Polish foreign chief on Russia ‘geopolitical game with us’

European Union criticisms of conservative reform agenda dismissed by foreign minister

Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski: Noted close ties with Ireland. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski: Noted close ties with Ireland. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

 

Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, has dismissed as overblown European fears that his new national conservative government is pursuing a reform agenda that is undermining the rule of law.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Waszczykowski insisted that a standoff with the country’s constitutional tribunal was “nothing unusual” and was an attempt by Warsaw to correct judicial overreach into the legislative process.

“The former government has many friends in western countries and has managed to convince them that what we are doing is wrong,” he said.

Of greater concern to Warsaw, as it prepares to host a Nato summit in July, is securing a greater alliance presence on its eastern flank amid growing threats from Russia and the Arab world.

“The security situation is not improving, it is getting worse and worse,” said Waszczykowski. Like his predecessors as foreign minister, the 59-year-old diplomat and historian, who took the post in November, is extremely wary of a rise in Russian activity under the Baltic Sea and in the air, as well as in the militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

“The big question now is: what are they up to?” he said.

In 2014, Nato agreed to back a stronger eastern presence, and on Thursday it opened a missile shield base in Romania. But the Polish government believes that further concrete commitments at the July summit would have a positive twofold effect.

First, they would disperse lingering doubts that Poland, and others who joined Nato in 1999, are second-class alliance members. Second, further Nato installations would signal a readiness if, after military crises with Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow’s next target is its former Warsaw Pact allies.

“We are pointing at this imperialistic behaviour of Russia and trying to persuade our friends in the West that . . . Russia is playing a geopolitical game with us,” said Waszczykowski. “We have to be ready and prepared to play it.”

Amid celebrations in Ireland this week to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations with Poland, several Polish universities have staged conferences to mark the Easter Rising centenary. Strong bilateral ties reflect a close personal connection between the two countries, Waszczykowski said, noting the good impression left by the well-behaved Irish soccer fans during the 2012 European Championships in Poland.

Polish families in Ireland are another important link, he said. But, faced with a dramatic demographic decline, Warsaw has promised a new push to bring emigrants home, with a raft of economic measures, including an allowance of 500 zloty (€113) a month for second and subsequent children to make a return more attractive.

“Our message to Polish emigrants is that opportunities are waiting for you and that we have committed ourselves to creating more,” he said.

June vote

Though a British vote to leave the EU could prompt a surge in Polish returnees, that is not an outcome Waszczykowski hopes for from the June vote. Warsaw fears a British departure would rob Poland of an influential and like-minded partner on integration matters, leaving behind an “unbalanced union” dominated by France and Germany and their “old-fashioned” view of Europe.

“We in central Europe prefer a union of freedoms, of democracies, of equal co-operation, and not an ever-closer union,” he said.

On the EU migration standoff, the foreign minister stood by Warsaw’s line and dismissed as “strange” a European Commission proposal to fine countries €250,000 for each refugee they refuse to accept under a redistribution deal.

As for European concerns over the new government’s legal and judicial reforms, Waszczykowski insists outstanding problems will be solved.

In its first six months, the government tightened its control on public media and the civil service, merged the role of state prosecutor with the justice ministry and tied the constitutional tribunal in legal knots.

The latter action, critics warn, has allowed the Law and Justice (PiS) party government to suspend checks and balances over its legislation. But Waszczykowski argues that his party was subject to a “double standard” that saw tribunal judges taking a disproportionate interest in PiS legislation.

A report by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, has urged the government to strike a political compromise with the opposition. It recommends two steps to break the political deadlock: swear in three judicial appointments by the last government, blocked by new PiS-affiliated president, and publish recent tribunal judgments, making them law.

“This is an opinion of the Venice Commission, and we disagree,” said Waszczykowski. “This is just an opinion of legal experts.”

While critics say PiS is in no hurry to resolve what is widely viewed as a constitutional crisis, the minister said his party was anxious to strike a deal on how to balance the role of constitutional judges with the legislative mandate of the democratically elected PiS government.

With the European Commission now investigating, Waszczykowski said: “Give us time to fix it. Our appeal is: please do not push.”

Claims by critics that PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is in effect leading Poland from the background were described by the foreign minister as “a stigmatisation and exaggeration”.

Equally overblown, he said, were fears that a lack of constitutional checks allowed Kaczynski a free hand to push Warsaw down a Hungarian-style nationalist, authoritarian path.

“I know him personally for a number of years and I don’t expect him to behave in this [illegal] way,” the foreign minister said.