Poland's Ambassador to Bulgaria Leszek Hensel: Polish EU Presidency Hopes for Positive Balance Despite Unexpected Challenges
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with His Excellency Leszek Hensel, Ambassador of Poland to Bulgaria, on the Polish EU Presidency, and Poland's role in Europe.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has spoken widely of the new wave of euroscepticism and the need of convincing other member states that the EU project is a "great thing". How can Poland, a former communist state and a beneficiary of Western aid, convince Western European citizens that EU integration should be deepened?
Indeed, in a speech before the European Parliament recently, Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Europe is the best place on earth where many of the rest of the world's inhabitants would live. He stressed that nobody has come up with anything better than united Europe, and that it is the best invention protecting us Europeans from ourselves. By saying that, he tried to counter the low spirits that are growing among the citizens of the Community.
In Poland, the majority of the society views the future of the European Union with much optimism. In that respect, the Poles are second only after the Danes. We have reasons for that. Poland is the only country in the EU that did not have a recession during the global economic crisis.
Since the first years after the fall of communism – for which we contributed greatly – we have been registering stable economic growth. The people believe the way that has been chosen makes sense and is logical, and are optimistic about it. This may sound a bit elated but it is true that many Poles have regained their feeling of being at home, in a normal, systematically improving democratic state.
They feel they are in a country that has achieved full independence which is worth caring for. The previous feeling of helplessness has been replaced with a feeling of pride achieved in the recent years.
We are seeing Poland's role and importance in Europe growing, including because of the dynamic development of our economy, and the balanced and responsible foreign policy.
Perhaps we are European neophytes filled with excitement – we are getting to know a new world, achieving new goals, overcoming barriers, we are developing quickly. This is where our enthusiasm comes from. It should be clear there is no better way, and that we should take care of what we received during the creation of a united Europe.
Some would blame us that this optimism stems from the large amounts of EU funds that we are getting. The truth is that we are receiving a lot but it is also true that by spending these funds we are buying a lot from other member states and cooperating with them. What is more, we are acting in a prudent way, and our goals have been thought all the way through.
We are convinced that one good example for integration with the rest of Europe such as Poland could be contagious, and that prudent integration should deepen.
Poland is the Eastern European (former Soviet bloc) country with the greatest weight in the EU. Would you describe Poland as the leader of the group of former communist states in EU?
Poland and the other countries from the region have been marked with a common past, a fate imposed on our societies without their consent in Yalta in 1945.
Not unlike Bulgaria and the other states in this part of Europe, communism was imposed on us, and our sovereignty was limited.
This common heritage of over 40 years is the reason we are doing away with the past together, and we are returning together to the world of Western democracy and its values. These similarities in our history are the reason we have common interests and aspirations in NATO and the EU, as well as common problems. We are catching up together those countries in Western Europe which had been more favored by history, and we expect solidarity from our European partners.
We are at least hoping for the preservation of strong cohesion and common agricultural policies. We are also viewing in a very similar way security matters, including the topic of energy security.
These are the facts. I think that 20 years after the collapse of the previous, bipolar division of Europe into a democratic West, and a non-democratic East, the time has come long ago to stop thinking in those terms. After years of developing a market economy, we are economic players who have equal rights. We have our own interests but they are similar not only to those of the group of new EU member states but also to the interests of many old EU members.
That was the case in 2008 when Poland rallied a group of like-minded states about the climate-energy package. The proposed solution was supported not only by countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, but also by Germany and Italy. And Poland is the next state from the region after Hungary, which is in charge not only of the region itself, but also of the entire EU – even if we take into account the fact that Lisbon Treaty partly changed the role of the rotating EU Presidency.
The last EC monitoring report on Bulgaria in July 2011 has found little major progress in the country's problem areas. From your point of view, why is Bulgaria failing where other Eastern European states like Poland appear to be making progress?
It seems to me that at the moment Bulgaria is on its way to overcoming some problems from the past. Bulgaria is changing successfully, it is implementing the EC recommendations under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, and reforming its judicial system.
However, there is always the question about the pace of these changes. Some of our European partners are not happy about it. It is hard for me personally to judge because I have been in Bulgaria for less than a year so I am still studying the local reality. There are some things that hinder me in that but the different temperament might the reason.
The Polish society has always been impatient, irreconcilable with the world that is seen as bad. This led to the creation of the largest independent syndicate in this part of Europe, "Solidarity", to the political changes, and after that to the shock therapy that transferred us quickly from the reality of the socialist economy into the free market.
Many of the changes that happened in Poland have been imposed by the society, and have not been only the product of the politicians' actions. The changes have been the result of the joint actions of many factors in the public life.
For example, not only the state institutions but also the media and NGOs are engaged in the fight against corruption. There are special campaigns against corruption that are carried out even in schools. Of course, the state institutions play a major role. An example in hand is the tax authority which in any single moment could inspect the origin of the funds used to purchase an apartment. The same goes for purchases of cars or other goods bought with a sales contract.
As a result of this decisive struggle, which united the state, the media, and the society, Poland's image has changed tremendously. According to the recent study of Transparency International, Poland is 18th in the EU on the prevalence of corruption. We are 41st globally. This position is much better than our ranking back when we joined the Union, which, however, does not mean that we are satisfied with it.
The issue of corruption is more or less present in all countries but it is in the best interest of both the state and its citizens to counter it with efficiency. Nowadays, this is a substantial element of the image of any given state that directly reflects upon foreign direct investment and the standard of living in the entire society.
Poland has made Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the Schengen Area a top priority for its Presidency. After the critical EC monitoring report, on which major Western EU states made conditional their support for that, is it still realistic to expect that Bulgaria and Romania might join during the Polish Presidency?
At first sight the situation looks clear. Bulgaria and Romania have met the technical criteria for Schengen membership. Unfortunately, the issue has been politicized. And, yet, during the June Justice and Home Affairs Council, it was decided that the decision about Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the Schengen Area would be shaped precisely during the Polish EU Presidency in September 2011.
Since I am an optimist by nature, I believe that both countries will be halfway in Schengen, to put it that way. I need to point out, however, that this is my personal opinion. I know that the potential success of Bulgaria and Romania on this issue will also be a success for the Polish EU Presidency.
Poland is the third former Soviet Bloc country to assume the rotating EU Presidency. Each of the previous two countries – the Czech Republic and Hungary – had their presidencies marred by notorious issues (the Entropa exhibit and the change of government in the first case, and the Hungarian media law in the second case). Where is it likely that Poland might encounter such difficulties that can mar its Presidency?
It seems to me that the start of the Polish Presidency has been well received by our EU partners. However, it is hard to predict what time will bring. The Hungarian EU Presidency was faced with the Arab Spring. We are now facing the new wave of famine in Africa.
This region was recently visited by the Bulgarian EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, and Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Krzysztof Stanowski, who is charge of aid for developing countries in the Polish government, went with her. This joint initiative was assessed highly by Commissioner Georgieva.
We are taking into account the fact that the drafting of the foundations of EU's external energy policy will not be an easy task, that we have ahead of us a tough debate on the Multiannual Financial Framework, the discussion about the strengthening of the economic governance in the EU and several more hard topics that we deem to be our priorities.
The hardest thing, however, is to cope with something completely unexpected. We are monitoring the situation constantly, and are trying to be prepared for various situations, even ones that appear less likely at first sight.
We hope that the Polish EU Presidency will go without disturbances and that our balance at the end will be positive.
Poland is scheduled to hold general elections in October 2011, in the middle of its term. How is that going to affect its abilities as chair of the rotating EU Presidency?
As a democratic state, Poland is observing the terms set by its constitution, and the government cannot change that. Poland will exert its efforts so that the holding of the EU Presidency and the elections do not interfere with one another. The election campaign will be brief, and, regardless of the results, during most of the Presidency term Poland will be governed by one and the same team. I think that this is the best guarantee about the stability of the Polish Presidency.
One of Poland's top priorities is to get moving the project for a common EU defense which is strongly hindered by the UK in particular. What are the principles the Polish government thinks the common EU defense should be based upon? How can Britain be persuaded to come around?
This sphere is under the powers of the HR (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) within the EEAS (The European External Action Service).
That is why, when we were preparing Poland's priorities at the Council of the European Union, we decided that we will try to achieve the development of the Common Security and Defense Policy together with the EEAS.
Together with the ministers of Germany and France, we presented our proposals about the development of the CSDP in the so called "Weimar Letter". They were accepted by the Foreign Affairs Council in January 2011.
These proposals are aimed at improving the efficiency of the EU in the field of crisis management. We believe that these need to be actions designed to strengthen the structures in charge of EU's missions.
What is more, they need to lead to improvement of the readiness with a special emphasis on the further development of battle groups and multinational initiatives within the framework of the "pooling and sharing" concept.
The initiatives related to the cooperation between EU and NATO and partnership policy also have an important place among our initiatives.
The greatest challenge for every EU Presidency is to work out a consensus. We have already established that the CSDP needs development. The most important principles on which EU policies need to be based are solidarity, competitiveness, cohesion, openness, and unity.
As far as the Polish Presidency is concerned – what is the best way to approach the current euro zone crisis? Are bailout measures enough, or it also needs to be tackled in terms of perceptions?
The economic crisis changed Europe, and its social consequences can be observed in many states. It is worth noting, however, that this situation has also showed the power of European integration since it has been precisely through common efforts that Europe overcame the hardest period of the recession.
The scope of challenges the Community is faced with requires a deepening of integration and improvement of cooperation in the name of economic growth. Only in this way we will be able to restore the faith of the EU member states' citizens in this European project, and to overcome the social consequences of the crisis.
There needs to be a synergy between the actions on the national and the European level for the adopted measures to be efficient. Good cooperation between the member states within all EU institutions is crucial.
The euro zone crisis is a great challenge for the entire EU. We did not expect this turn of events when we were preparing for our rotating EU Presidency.
In the recent years, however, the reality is such that Europe needs to cope with unexpected challenges which arrive one after another. Poland is not in the Euro Area but we are not and cannot be indifferent to the fate of the common European currency, which is so strongly affected by the situation in Greece.
After all, by joining the EU, we made a commitment to adopt the euro in the future. Solidarity is one of the major rules of the Community. Now it's not the time to contemplate over how things unraveled, or who bears more guilt – those who squandered money without thinking, or those who allowed this to happen by granting enormous credits, or creating a system for a common European policy devoid of the necessary guarantee measures.
These questions are of great importance but they are a job for an upcoming team. We now need to act, and to act with lots of imagination and boldness because soon it could be too late, and the exit from this difficult situation could turn out to be a lot more costly.
For example, in one of his interviews, Prime Minister Tusk said that by helping Greece the largest euro zone states are actually helping themselves. We should not forget that the contemporary economy is like a system of interconnected vessels.
The Polish economy has been doing exceptionally well in spite of the global crisis that hit hard the rest of the EU. What has Poland been doing right that others haven't?
According to the global investment report UNCTAD 2011, which was presented at the Polish Foreign Investment Agency at the end of last month, Poland is ranked sixth globally as an investment destination.
The substantial boost of Poland's investment attractiveness (it was ranked 11th in 2010, i.e. five spots down), is confirmed by our country's ever stronger position on the international stage (China and the USA are ahead of us, while Germany and France are behind us). According to experts, there are two major reasons that have helped Poland cope relatively well with the crisis. These are the large internal market and the extremely efficient absorption of structural EU funds.
We have indeed managed to create perhaps the most efficient system for the utilization of EU funds. For the past accounting period, i.e. from 2004 till 2007, our level of absorption of EU funds reached 106.6%, which is a European record. The surplus comes from the exchange rate difference between the Polish currency and the euro. We have managed to utilize successfully the funds from the current accounting period, i.e. from 2007 till 2013. At the end of April 2011, our project beneficiaries had received about 21% of the total sum slated for that period.
EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who is in charge of regional policy, recently said that we are spending the EU money sensibly, carefully, and in accordance with the EU standards. In that respect, he recommended the EU candidate states to learn from Poland about finding a balance in the investment of EU funds in various areas.
What is more, the absorption of EU funds is at a higher level because the Polish local authorities and entrepreneurs gained the necessary experience.
We need to stress that that largely thanks to the EU funds Poland was the only countries that managed to preserve its economic growth. In the hardest crisis year, 2009, Poland's GDP grew by 1.8%.
Estimates show that without the EU funds, this result would have been twice lower.
Another factor that helped us not to experience an economic collapse was the large domestic consumption, the relatively low dependence of our economy on exports, the stable and conservative banking system, the floating exchange rate of the Polish currency, and the fact that in the recent years the Polish economy has been developing in a harmonious way, i.e. it did not boil down to the real estate market and similar speculative bubbles.
The Chairman of the Polish Central Bank Marek Belka recently emphasized that the banking sector was the detonator of the global financial markets. On the other hand, most banks in Poland have been functioning on stable grounds – they are well-capitalized, they have secure and stable funding source, and are registering high profitability, which has become even higher recently.
Poland traditionally relies for its security on a strong alliance with the USA. Is the Polish government concerned by the steadily improving relations between Germany and Russia? Would it support the notion for a grand alliance between the EU and Russia?
Poland's attitude towards the USA has always been specific. Sometimes, during the heated political discussions, there have been opinions that Poland is too pro-American within NATO. However, we think that the pro-American position should not be set against the pro-European position, and that it is not necessary to choose one vs. the other.
Poland is in favor of the strengthening of the trans-Atlantic ties, and the endorsement of the direct dialogue between the EU and NATO.
It is hard to imagine Europe without close relations with America. As far as the conventional wisdom that the better the relations between Russia and Germany, the greater the threat for Poland, it should be pointed out that this is already an anachronism, just like the thinking in terms of categories such as conquest, colonization, border change.
After the end of the Cold War, our region saw the appearance of new nations, many of whom are together with us in the democratic community.
Poland has great relations with Germany, and would like to have just as great relations with Russia. There are many questions in the history of Polish-Russian relations that complicate them. In order to eliminate this topic from the agenda of the bilateral contacts, several years ago, Prime Ministers Tusk and Putin created a joint commission that is to cope with the hard questions in our common history.
The effects of its work can be noticed in the systematic improvement of our relations. We would like to establish new cooperation frameworks between the EU and Russia during the Polish Presidency. We intend to support measures aimed at the signing of a new agreement designed to define the partnership framework with the Russian Federation, and also to the development of the Modernization Partnership between the EU and Russia.
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