostpolitik. Such changes could constitute a new chapter in German-Polish relations. Europe urgently needs ideas on how to act more effectively as a Europe of closer cooperation, a Europe that has ‘learned to walk’, because merely being a factory manufacturing laws is no longer enough in the world today.

You were once asked how German-Polish relations could be improved. Your answer was: ‘By not thinking about them all the time, but rather by setting a common task to be solved.’ Another of your quotes I liked goes as follows: ‘There will be no European Union without Poland and there will be none without Germany.’ That means that these two countries, one part of the West and one part of the East, are vitally important for coupling these values with the economic community.

Yes, Easternisation has shown that this is necessary. Our task is to translate this evolution into bilateral, healthy relations.

One last question: How will attitudes towards the EU change after the elections in Poland? Let’s consider both scenarios: the ruling party staying in power and the opposition winning the elections.

The opposition would certainly quickly solve the problems regarding the EU. Poland has always belonged to the coalition dedicated to construction rather than the one dedicated to disintegration and weakening the European Union. However, that should not exempt others from equipping the European Union with new instruments.

If the ruling party wins, there is of course a theoretical danger of further destruction or alienation from the European Union, although I believe that our existing interdependence will very much limit this policy. Poland, after all, has to receive the recovery funds, one way or another. I don't believe that the promises made in this election campaign could ever be fulfilled or implemented. The people alone would not allow that, if I can allow myself this prediction. They may talk a lot of nonsense about Europe, but when things get critical, they will not tolerate it.

So no Polexit after all?

I don't think that's the way we'll ever go. I know that this can be seen differently, especially if you take some statements literally. The dispute regarding the rule of law basically marks the first phase of a legal Polexit.

Will Poland support Ukraine on its path to become a member state of the European Union?

Poland needs an honest narrative about how Ukraine, with its economic potential, including its agriculture, would be an asset to the European Union. This can be provided, but this government is not capable of providing it during the election campaign, because it wants to score quick points, and the actions it has taken against Ukrainian agriculture are part of that. At the moment, the Polish government is offering Ukraine a European Union that does not exist, namely, an EU that does not pay much attention to the rule of law. After all, it is absurd to support Ukraine with all our strength and then to weaken the European Union Ukraine longs for, and to believe that it would be better for Ukraine to have an EU that is not concerned with the rule of law. All the world understands today that an effective legal system will be of fundamental importance for Ukraine's reconstruction programme. Someone who wishes Ukraine well has, of course, first and foremost to strengthen the EU as a community based on the rule of law, in which values are respected. We have a small problem with that.