Nicholas Richardson
News

Plains, Trains and Electro-mobiles

“Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures – in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.” The words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and, although the century has changed, the coming together that transport enables – be it of people, goods, or ideas – has never been easier or achieved more cheaply than it is today. As technology advances, so do the possibilities, but whatever may be happening in cyberspace, for now at least, people and goods have physically to come together using traditional transport.

Air travel has grown in recent years, with budget airlines having made a tremendous impact. As a result, last year saw 24.34 million passengers used Poland’s 14 regional airports, 3 million up on 2016, according to data released by the Polish Regional Airports Association. Regional airports accounted for 61 per cent of all air traffic in Poland, which totalled 40.09 million passengers. The remaining 15.75 million passengers, 39 per cent of the total, flew via Warsaw Chopin Airport.

The top three regional airports in 2017 were Kraków (5.83 million passengers), Gdańsk (4.6 million) and Katowice (3.89 million), with the Olsztyn-Mazury airport in Szymany recorded the highest growth in air traffic, with passenger number up 122 per cent on 2016. Indeed, 2017 was the best year for Poland’s regional airports in history, Artur Tomasik, head of the Polish Regional Airports Association, said. “The substantial upswing in air traffic recorded by virtually all hubs shows that they are a vital component of the country’s transport system”.

He also said that there was room for optimism in the sector for the years ahead, with the Civil Aviation Authority forecasting almost 65 million passengers passing through Polish airports in 2025. On the assumption that more than half of them will use the 14 regional airports, he suggested passenger numbers of some 35 million. The CAA estimates that some 26.5 million passengers will pass through Poland’s regional airports in 2018.

Meanwhile, a new freight railway route linking Poland and southern China was launched this week according to the Xinhua News Agency. A train carrying electrical products and sheet metal left Qinzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region for Małaszewicze, eastern Poland, on Wednesday. The train will cover the distance of some 11,000 kilometers in between 18 and 20 days, which is 12 days shorter than the journey would take by ship. The Polish government has been actively seeking to increase the number of trains between Poland and China.

And on the roads, Warsaw is to receive 130 new electric buses, financed to the tune of EUR 41 million through the European Union’s Cohesion Fund. The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Crețu, said that the move will improve the quality of life in Warsaw as the electric buses should help to reduce car traffic and improve air quality, which is certainly in need of improvement. The buses are expected to appear at the beginning of 2021.

This is in tune with the thoughts of President Duda who said at last week’s conference entitled Future Technologies Electro-mobility and held at the presidential palace in Warsaw that e-mobility was important since replacing combustion-engine cars with electric vehicles in the future would increase Poland’s energy independence and reduce pollution. He added that a Polish economy focused on innovative technologies would be able to compete with Western economies. The senate is also to discuss a new law on e-mobility, which includes waiving tax on electric vehicles, free parking in cities, and the construction of some 6,000 charging stations around the country.

Of course, Poland has some way to go to establish its green credentials, not least in reducing reliance on coal – and the electricity to charge the batteries of these electric vehicles has to come from somewhere, as folk are wont to forget – but it is encouraging to see these issues now being thought about more widely. Of course, cynics will no doubt take a different view, but once for might we not accept positive developments at face value.

So there we have it, a snap shot of three very different aspects of developments in planes, trains and electro-mobiles. The common theme, a country, a people and an economy on the move which is certainly a positive start to the year.

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Democratic Freedom

Democratic Freedom

“Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.” The words of Aristotle, which although from a time when democratic involvement was much more immediate than today, are still relevant. Of course, no body is suggesting, at least not yet, that Poland has degenerated, or is in immediate danger of degenerating, into despotism, but there are some potential signs of wear and tear and some are none too keen on the direction of travel.

Thus Freedom House, a human rights organisation from the United States, has said in a report on democratic freedoms that Poland has fallen four points over a year, a year in which “democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades.” The report said that democratic freedoms such as minority rights, freedom of the press and the principle of the rule of law improved in 35 countries but worsened in 71.

According to the report, 39 per cent of the global population enjoyed democratic freedoms, 37 per cent did not and 24 per cent enjoyed only partial democratic freedom. Poland was classified as “free”, receiving a score of 85 points out of a possible 100, although the report said that in Poland “populist leaders continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society”.

In the view of Freedom House, “smears of the opposition appeared in public media….and [Poland] passed laws designed to curb the activities on non-governmental organizations.” It added that ”Poland’s ruling parry also pressed ahead with an effort to assert political control over the judiciary, advancing laws that will affect the Supreme Court, the local courts, and a council responsible for judicial appointments”.

One man’s step on the road to despotism is another man’s necessary corrective action and for a different view look no further than the interview with George Friedman, the founder and former head of US-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, in Monday’s conservative weekly Sieci. He said that the EU is targeting Poland because it wishes to retain control over the internal policies of member states. For him, one of the hallmarks of a rising power is that waning powers direct their heaviest guns against it. Poland has been targeted because it is an important country, Friedman argued. This is why the United Kingdom, which he said was leaving the EU because of interference from Brussels, had concluded a defence treaty with Poland, Friedman was quoted as having said.

He added that Poland is currently the leader of a bloc of countries that oppose the European liberal elites’ concept of what the European Union should be. He said that in 2015 Poles elected the PiS government which is doing what it promised to do. Those eurocrats who dream of a single European identity do not understand Poles, he continued, and the more they come under pressure, the more they remember their loss of their sovereignty in the past and the more stubborn they become. For good measure, he added that Germany was the “last country” that should teach others about human rights.

While no doubt more in tune with the government’s own view of its actions than that of Freedom House, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Reforms are needed in the Polish judicial system and, at the same time, the EU and others are right to remind the government of the importance of adhering to democratic values, especially when, given the turmoil of the last century, those values have still to re-establish the deep roots that are taken for granted – and more’s the pity – elsewhere. This process might be helped if the liberal elites were as quick to deal with voters’ legitimate concerns as they are to castigate them as knuckle dragging Neanderthals for having the temerity to vote in a way in which they disapprove.

And talking of voting, on Tuesday president Duda signed into law changes to the electoral law and rules on local government. The new rules change the way in which members of the State Election Commission (PKW), which conducts and oversees elections, are selected. After parliamentary elections scheduled in 2019, seven of the commission’s nine members will be elected by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in which PiS has a majority. Hitherto, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Administrative Court each delegated three judges to work in the commission. The new law also limits to two the number of terms that can be served by local government officials such as mayors as of this year’s local government elections. PiS say the changes will make voting more transparent and provide stronger guarantees of fair elections, but Mariusz Witczak, a deputy for the opposition Civic Platform party, said Duda would go down in history as a president who had sounded the death knell for free elections.

Be that as it may, the president of the European Commission said in the European Parliament on Wednesday: “We are not at war with Poland. We have a dispute with the Polish government”. Jean-Claude Juncker added that he was in “constructive dialogue” with the country, after he met Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week. Juncker also urged folk to stop suggesting that Poland will be subject to sanction “come what may,” after the Commission triggered Article 7 proceedings last December. It seems this battle is far from over.

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Budget

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” The words of Albert Einstein, which while an interesting commentary on the human condition, say little about those who neither fear punishment nor seek reward, especially if they see themselves as good, or at least in the right, in the first place. Thus while some would seek to punish Poland with EU budget cuts for the government’s failure to take in refugees under the EU scheme, the president of the European Commission takes a different view.

Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking during an interview with Belgian broadcaster RTBF, and his remarks followed those of Martin Schulz, the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, last week said that Germany would limit its contributions to the next European Union budget, which runs from 2021 to 2027, if Poland and Hungary did not help to resolve the migrant crisis facing the EU.

Last month the European Commission took Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failure to comply with their legal obligations to relocate migrants under the scheme agreed by the EU in September 2015 (Poland’s then government had agreed to take 6,000 of the 160,000 to be relocated). Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Warsaw would not cave in to demands by the Commission, and argued that Islamic migrant communities in Europe increased the threat of terrorism.

Polish government officials have repeatedly said that Poland is supporting those in need by increasing humanitarian aid to the victims of the war in Syria and by working with aid organisations to rebuild hospitals. The previous prime minister Beata Szydło had said that this type of help was not only cheaper but more effective, since EU migration policy had not stopped additional waves of migrants to Europe.

The ECJ, based in Luxembourg may impose high fines on Poland if the Commission asks for them in a further lawsuit. The procedure could take several years and it is not clear anyway that these countries could be legally punished by having withheld funds agreed under the budget.

Of course, that may be a distinction without a difference, given the timing. With Brexit looming, Juncker has already warned EU member states that they will have to pay more to fill the annual shortfall of €18 billion, based on this year’s figures. Those countries which are net contributors are expected to resist: Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have refused to pay more and France and Germany are also reluctant.

Southern, central and east European countries are keen to avoid any cuts as they are dependent on EU regional funding, which, in the case of Hungary, for example, is worth three per cent of GDP. In this context, when agreeing the new budget, it would be very easy to argue for significant reductions in the support allocated to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, claiming that the reductions are not so much a punishment as a result of less money being available. Those who consider that these three countries have not shown the correct community spirit are unlikely to have any sympathy were those three to see significantly reduced budgets.

Be that as it may, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was in Brussels on Tuesday to have talks with officials, including dinner with Juncker, amid the continuing tensions over the rule of law procedure which could – although given Hungary’s pledge to use its veto, probably won’t – end with sanctions against Poland. At the times of the decision, Morawiecki had said in a tweet that Poland was “as devoted to the rule of law as the rest” – which may or may not be a source of comfort – while Juncker had tweeted that “the dialogue between the Commission and Warsaw needs to be both open and honest. I believe that Poland’s sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled.”

On Monday, Juncker said in Brussels that the talks with Morawiecki would be an in-depth discussion covering a range of issues concerning Europe and Poland. “We are not at war with Poland – far from that,” Juncker said, as quoted by the DPA news agency. “But we are taking seriously on board Polish concerns and I would like our Polish friends to take seriously on board our own concerns.” For his part, Morawiecki has said that judicial reform in Poland “is deeply needed.”

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be, but money does have a way of concentrating the mind. Or, as Voltaire has it, “when it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

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Ideas

“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” The words of Franklin D. Roosevelt which are as relevant today as ever they were, and the sentiment behind is clearly appreciated by Poland’s prime minister who has said that the focus of the government in 2018 will be to ensure the financial security of families.

Mateusz Morawiecki, who was speaking to public broadcaster TVP on Monday evening, said that the government would work to “ensure that there are as many well-paid jobs as possible.” Not only that but every effort would be made to guarantee “internal security in terms of both finances and the physical security of citizens.” The prime minister said that the government will also work to ensure “external security” by protecting the country’s borders, “in addition to guaranteeing security against various ideas and initiatives being proposed in the world around us by either the European Union or our other neighbours.”

It’s not entirely clear what these obviously dangerous ideas and initiatives might be, but anyone of intelligence with an interest in Poland will be able to make certain assumptions. It is, of course, self-evident that in 2018, a year which President Duda said in his New Year’s Eve address will be “an opportunity to rediscover the greatness of our history, to consolidate our national sense of identity and pride inspired by the outstanding achievements of past generations”, that the right ideas flourish and the wrong ones do not. After all, the wrong ideas may also be “the stuff of which dictatorships are made”, as the 1930s, for example, clearly demonstrated. Or, as Joseph Stalin said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

Be that as it may, Morawiecki said that one of the biggest challenges for the government this year, is to deal with the health service and the long running protests by doctors and the shortage of medical staff. These, he said, were a legacy of inadequate government policies over the previous 25 years. “We have a very imperfect medical system that needs to be improved and looked at in a slightly different way.” That is certainly a good idea.

Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the president’s idea is that 2018 be a year of national pride. Duda said that 2017 “has been a time of building a state that serves citizens – all of them, without exception, a time of reforms thanks to which state institutions and authorities operate in a transparent manner under greater democratic surveillance.”

The president stated that 2017 had been “marked by effective efforts to secure faster and more prudent development for Poland, and to make sure the fruits of this growth are fairly shared.” Thus “millions of Polish families” were feeling the effects of continuing economic growth and that the country’s “internal and external security is founded nowadays on solid foundations.” According to Duda, 2018 will be “a unique and exceptional year” for Poles, a year when the country will be celebrating the centenary of regaining independence.

In the president’s view 2018 will also be “a time for reflection: to ponder on what kind of Poland we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.” He encouraged Poles to “take part in a debate on the shape of our civic community” and to “decide together about the new constitution intended to serve modern times.” He made this appeal: “Let us forge our future with hope and confidence in our own potential, the same way our ancestors did – winning back the Polish state with their courageous struggle and their persevering effort.” And his conclusion: “Let us make it a year of our national pride, nurturing the sense of belonging to our civic community. Let us celebrate together the achievements made so far and let us work together to score new success. Let us be together in this unique time: here, at home and among our fellow citizens living abroad.”

And there is no doubt that greater civil engagement is also a good idea – the worst calamity for a young democracy is for cynicism to lead to apathy and an uninterested electorate, another ingredient of the stuff of dictatorship. Poland begins 2018 in a strong position and to harm it with the wrong ideas would be very sad.

May I wish you a happy new year.

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Two Laws

“There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.” The words of Montesquieu which are not inapposite when considering the further proposed changes to the appointment and functioning of the Polish judiciary and, in particular, two laws which were approved by the upper house of Poland’s parliament on Friday evening.

If the two laws come into effect, that is if the president does not veto them, they will reshape Poland’s Supreme Court and reorganise the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that nominates new judges and which is also responsible for safeguarding the independence of the courts. The government regards these reforms as vital to tackle the inefficient and, it is claimed, sometimes corrupt system of justice. The opposition has criticised the changes as being unconstitutional and has accused the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) as trying to pack both the the Supreme Court and the KRS with persons loyal to PiS.

Will the president veto these laws? That seems unlikely given that he submitted two draft bills to parliament himself, having in the summer vetoed two government supported bills dealing with broadly the same subject matter. Of course, president Duda might decide that amendments made in parliament change the bill, but this also seems unlikely. His spokesman Krzysztof Łapiński said on Polish Radio 3 on Saturday that after the parliamentary process both laws retained all those provisions about which the president was especially concerned. And earlier, senior presidential aide Paweł Mucha had welcomed the passing of the laws by the Senate without further amendment, saying that he hoped the changes to the judiciary would “serve the Polish people.”

The view from Brussels is less sanguine. The European Commission will on Wednesday assess these changes to decide whether to invoke article 7.1 of the EU treaty. This means that, at the request of a third of member states, the European Parliament or the European Commission, the EU Council may declare that there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” by an EU country of the bloc’s values. The decision would have to be taken by a three-fifths majority of member states. Any sanctions against Poland would require the unanimous backing of member states and Hungary has said it will not back sanctions. For his part, Poland’s new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said on Thursday that triggering Article 7 would be unfair and that sovereign nations have the right to reform their judicial systems.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said in a joint press conference in Brussels that if the EU Commission does decide to take this action against Poland they will support it. Which does rather play into the hands of those who consider that Poland is being unfairly treated since both Germany and France are no strangers to ignoring EU law when it suits.

Be that as it may, what of the actual changes themselves? The Supreme Court will be able to conduct “extraordinary reviews” of final judgments by lower courts, including those issued as far back as 20 years. It does not take much imagination to see how that could be abused. Under new rules for the KRS, the lower house of parliament would elect the majority of the panel’s 25 members, with each parliamentary caucus being able to nominate not more than nine members. At present, the majority of panel members are judges.

In another change, an autonomous disciplinary chamber will be created within the Supreme Court, in part staffed by lay members elected by the upper house of parliament, while Supreme Court judges will retire five years earlier than now at 65, although the president will be able to extend the retirement age in individual cases. The forced retirement of Supreme Court judges was an issue on which the EU Commission has said in July it would be ready to trigger a formal warning to Poland. The Venice Commission had said the previous Friday that the planned changes put the independence of “all parts” of the Polish judiciary “at serious risk”.

And the question remains – are the changes a step in the direction of a more cruel tyranny or an attempt to right wrongs? Nobody questions that certain reform is needed and it is probably the case that as a relatively new democracy tries to put down roots the medicine may need to be drastic. The difficulty is that power tends to be abused by politicians keen to impose “winner’s justice.” The reforms could probably work with men of goodwill but these, despite the season, are apt to be in short supply in politics.

And so, as yet another year draws to a close, may I thank you for reading and wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

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Prime Minister

“In the end we are all sacked and it’s always awful. It is as inevitable as death following life. If you are elevated there comes a day when you are demoted. Even prime ministers.” The words of Alan Clark which, although describing the United Kingdom are true of any democracy. In Poland, there is a new prime minister although the previous prime minister, Beata Szydło, appears to have resigned rather than having been sacked.

The new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki and his ministers took their oaths on Monday before President Andrzej Duda in a ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw. All government ministers kept their jobs with Morawiecki has remaining as finance and development minister as well as becoming prime minister. Clearly there are administrative advantages in having the direction of economic policy in one pair of hands with, one assumes, the ability actually to make policy happen. That, at least, must be the theory.

Beata Szydło, who tendered her resignation on Thursday, half way through the government’s term of office, which resignation was accepted by the president on Friday, remains in the government as a deputy prime minister in charge of social policy. Those expecting, or hoping, for a wider reshuffle will now have to wait until January when, according to the state news agency PAP, it is expected to take place. On Tuesday, Morawiecki is due to deliver a policy speech in parliament, outlining his government’s priorities, followed by a vote of confidence in the new Cabinet.

Why the change? Law and Justice (PiS) politicians have said that this reflects the government’s determination to focus on the economy over the next two years, something which the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank also suggests might be a motivation. The suggestion is that Szydło having successfully completed her mission to implement the first stage of social and political changes, the emphasis will now be placed on meeting the development challenges.

Other suggested motivations are: to attract more support from the political centre in time for the 2019 parliamentary elections with Marowiecki “becoming a conservative version of liberal Donald Tusk”; as a “counterweight to government hardliners, such as Zbigniew Ziobro and Antoni Macierewicz” or “a reaction to Szydło’s huge popularity among PiS voters” which “risked [her] becoming too powerful for Kaczyński”; and “to refurbish Poland’s image abroad, and ideally to amplify its voice on the key debates on Brexit, Eurozone reform, and the next EU budget.”

Be that as it may, and whether one agrees with the ECFR suggestions or not, it remains to be seen how, if at all, the new prime minister will deal with Poland’s apparent drift to a more authoritarian regime, an approach traditionally at home, whether as a resident or an (uninvited) guest, further east. Thus while PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński said at the 92nd monthly “March of Remembrance” that was held in Warsaw on Sunday or the 92nd time to commemorate the victims of a fatal Polish presidential plane crash on April 10, 2010, that a “sovereign, free, democratic, respected and fair Poland is our aim,” the broadcasting regulator fined US owned broadcaster TVN PLN 1.5 million for coverage that it said “propagated illegal activities and encouraged behaviour threatening security.”

The coverage was of events around parliament during anti-government protests last December. The media studies lecturer who reportedly wrote the opinion that led to the regulator imposing the fine, accused TVN of “calling almost directly for the collapse of the legal order of the state” by broadcasting images of anti-government protests “in silence, without commentary.” Although the regulator, coincidentally led by a former PiS local councilor appointed last year by the PiS majority in Parliament, has not yet publicly released the full justification for its decision, TVN, as Poland’s largest private broadcaster, is regarded as an opponent by the government and is one of the main targets of a planned new law to restrict majority foreign ownership of media companies.

For its part, TVN rejects the charge and will appeal. A professor of media studies art private SWPS University suggests that the government is sending a clear signal to the media: “From today we are in charge and the only message [allowed] is pro-government.” While TVN is able to absorb fines, smaller outlets might be intimidated into changing their reporting.

But perhaps it’s all a simple misunderstanding, a case of over zealousness on the part of functionaries trying to impress the powers that be, something not unknown to dominant leaders. After all, “this aim will be achieved already within the lifetime of this generation. We will win,” Jarosław Kaczyński said on Sunday. After all a free, democratic, respected and fair Poland surely has space for a free press. If only folk would stay on message.

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Strategy

“So companies have to be very schizophrenic. On the one hand, they have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be good at continuously improving.” The words of management guru, Michael Porter. And although the analogy is far from perfect, countries are not wholly different from companies when it comes to strategy. Thus what to make of prime minister, Teresa May’s remarks, ahead of talk in Brussels in Monday, that the United Kingdom is ‘building a strategic partnership with Poland … that will outlast our exit” from the European Union.

The prime minister is meeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, as well as European Council president Donald Tusk, in the hope that sufficient progress can be agreed to have been made to allow next week’s EU summit to allow talks on the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK to begin. Talks between the British and Polish government area planned to take place in Warsaw on 21st December.

Mrs. May said the UK was “building a strategic partnership with Poland from a base of shared history and deep ties of friendship that will outlast our exit from the EU”. She added that Poland was important to the UK and that the countries’ partnership was “broad, vibrant and diverse and we both share a steadfast commitment to Europe’s security and defence”. “Following our last meeting we have British troops stationed in Poland, delivering part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence and signaling our determination to front up to aggression in the region, we work hand-in-hand across the foreign policy spectrum,” she added.

The prime minister also said that trade between Poland and the UK was “growing”. “In 2016, the UK was Poland’s second largest export destination and almost ten per cent of Polish food and agriculture exports end up in British shops,” she said. She also reiterated that ensuring EU-citizens’ rights in the UK and UK-citizens’ rights in the EU was her “first priority”. “The one million Polish citizens and 30,000 Polish businesses who have made a home in the UK have made a huge economic, social and cultural contribution to the fabric of our country… No EU citizen legally living in the UK needs to worry,” the prime minister said.

So far so good, but is no reflection on Poland to question whether this particular strategic partnership, supported as it appears on a shared history of relatively recent invention, in any way compensates for the strategic partnership that could, nay should, have been forged from the UK’s membership of the EU. Indeed, it could be argued that leaving the EU represents the biggest divergence ever from the strategy underpinning 500 years of foreign policy of not allowing a single united Europe to combine against British interests. While the UK remains in the EU this combination is not possible.

Of course the EU has many faults. Anybody familiar with British parliamentary democracy and the concept of democratic accountability must look askance at the EU arrangements. Indeed, it is this respect for democracy, and the instinctive belief that a vote of the electorate must be respected that is causing the prime minister and many like her who do not favour Brexit, to press on. That respect, at least, is something to be admired.

Be that as it may, nobody, Brexiteer or Remainer, can take much comfort from the current situation. Of course a deal will be done, but the UK will end up paying much for a worse deal that at present. Much better, would have been for successive governments to have adopted much more Machiavellian and Sir Humphreyesque approach towards the EU and to have gradually turned it in the direction that suited us, something which most of continental Europe believes the United Kingdom had achieved anyway.

In many ways the UK has been a model EU member state. It was one of only three EU member states not to impose transitional restrictions on Poles’ rights of free movement when Poland joined the EU, it has been large net contributor to EU funds and has the most open markets of any major member state. Perhaps it would have been better to have been less of a team player and to have adopted a more Polish approach – insist on your rights as an EU member state but oppose those rules you find inconvenient.

It is to everyone’s advantage that the UK and Poland enjoy close relations at every level, but it will require much more than a strategic partnership to replace what has been forgone elsewhere.

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East

“Poland is the natural bridge between East and West.” The words of Professor Norman Davies, who probably has a better understanding than most. And thus to the 5th Eastern Partnership summit held in Brussels, a meeting at which heads of state and government from EU member states and six Eastern partner countries discussed future cooperation, attended by Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, who, while if not exactly pontifex maximus, was urging bridge building rather than burning or raising.

Speaking to journalists before the start of the summit on Friday, she said that European Union should “move from declarations to concrete steps” in its efforts to forge closer ties with six neighbours to the east, each formerly part of the Soviet Union. “The fact that some decisions have been made about visas, business cooperation and infrastructure is precisely what Poland wants to see done” in the EU’s relations with Eastern Partnership nations, Szydło said. She added that this “should be aimed at ordinary people, people who are waiting for this cooperation to produce tangible results in their everyday lives.” It is perhaps interesting to note, en passant, that when the EU does something Poland wants that is good, but when the EU wants Poland to so something it may not be.

Be that as it may, the Eastern Partnership, which is an initiative launched in 2009 by Poland and Sweden to forge closer political and economic ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – is clearly worthwhile. The summit did adopt a declaration which mentioned the “European aspirations” of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova but did not offer them a concrete promise of future EU membership.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski had said in October that the European Union should maintain an “open-door” policy towards these countries and that Poland was interested in ensuring that the Eastern Partnership is kept “high on the EU agenda.” In April, the foreign ministers of the Visegrad Group countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) voiced “strong support” for the Eastern Partnership, which they said was key to stability and economic growth in Eastern Europe.

And a day earlier, more bridge building of a sort in Paris where the prime minister had met French President Emmanuel Macron. She said that she was in a favour of seeking compromise on issues that have divided the two countries. “We are in a position to find such compromises, solutions that will help in bilateral cooperation, but also on key issues on the EU agenda,” Szydło said. She added that there were differences between Poland and France over Macron’s push for rules to pay workers “posted” abroad at the same wages as local workers, something which Poland considers discriminates unfairly against its companies.

Szydło told reporters in Paris: “I declare my full commitment and willingness to cooperate in further work on the mobility package, as part of which decisions will be made on applying rules on posted workers in the road transport sector.” “Without France and without Poland, the reform of the EU in the context of its further development will fail and we must work together in this regard,” she added.

Anything which improves Polish French relations is to be welcomed. Macron has been critical of the Polish government’s policies which he said in an interview in August “undermine the rule of law, earning the retort from Szydło that Macron “should mind his own country’s business” after he had accused Poland of isolating itself within the European Union. Szydło also said that Poland was democratic and “pro-EU”, and that it was determined to defend important European Union values, including the free market.

Of course, bridge building and maintenance is a constant process, and the prime minister can expect a letter from European Parliament President Antonio Tajani. He said on Monday that he would be asking her to ensure the security of MEPs following a demonstration on Saturday in Katowice, during which, nationalists “hung” the pictures of MEPs who backed a recent European Parliament warning to Warsaw amid EU concerns that the Polish government has eroded the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The government has consistently denied that is has undermined the rule of law, and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Monday that prosecutors would investigate the mock hanging. Police are also analysing video footage of the incident.

But perhaps the most important rule of good bridge building is to have a rather more constructive attitude to those who would cross than that of the bridge keeper encountered by the three Billy Goats Gruff in the eponymous fairy tale. A bridge users seek to avoid very soon loses its utility.

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Image

“The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself.” The words of George Bernard Shaw which, albeit the mirror has been replaced by the camera lens or television screen, have caused Poland’s president some consternation when those pictures from the 11th November Independence Day celebrations that attracted the most media attention presented a less than noble image of Poland.

According to President Duda, in an interview for Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a small group of marchers waving controversial banners during a 60,000 strong march have harmed Poland’s image abroad. He said that those waving the banners represented a “marginal” proportion of all those taking part in the march in Warsaw. Groups with such radical views “can be found in every country”.

Other political figures also distanced themselves from what Polish public broadcaster had described as a small group of extreme nationalists which was responsible for the fascist and racist banners that spoilt the march and drew criticism from abroad. Duda said last Monday that “there is no room … in our country for xenophobia, for pathological nationalism, for anti-Semitism,” and the PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, said his party referred to traditions that “have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or racism.” When asked about the march in an interview Kaczyński said that “there were some extremely unfortunate” and “completely unacceptable” incidents during the event, but added that these occurrences were the “fringe of the fringe” and that they were “very likely a provocation.” “Those who want to harm Poland know perfectly well how to do that,” he told public broadcaster TVP on Monday evening. “These kinds of slogans, this kind of nonsense, shameful nonsense, is very damaging to us,” he added.

Meanwhile, at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday, the Polish prime minister was protesting against her country being “vilified and insulted” in the European parliament. After the summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, Beata Szydło said she had told EU leaders that “there cannot be a situation such as… during a debate in the European Parliament when one of the nations of our great European family is vilified and insulted.”

On Wednesday the parliament had debated the rule of law and democracy and it was said that the situation in the country posed a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values. MEPs also voted to trigger the first stage of the “Article Seven” procedure. Poland must respect the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and fundamental rights, failing which the country’s right to vote in the EU Council might be suspended, the European Parliament warned. Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said that 60,000 “fascists” had taken part in a march in Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day.

This was too much for Szydło who told reporters on Friday: “The 60,000 people who came out in Warsaw for a beautiful… march to celebrate Independence Day cannot be called fascists by anyone.” While insisting that the government “very clearly condemns all extremism”, she said, “I will never agree to my country, which was the victim of two totalitarian regimes… being vilified and slandered in such a way.” And speaker of the Polish senate, Stanisław Karczewski, described as a “brazen lie” a tweet by Jesse Lehrich, a former foreign policy spokesman for Hillary Clinton, that “60,000 Nazis marched on Warsaw” on November 11, adding that PiS condemned and distanced themselves from any “extreme behaviour” that occurred during the march.

Which is all very well, and as it should be. The difficulty is that the march was organised by two nationalist groups with an interwar history – the National Radical Camp (ONR) and All-Polish Youth (MW). Although both groups have made efforts to sanitize their public images in recent years in order to broaden their appeal, and although the mainstream of PiS is not in close ideological accord with either, PiS’s strategy of preventing splits to what might be broadly referred to as the right, so as to remain unchallenged in that area, and the bringing in of nationalists to the main stream, has lead, one might think, to some sailing pretty close to the wind. Of course, one must take Duda, Kaczyński, et al at their word, and believe their condemnation of the extremists as sincere. At the same time if one is really concerned about image, one needs to be rather more circumspect about allowing folk with a tendency to wearing National Socialist style armbands and uniforms to organize marches you support. It didn’t end well last time.

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Make It Happen

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” The words of US poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and, with or without the conspiracy of the universe, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) is certainly making things happen, even those which some thought impossible. This, at least, is the view of the party leader.

Summing up the first two years of the PiS government – Monday marked two years since President Andrzej Duda designated Beata Szydło as prime minister – Jarosław Kaczyński said, “We have demonstrated that Poland can be changed.” “What seemed impossible for years – and many people truly believed that such was the case, that things simply had to be left to follow their course, that the strong always had to win, and that the weak had to be left with nothing – has now been changed.” Speaking to public broadcaster TVP on Monday evening, Kaczyński also said that “there is no doubt that the Polish state can accomplish things when it is in good hands”.

Turning to the expected cabinet reshuffle, Kaczyński also that specific decisions an impending government reshuffle “will be made shortly.” And, in what must be the most disingenuous statement of the year so far, he said “We will learn about them in December.” We, probably; he most likely already knows, given that it seems most unlikely that any decisions were made without his involvement.

But what of the second half of the current term? Kaczyński said that there would be more effort to advance the Home Plus low-cost housing programme and measures to improve the lives of pensioners and single mothers, in addition to other economic measures. The Home Plus programme, designed to provide people with affordable apartments, is of particular importance, Kaczyński said. He described it as “a real breakthrough in the lives of the Polish people.” “This is also a major offer for all those who might want to come back from the West and work here,” he added. We shall see.

The prime minister, Beata Szydło adopted a soccer analogy to describe the government’s two years in office. In an interview with the Financial Times published on Monday she said: “I’d like to compare my government to our national [football] team…  and I’d say that we have been successful in the first half… We are winning.” As the Financial Times noted, the fast economic growth and improving living standards in Poland have been set against a background of clashes with Brussels. According to the paper, Law and Justice’s election triumph two years ago “paved the way to power for a party bent on representing Polish interests more assertively abroad and heralded a broader rebellion against the EU goal of ‘ever closer union’ that has had echoes in elections from the UK to the Czech Republic.”

Szydło was cited as saying in an interview: “People in Europe feel more and more that the elites in Brussels are… no longer in touch with the problems that they should be concerned about — such as the safety of the citizens of the EU, the labour situation, and increasing employment and improving wages.” She certainly has a point about the de haut en bas attitude emanating from Brussels, but nor does the attitude of her government to things which bother Brussels help.

At a joint press conference with Szydło on Tuesday, during which he thanked the prime minister for the achievements of her government thus far, Kaczyński told reporters: “There is money available and despite all sorts of announcements that there would be some great collapse, we are able to conduct policies which serve a great many Polish families, those which previously did not benefit from the changes in Poland, from economic development.” He singled out the government’s 500+ program of state payouts designed to support families, and to moves to increase OAP pensions and to reduce unemployment. “Poles are better off,” he said.

While the opposition said the government had caused bitter divisions in Poland, PiS retains a commanding lead in the opinion polls, at 45 per cent, ahead of PO on 17 per cent according to the latest survey by CBOS. The Kukiz’15 grouping is third on 8%, and the Nowoczesna party is fourth on 5%, according to CBOS. With Poland’s central bank revising upwards to 4.2 per cent its GDP growth forecast, it seems that PiS is set fair for the further term in office which Kaczyński said is required for further change since “The state needs to be reconstructed.” Thank goodness any such reconstruction will be in “good” hands.

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