Witold Waszczykowski doesn’t mince his words. Poland’s top diplomat had no qualms about defending his country’s policies at a time when Poland’s conservative Law and Justice government is being criticized for reining in the judiciary and state media in ways that could undermine Poland’s vibrant democracy.
When I met him in his office in Warsaw for an exclusive interview for Carnegie Europe, the Polish foreign minister exuded confidence and conviction as we covered a wide range of issues. I asked him first about the causes of the migration crisis and Poland’s policy toward it.
Witold Waszczykowski: The migration crisis happened because of negligence. For years, Europe was concentrating on the eurozone crisis, on Grexit, and then on Brexit. Europe didn’t pay attention to the Arab Spring. It neglected some of the conflicts [in its neighborhood]. Some, such as the one in Libya, were created by European intervention. Because the EU focused on domestic issues, these crises developed around Europe and created a massive wave of migrants and refugees.
Judy Dempsey: Why won’t Poland accept even a small share of refugees?
WW: Because they will not stay in Poland, which is in the Schengen Area [of open borders]. Immediately they will go to Germany or Sweden or Austria. According to European standards, if we accept these people in Poland, mostly on a voluntary basis, we are supposed to register them, we are supposed to provide them with some assistance, some money, documents, and IDs. And with their Polish IDs, they are free to go.
JD: It might save your reputation if you accepted them.
WW: I’m not running diplomacy to have a good reputation. I am running diplomacy to implement national interests.
JD: How are Poland’s national interests different now from under your predecessors?
WW: We put a bigger emphasis on security. Our predecessors thought that Poland’s security was reassured simply by Poland being a member of NATO and the European Union. In my opinion, it is not enough to be a member. It’s just a precondition to be active and actively shape the policies of these institutions—in an ambitious way, to shape the whole policies of these institutions; and in a less ambitious way, to shape and direct the Eastern dimension of these institutions. This is the difference.
We are coming back to the ideas of the first Law and Justice government of 2005–2007. At that time, we tried to convince people that it was not enough to be a member of NATO. That’s why we started those long discussions with the Americans over missile defense.
JD: Because you didn’t feel secure?
WW: We joined NATO in 1999 as a secondary member under political conditions, because simultaneously with the enlargement of NATO there was a NATO-Russian declaration that NATO troops could not be deployed in this part of Europe. Our membership is conditional. If there is a problem, which divisions would support us, from where, and when? So that was the problem when we started the discussions about security.
That is the most important problem, because Poland has had bad experiences in its history. We want to be cautious. We have a war behind our doors right now. We have an aggressive neighbor that is openly proclaiming the redrawing of the borders of Europe. We don’t want to wait to be tested for years. We want to be protected right now. That’s all.
JD: So you are making amends for the shortfalls of Poland’s original membership in NATO?
WW: We are not asking for a lot. We are just asking for a token, some symbolic presence that would be proof that in case of problems, there would be a determination to defend us.
JD: Will the NATO summit in Warsaw in July fully embrace the alliance’s Eastern members?
WW: We are telling NATO that the decisions of the [September 2015] Wales summit are not enough; think about how to reassure us, how to help in case we have an incident. Russia now has anti-access and area denial [capabilities] that can prevent and hamper assistance. That is why we have to go beyond Wales and create a real presence on NATO’s Eastern flank. We don’t want to break the Paris Declaration of 1997. We don’t want to break NATO’s relationship with Russia.
The other part [of what we are asking], about military deployment, refers to substantial troops on the territories of new member states. At that time, “substantial” was defined as two heavy divisions. We are just talking about a multilateral brigade.
JD: You clearly don’t set any store by a European Common Foreign and Security Policy?
WW: What’s that? There is no European Common Foreign and Security Policy.
JD: Why not?
WW: Because there is no common definition of threats. Does Poland share the threats of Portugal, Spain, France, the UK, and Greece? If there is no common definition of threats and challenges, there cannot be a common foreign policy. There cannot be a common European army. If we don’t know what is a challenge, we don’t know how to face the challenge and how to defend ourselves.
JD: Most EU leaders would say that migration is the biggest challenge facing all of them.
WW: There are different challenges. The challenges coming from the South may do a lot of harm to Greece, Italy, or Germany. But 1 million migrants will not destroy Germany. It will be a very hectic situation for the German administration, but this is not an existential challenge or threat.
JD: Germany is asking for solidarity from the other EU member states.
WW: And we are also asking for solidarity on other issues.
JD: But you receive it. You get it over the EU’s sanctions on Russia.
WW: The sanctions are not a favor for us. Russia violated international law. The Russians violated the UN charter. They illegally annexed Crimea. For two hundred years, we have been trying to create an international system in which war is not used as an instrument for changing borders. So now the sanctions are not only in favor of our situation but in favor of the whole community.
JD: Germany extended solidarity to you when Russia slapped a ban on Polish meat imports in 2007.
WW: Yes, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel did help us. There was a meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in the summer of 2007, and Merkel forced him to admit that sanctions on Poland were sanctions on the whole EU. We remember that. We appreciated it.
JD: Let’s get back to the refugee issue. Don’t you think that Merkel needs solidarity from other EU member states to deal with this crisis?
WW: How? We can’t settle [the refugees] here. What are we supposed to do? Keep them in camps? They don’t want to live in Poland. They don’t know Poland. They know that we can provide about €100 per month per person. In Belgium it’s €60 a day. That’s another problem. Open borders, lack of jobs. We have 2 million young emigrants, living in Germany, in the UK. And 1.5 million jobless people here in Poland. I can say to the Syrians, “Yes, you are welcome, but what are you going to do here? Live on the streets?” Open borders are a problem. We are not saying they are not welcome, but they should simply know that there are no jobs here.
JD: To deal with the crisis, is the EU making a big mistake by throwing out its values to reach a deal with Turkey?
WW: I have to read this agreement [between the EU and Turkey on refugees] in detail. At the same time, we have to be pragmatic. We deal with Saudi Arabia. So what’s wrong with Turkey? We need them right now. Some countries like Germany are begging to return to business as usual with Russia.
JD: Not Merkel.
WW: But [German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier or [Italian Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi and others are—to return to business as usual with a country that violated treaties, annexed Crimea, and sent troops into eastern Ukraine.
JD: Poland takes over the presidency of the Visegrád Four—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—in July 2016. Do you have a goal for the presidency?
WW: We would like to change the way the EU is developing.
WW: The EU has developed around a triangle: Berlin, Paris, Brussels. We are on the periphery. There is not much integration among ourselves. We would like to focus more on the region. Not to create any kind of front against anybody, but rather as a kind of lobby inside the EU and NATO to pay more attention to the sensitivities of our region. And by having more cooperation and communication not only from East to West but also from North to South to keep these countries together, it could be a kind of plan B. If something goes wrong in Western Europe, we don’t want to remain a shuttered area located between Germany and Russia, like before World War II.
JD: But the Visegrád Four hold different views about Russia. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has close relations with Putin.
WW: Yes, that’s the problem. Yes, it’s wrong to play that role with Putin. But the Hungarians are asking us, “What are we supposed to do when for years big countries had intimate relationships with Putin?” Germany built Nord Stream and now Nord Stream 2 [to bring gas from Russia to Germany]. France was building Mistral-class ships [to sell to Russia]. [Former Italian prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi was organizing parties for Putin. So try to convince Orbán that he should be holier than the pope. He can say, “I’m not threatened by Russia.” He can say, “I’ve got Ukraine and Moldova between us and Russia” and “We are a small country that just wants to survive.”
JD: The Visegrád Four have benefited hugely from the EU’s development funds. With Central Europe’s lack of solidarity over the refugees, some in old Europe might call you ingrates.
WW: Yes, but before we got this money, the West profited. From getting an Association Agreement in 1992, we had to wait twelve years [to join the EU], during which time the old union benefited. And then, for each euro we get from Brussels, 70 or 80 cents go back to Western Europe because we are buying [its] technology.
JD: Listening to you, I get the impression that this is about unfinished business with the EU and NATO, about Poland not being treated as an equal partner, and about your national interests not being respected.
WW: We can accept the position of junior partner. But we keep telling Germany and others, “You can develop your foreign policies and defend your own interests, but not at our expense.” We are not preventing Germany from being a big power. They deserve to be a superpower. But while developing into a big power that is not only European but also global, Germany has to remember our interests. Those interests may be tiny compared with Germany’s, but they have to be respected.
JD: In your first speech in the Polish parliament as foreign minister, you spoke of “sometimes pretended, superficial attitude of conciliation” between Germany and Poland. Do you really believe that?
WW: Yes, because for a number of years, former governments were pretending. In the beginning of the 1990s, we were a client, asking Germany to be a protector, a promoter of our interests and ambitions to be a part of NATO and the European Union. We gave up some rights for Polish people living in Germany—they lost their status as a minority. I think there should be a little more sensitivity from Germans, for instance in the assumption that no NATO troops on Polish territory is a positive attitude toward Russia. If there were troops on Poland’s territory, it would be seen as a kind of confrontation with Russia. Our philosophy is different: a lack of troops will encourage [the Russians] to test us.
JD: Merkel has worked very hard to overcome what you call the false conciliation.
WW: She is still working very hard on Nord Stream 2. It may not be her personally, but we know that mid-level officials in the EU are supporting that idea.
JD: What about the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which looked at the workings of Poland’s Constitutional Court? The commission’s report stated that “not only is the rule of law in danger, but so [are] democracy and human rights.” Is there any truth in the report?
WW: No. That is the problem. They decided just to take one side. We feel we have been cheated. We invited them openly, thinking that there would be a visit by independent judges. They produced something full of faults. It’s not an opinion. It’s an order. For some Westerners who have contacts with the Venice Commission, it is a kind of whip to sentence us and change the [October 2015] election results. And bring back the old times.
JD: Is it about unfinished business with Poland’s Communist past?
WW: That’s in the hands of the historians. This is not the problem for the government.