Nicholas Richardson
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Pledges

“Men should pledge themselves to nothing; for reflection makes a liar of their resolution.” The words of Sophocles, which most politicians, nay most voters, would do well to remember. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is not shying away from making pledges confident, no doubt, that its record of implementing the pledges it made before the last elections will encourage voters to keep it in power.

At a party congress held on Saturday in Warsaw under the slogan “A New Programme Arena”, PiS presented five major proposals in advance of this spring’s elections to the European parliament and the national elections this autumn.  The first major pledge is to extend the 500+ programme, a monthly payment of PLN 500 (EUR 115), to include the first child and not just the second and subsequent children as at present.

The second pledge is to help young people who begin their working lives by exempting them from personal income tax (PIT) until they reach the age of 26. At the other end of the spectrum, every pensioner will receive an extra annual payment equal to the minimum monthly pension, currently PLN 1,100 (EUR 254) or “a 13thpension” as party leader Jarosław Kaczyński put it. Deductible expenses for PIT will also be raised.

The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, emphasised the role of the family and encouraging young people to remain in Poland or to return from abroad. He said that the government aimed to raise the standard of living to in Poland to European levels. “We’re heading in this direction and we know how to do it”, he said.  He added that the total cost of the party’s new pledges is estimated at PLN 30-40 billion.

Speaking on Monday, in Herby, President Duda expressed support for the programme. He said that he was very content to see progress in family policy in Poland, which progress was due to the present government which was “meeting its obligations”, something which in his opinion, “gives cause for great pride, and, most of all, satisfaction”.

Duda also said that all parts of Poland were equally important. and that growth should embrace smaller communities such as Herby. In his view sustainable development was the best model for Poland, as it ensured growth opportunities for all regions of the country. This is why he said his main focus was on smaller towns and municipalities.

So, a continuation of the family friendly reforms which the government has said are necessary to spread Poland’s prosperity more widely, or a cynical attempt to bribe the electorate, particularly its own voter base, in an election year?

According to Rafal Benecki chief economist of ING in Poland, the spending pledges are higher than expected, and while they pose a limited risk to the 2019 budget, the picture for 2020 is less certain after two years of positive fiscal surprises. The EU threshold of the budget deficit not exceeding 3 per cent of GDP is not under threat.

According to him, the bank does not like that fact that three quarters of the programme is directed at social measures which are politically effective in supporting PiS in the polls but provide only a transitory boost for GDP without solving any structural issues. It would prefer to see that three quarters spent on health care or education or simply to stop the tax system from tightening (more tightening will come when the economy slows to keep the deficit under control). The bank is concerned that the earlier tightening had a negative impact on private investment, which grew by just 3.5% year-on-year in 2018, below GDP growth. As a result, Poland is losing its competitiveness in the region in terms of investment’s share of GDP, which undermines long-term growth potential.

The fiscal effect is projected to boost GDP by some 0.6% in 2019 and 0.8% in 2020. Thus, economic growth in Poland is shielded against a potential global slowdown. The bank sees moderate upside risk to its 3.6% year on year GDP forecast for 2019, and 2020 at 2.8 per cent year on year. However, the uncertain global picture is the main risk.

Of necessity, economists and politicians speak to difference audiences. Cynicism aside, the government’s proposals of themselves, particularly in relation to PIT which does start to bite at a much lower level than in the UK, for example, seem not unreasonable. It remains to be seen whether promised further pledges affect this relatively benign picture.

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Unexpected

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” The words of Heraclitus. Life was probably simpler in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, leaving plenty of time for Greeks to philosophise, but in the divine comedy that is the modern world, the unexpected seems ever present, whether serached for or not. At least, this is perhaps what the Polish prime minister thinks as he considers the unexpected results of last week’s conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, jointly organised by Poland and the United States.

Mateusz Morawiecki has said that he will not attend the meeting of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on 18th– 19thFebruary. This decision follows the spat over comments allegedly made by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu during the conference. His comments, which were widely reported, were interpreted as suggesting Polish complicity in the Nazi German persecution of Jews during the Second Word War.

Netanyahu’s office said that the Israeli prime minister “spoke of Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland. This was misquoted and misrepresented in press reports and was subsequently corrected by the journalist who issued the initial misstatement.” Speaking to Polish Radio on Saturday, the head of the Polish Prime Minister’s Office, Michał Dworczyk, said:“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office clarified the matter in a statement, denying the report contained in the Jerusalem Post. I think this statement closes the issue”. If only events were not so unexpected.

For hot on the heels of Nethanyahu’s remarks came the remarks of Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister, Israel Katz, who reportedly claimed that Poles “suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Morawiecki said of this comment by Katz: “This is an example of racist anti-Polonism.”

Addressingjournalists on Monday morning, Morawiecki said: “At the moment we are waiting for a firm reaction to the reprehensible, unacceptable and simply racist words of the newly-appointed foreign minister of Israel.” He added: “If there is no such reaction from the other side, we will wish them the best possible meeting, but [Foreign] Minister Jacek Czaputowicz will also not attend the meeting in Israel.”Czaputowicz had been due to go instead of the prime minister.

For some commentators this and the danger of creating bad relations with Iran - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “We see what’s happening in Warsaw, it’s an empty result, nothing” - is exactly the sort problem that might have been expected by the Polish government’s allowing itself to be bounced into hosting the conference with the United States. And the US Vice President’s unexpected and outspoken criticism of EU member states’ approach to the US sanctions on Iran (please see here) is more grist to their particular mill.

However, as Czaputowicz himself said, the deepening diplomatic collaboration between Warsaw and Washington D.C. was one of the advantages of the conference, as was the opportunity to contribute to peace in the Middle East and thus fulfil the country’s role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. As to allegations of exacerbating strained relations between Warsaw and Tehran and putting Poland’s safety at risk, Czaputowicz said that the view that Iran is a country causing problems was shared by the European Union.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with the Polish government, whose position is no different from that faced by all hosts whose guests step out of line. For Poland, continuing and strong relations with the United States make eminent sense and, as other close allies will testify, not least the United Kingdom, the occasional embarrassment and hurt feelings is par for the course. US exceptionalism also extends to diplomatic niceties, especially under the current presidency.

Be that as it may, Poland ploughs on, no doubt hoping that last week’s conference has indeed brought it some US goodwill. Thus, Polish defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak is hoping for the best in talks underway with US officials about establishing a new permanent American army base in Poland. Speaking on Saturday, after meetings with US Senate Armed Services Committee officials in Germany during the Munich Security Conference, he said: “We are discussing details, and I think we are on the right track to achieve success. My yesterday’s meeting with [acting US Secretary of Defense] Patrick Shanahan is a proof for that”. He did not disclose any timeframe for the project. “This is of course a process. I don’t want to set any deadlines for that process to end … I hope for a success,” he added.

Perhaps fools do rush in where angels dare to tread, especially in relation to Middle East diplomatic minefields, but let’s end as we began with Heraclitus: big results require big ambitions.

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Rocket

“The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.” The words of US President Lyndon B. Johnson which, in an absolute sense are no doubt true. And although we live in more peaceful times than ever before – consider the time since the last major war in Europe – there are no grounds for complacency. It may be trite to quote the Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum, but one failure of which the Polish government will not be accused is that of not modernising Poland’s armed forces.

Thus, on Sunday, Poland announced that it will buy mobile rocket launchers worth USD 414 million (EUR 365 million) from the United States. The 20 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, made by Lockheed Martin, are capable of launching six guided rockets with a range of 70 kilometres, or a single missile with a range of 300 kilometres, and will “significantly increase the Polish army’s capacities,” defence minister Mariusz Blaszczak told journalists. The HIMARS system is already being used by 19 countries, has been deployed in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State group, and provides a precision attack ability even in poor weather when air attacks are hindered.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in November that the sale was aimed at strengthening security in the region and to help modernise Poland’s military. The prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, appearing with and the defence minister, hailed the deal as an important part of the efforts to upgrade Poland’s armed forces, which comes on top of other recent military purchases from the United States. Last month the Polish government signed a multi-million deal to buy the first batch of four US-designed, Polish-built Black Hawk helicopters, and in March last year signed what officials described as a historic deal to buy an American Patriot air defence system for USD 4.75 billion.

At the signing of the deal on Wednesday at the 1st Military Transport Air Base in Warsaw in the presence of Polish President Andrzej Duda and visiting US Vice President Mike Pence, Duda said that the deal marked the latest step in efforts to modernise Poland’s armed forces, adding that it would help increase security on the eastern borders of NATO.  Duda also said that the Polish-American intergovernmental deal boosted the strong partnership between the two countries. Mike Pence said that the HIMARS system would offer new opportunities for the Polish military in a dangerous world. He also thanked Poland for investing heavily in defence.

As well as improving the armed forces’ equipment this deal is also about Poland remaining close to the United States in an attempt to secure Poland’s longer- term strategic interests, including establishing a greater prominence for Poland on the world stage.  And this seems to be working.

Speaking at a joint news conference with the Polish President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday, Pence said that “in recent years, Poland has become one of our most crucial allies and a major player in world affairs.” He added that “Poland sent one of the largest contingents of troops to our allied operations in Iraq and was a valued member of our 79-partner-strong coalition to defeat ISIS”, and noted that Poland “is one of only eight NATO allies who currently meet the commitment to spend at least 2 per cent of your gross domestic product on defence.”

Turning to security in Europe, and something which is never far from Polish concerns. Pence said that “no threat looms larger in Poland than the spectre of aggression from your neighbour to the east.” The Vice President said that “the Polish people need no lecture on the dangers of an aggressive Russia”, adding: “And our neighbours to the east would do well not to underestimate the capabilities of our combined armed forces or to underestimate the indomitable will of the Polish people.”

Pence was beginning a three day visit to Poland for bilateral talks and to attend the “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” jointly hosted by the United States and Poland. Given the overtly anti-Iran stance taken at the conference by Israel and the US, and the EU opposition to US sanction against Iran, (please see US to EU in Warsaw – Abandon Iran nuclear deal) some may question the wisdom of the Polish government placing itself in the middle of a US EU foreign policy conflict.

Be that as it may, for Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, the conference will boost Poland’s prestige on the international stage and improve ties with the US, he said in an interview with public broadcaster TVP on Thursday. He said Poland was “undertaking efforts aimed at bringing the stands of the European Union and the United States on the Middle East closer together.” If Poland can achieve that, the conference will indeed have been a success.

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Meat

“The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love, like being enlivened with champagne.” The words of Samuel Johnson which have a delightfully eighteenth-century simplicity that still resonates, although no doubt the good doctor’s beef was of a rather more wholesome nature than some that has been produced in Poland of late.

The problem arose after a reporter from private broadcaster TVN obtained a job in a slaughterhouse around 113 km east of Warsaw where he was ordered to kill cows and butcher their meat. Last week’s broadcast television report showed sick cows being transported to the slaughterhouse where they were mistreated and killed. This lead Poland’s chief veterinary officer to say on Thursday that Polish police had launched a criminal investigation.

Not to be outdone, the European Commission said on Friday that it will send a team of inspectors to Poland. Poland produces about 560,000 tonnes of beef a year, with 85 per cent exported to countries within the European Union.  “The team of European Commission auditors are being deployed to Poland on Monday to assess the situation on the ground,” a Commission spokesperson told a daily news briefing, adding that the problem may concern 14 EU countries in total, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Germany.

The Polish ministry of agriculture has said that it has closed down the slaughterhouse at the heart of a scandal. And Poland’s agriculture minister has warned that offenders should expect “no leniency”. The minister, Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, admitted that such practices dented confidence in Poland’s food producers. The Ministry added that information about the markets in which the slaughterhouse sold its meat products have been filed with the European RASFF food and feed safety alert system. According to Ministry officials, all the meat produced by this plant has been confiscated, examined, and presented “no biological threats”. Given that illegal procedures had come to light, the meat was nevertheless being withdrawn from markets abroad.

On a more positive note, Ardanowski said that, in agreement with the European Commission, Poland wanted to bring in legal changes. “In slaughterhouses where there is no 24-hour veterinarian presence, around-the-clock surveillance needs to be introduced. That is quite logical and will be immediately introduced,” he added. Not before time one might think.

While there is no excuse for meat that is unfit to enter the food processing system, and discounting stupidity and ignorance, perhaps the bigger problem is the quest for ever cheaper food which puts pressure on producers and makes cutting corners all too tempting. Is it sustainable, to use the word against which all must now be judged, to expect ever cheaper food not to mean ever worse quality? Quality costs, and perhaps it is time consumers realised that. If we really are what we eat, we ought to be more discriminating.

Be that as it may, if one is going to launch a new political party without meat on the menu, this was probably the week to do it. Thus, the food at Sunday’s launch of Robert Biedroń’s new party, Wiosna (spring in English) was reportedly all vegan. Biedroń is himself a vegetarian and a supporter of animal rights. During his time as the mayor of Słupsk, more vegetarian options were added to the menu in the city hall canteen.

“We want no more Polish-Polish war, we want mutual respect and dialogue” said Biedroń at the launch convention of his party. “These last years have been cold and gloomy. Instead of talks we got unending conflict, instead of common good – party interests, instead of empathy – growing enmity. May this change at last” he said, speaking of “a frosty winter that must end at last. We are the spring, we bring in fresh air to Polish politics.”

It remains to be seen how popular will be the meat of the programme he outlined, such as phasing out the use of coal and fighting air pollution, ending the privileged status of the church, ending the politicisation of state media, new rules on transparency of salaries in the public sector, tighter rules on business activity by officials, and ending the ‘rubber stamp’ culture of Polish bureaucracy. An opinion poll run by IBRIS for Onet website suggested the support of some 6.4% – more than the Polish Peoples Party and Kukiz ’15 currently in Poland’s Parliament. But, in the final analysis, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

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Misunderstood

“The public think the politicians don’t know or care about their lives; and the politicians feel misunderstood.” The words of Tony Blair, so take them as you will, but perhaps the politicians are understood only too well, and folk have good reason for their view.  Be that as it may, the Polish prime minister feels that criticism of his government’s legal reforms is due to their not being understood in western Europe.

Speaking to CNN during the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Mateusz Morawiecki said: “There is a lack of understanding [of] what is happening in Poland by our western neighbours.” Poland’s fellow EU members in western Europe were “on the right side of the Iron Curtain,” while Poland was on the wrong side and spent decades under communism.

He told CNN’s Richard Quest that the justice system was being changed to make it as efficient as those in western Europe but that the European Union Commission was seeking to “politicise” the continuing dispute with Poland over these changes. “Although Poland changed its provisions regarding [the] judiciary, the European Commission does not recognise it. I feel that some of the European Commissioners want to politicise this dispute”, Morawiecki said.

The prime minister added that although the new procedures for appointing judges is less dependent on the decisions of political bodies than hitherto, the Commission still contends that at the rule of law is under threat in Poland. Indeed, the deputy foreign minister for European affairs last month voiced surprise that notwithstanding Poland’s having complied with an ECJ ruling last year requiring it to reinstate Supreme Court judges who had been forced to retire, the EU had not withdrawn the procedure under article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.

The Commission had begun the action against Poland in the ECJ because it argued that the changes to the appointment of judges to the Supreme court undermined “the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges.” Although it complied with the ECJ ruling – evidence, one might think, of the rule of law actually functioning – the Polish government has contended that its changes are needed to reform an inefficient and on occasion corrupt judicial system that has not fully rid itself of the taint of its communist past.

The complaint that Poland is misunderstood by non-Poles is a common one which extends beyond the political sphere. Many countries consider themselves to be exceptions and it is hardly surprising therefore, given its history, that feeling of Polish exceptionalism should be so strong. Of course, that is no excuse for Poland being given an easy ride where the EU has grounds for believing that there is a threat to fundamental EU values. Nevertheless, the de haut en bascommunications to Poland are perhaps not the most effective way of addressing a proud nation.

The Polish prime minister also had something to say about another great exercise in exceptionalism and, perhaps, misunderstanding, Brexit. When asked about the UK’s impending departure from the EU, Morawiecki said that he regretted it. He said that Poland stood united with the other EU member states on the deal the EU had negotiated with the British government. Earlier in the week Morawiecki had told the BBC that he would like to see more Poles return to Poland from the UK as Poland benefitted from strong economic growth and low unemployment. “So I would hope that many, many Poles would come back to Poland. So give us our people back.” Not, it hardly needs adding, that the British government has prevented Poles from coming or going at will, something that is unlikely to change whatever form of Brexit eventually emerges.

And should a no-deal Brexit occur, the Polish economy is ready according to deputy investment and development minister, Jerzy Kwieciński. as reported Poland’s PAP news agency, although he sees such a development as unlikely. He did say, however, that Brexit is one of Europe’s greatest economic and political challenges in 2019.

Every country is defined by its history: Poland by struggle, the United Kingdom by exceptionalism. But what the United Kingdom also had was Machiavellian pragmatism based on a rational analysis of its best interests and this seems curiously absent of late. Modern politicians seem ignorant of history – perhaps that’s why they misunderstand and are misunderstood.

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Consequences

“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” The words of Robert Louis Stevenson. That that banquet should also include just desserts seems a given. And when it comes to certain plans on EU funding, the Polish Prime Minister’s office is hinting at feelings of indigestion.

On Friday, Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Prime Minister’s office, criticised what he called a “political initiative”, namely the plans to link payments under the European Union budget to the observance of the rule of law in member states. On the day following the approval of those plans by the EU parliament, Dworczyk said in an interview with public broadcaster Polish Radio that one of the politicians behind this plan was Frans Timmermans, the European Commission Vice-President, “who has ambitions to become the head of the European Commission in the next term.”

MEPs voted 397 to 158 for a draft law which would freeze EU funds if a government were found to be eroding democratic values. “Respecting the rule of law is a fundamental prerequisite for democracy, stability, prosperity and mutual trust,” said Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish centre-right MEP, who co-authored the parliament’s proposals. “Without the rule of law, the European Union loses its credibility in the eyes of the citizens and in the eyes of the world.”

According to these proposals, member states would lose EU funds for “generalised deficiencies in the rule of law”, such as failure to investigate fraud, the absence of independent courts, or failure to cooperate with EU anti-fraud inspectors. The plans would give the EU, aided by independent experts, the power to judge whether a government was breaching the rule of law. The EU parliament and EU governments would have four weeks to stop funds from being frozen. The changes were opposed by MEPs from Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), although MEPs from the opposition Civic Platform (PO) voted in favour.

Establishing a link between the dispensing of EU funds and the rule of law could have a large impact on some national budgets, especially in central and eastern Europe, where such funding has supported extensive infrastructure spending.  For example, cohesion policy funding makes up 61.17 per cent of all Polish public investment, one of the highest rates in the EU.

The final result of these plans will not be known for months since the proposal is linked to agreement on the EU budget for 2021-2028 which will not be agreed until after this year’s European parliamentary elections. Even without these proposals the budget debate is already more complicated given Brexit and the end of the United Kingdom’s net annul contribution of some €11 billion.

This draft law is the latest attempt by the EU to deal with countries which it sees as flouting the rule of law. Last December the EU commission began action against Poland under article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, but this procedure is seen as slow and cumbersome and some governments, including the UK, are reluctant to condemn fellow member states. The Hungarian prime minister has said Hungary would veto any action against Poland.

For its part, the Polish government has consistently argued that the changes it has instigated to the Polish judiciary are not an attack on the rule of law but rather a needed reform of Poland’s inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system which remains tainted in parts by the communist past. This argument is not accepted by opponents who have accused PiS of aiming to stack the courts with its own supporters and to dismantle the rule of law.

Be that as it may, despite opposition from member states in central and eastern Europe, the EU’s larger budget contributors, notably Germany, France and the Netherlands, wish to see tougher action against those they see as happily accepting EU funds while flouting those values that are the foundation of the EU.

He who pays the piper may well call the tune, but it is not difficult to understand, political differences aside, the sense of frustration that the EU seems always ready to accommodate France and Germany while not always understanding the particular problems faced by some newer and smaller member states.

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Conference

“No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.”  The words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which may be an unduly cynical place to start or a welcome dash of reality, depending on one’s point of view. Be that as it may, many continue to set great store by the potential of international conferences to offer new solutions to hitherto intractable problems. And they don’t come much more intractable, it seems, than peace in the Middle East. Thus, Poland enters the fray with plans to hold an international conference on the subject in Warsaw in February.

According to the US State Department, the United States and Poland will jointly host a ministerial meeting to promote peace and security in the Middle East in Warsaw on 13-14thFebruary. “The ministerial will address a range of critical issues including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region,” a State Department statement said.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Gulf Cooperation Council countries, told Fox News that the meeting would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security,” including “an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.” The GCC “is essential to countering the single greatest threat to regional stability: the Iranian regime,” the State Department said on Friday, adding Pompeo’s visit to GCC countries is aimed at building support for the US campaign of pressure against Iran.

Needless to say, this news has not been well received in Iran. As reported by PAP, on Sunday the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Polish embassy in Tehran to protest against the conference. The chargé d’affaires, Wojciech Unolt, was told that the decision to host the conference was considered to be to be “an act of hostility towards Iran.” According to the Iranian state agency IRNA, Unolt was also informed that Iran might decide to implement retaliatory measures, although he explained the aim of the conference and said it was not anti-Iranian in nature.

As a first step, the Iranian ministry of culture on Sunday announced the suspension of a Polish film festival planned for later this month in Tehran, which suspension would continue until the Polish authorities show proper behaviour towards Iran. Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister tweeted on Friday: “Reminder to host/participants of anti-Iran conference: those who attended last US anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever. Polish Govt can’t wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus.”

It seems unlikely that the Polish government will be deterred. The Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “Poland considers the Middle East   peace issue as one of the most important challenges for foreign and defence policy. Halting fighting in this conflict-ridden region is a fundamental issue for ensuring global stability and peace.” The Polish foreign ministry said on Sunday that “the international community has the right to discuss various regional and global issues, and Poland [has the right] to co-organise a conference whose goal is to develop a platform for actions promoting stability and prosperity in the Middle East region.”

The hope of Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz is that the US and EU positions on Iran will be brought closer and that the conference will make it possible to build a lasting platform for dialogue. According to him, invitations to the conference have been sent to more than 70 countries, including EU member states and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini.

It is perhaps a sign of Poland’s growing confidence in international affairs that it should have chosen to have venture onto this particular diplomatic minefield so publicly. If the conference is a success, it will underline Poland’s position as an increasingly important diplomatic force within the EU and beyond. Given the differing EU and US positions on Iran, some nimble foot work will be required if Poland is to derive lasting benefit from this particular foray into the fraught world of Middle East politics. Supporting the US may well be in Poland’s long-term interests, but with minefields as with much else in life, successfully to rush in where angels dare to tread, requires great fortitude.

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Change

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” The words of George Bernard Shaw which, since the New Year is often a time of resolutions to change something in one ‘s life, seem as good a place as anywhere to start. And, in the European Union at least, Poland’s prime minister has forecast that this year’s elections to the European parliament will lead to major changes in Brussels.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mateusz Morawiecki said: “Brussels and the European Commission need to be very receptive to what is going on in different countries…..The voice of different counties, and in particular central European countries, will need to be heard much more clearly.” In his view, the institution of the EU needs reform, a view which he said was shared by prime ministers from other EU member states to whom he had spoken: “most of them agree that a serious revamp of procedures and institutions is needed, but everyone is waiting for the European elections.”

Marowiecki also took the opportunity to dismiss as “completely wrong” the suggestion that there was a slide to authoritarianism in central Europe. He repeated the Polish government’s argument that officials in Brussels do not understand the situation in post-communist countries, and that the judicial changes in Poland were necessary to remove the final vestiges of communist influence in the judiciary. Indeed, he went further and compared the controversy that these changes have attracted with the gilets jaunes protests in France which have seen violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

“When I look at what is happening in France, I wouldn’t say that France has an issue with the rule of law, but can you imagine if those brutal interventions would happen against demonstrators in Poland how loud the voices would be in Brussels, in Berlin or … maybe even Paris?” Morawiecki said. He might also have asked, for example, why Brussels appears prepared to take such a sanguine view of France’s expected breach of the requirement for EU member states’ budget deficits do not exceed three per cent of GDP, an example of one rule for certain EU member states and another for others, but I digress.

Of course, many would argue that there is a difference between a police response to civil disturbance, however violent it might have appeared, and a perceived assault – as the EU sees it – on the rule of law itself. The latter has seen the Polish government in conflict with the EU Commission for the last three years. The EU Commission took Poland to the European Court of Justice over the removal of some two dozen supreme court judges last summer. The ECJ ordered Poland to suspend the reform and the judges were re-instated in November.

There remain the wider concerns about other aspects of the judicial reform, such as changes to the functioning of the constitutional tribunal and the body that appoint Polish judges, and so the Article 7 procedure examining whether Poland complies with the EU rule of law values continues. This procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights should, according to Morawiecki, be dropped, since Poland had taken account of the Commission’s concerns about the reforms.

The prime minister said that if the Commission did not withdraw the proceedings it would show that the EU was using the conflict with Poland for political ends. “If they are keeping this open, I believe it is because some people want to politicise this, want to use it as an argument in a political campaign before the European parliament elections, and this is very dangerous,” he said.

Be that as it may, the forthcoming EU elections present another dilemma for Poland. Law and Justice (PiS) currently sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists group, the third largest in the European parliament with 73 MEPs, but the ECR is unlikely to survive when British Conservative party members leave once the UK exits the EU. One new home for PiS could be the European People’s Party, which already has Hungary’s prime minister’s Fidesz party in its ranks, Although Viktor Orban is seen as supporter of PiS, the EPP is also home to Poland’s main opposition party, the Civic Platform, which rules out PiS membership.

Thus, the significance of a meeting between PiS party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, to take place in Warsaw on Wednesday to discuss, as reported by Italian daily la Repubblica, Poland’s membership in Salvini’s new European parliament group. Salvini has already persuaded French and Dutch far-right parties, the National Rally (formerly known as National Front) and the Party for Freedom (PVV), to join. If PiS, and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, were to join the group, it could have 140 MEPs or so, making it the third largest in the European parliament.

Whatever happens, it seems that 2019 will indeed be a year of change, but whether also one of progress remains to be seen. Happy New Year!

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Optimism

“Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” The words of Voltaire, which seem to be a rather pessimistic way of looking at optimism. Indeed, dare one say it, an almost Polish approach to optimism, where folk sometimes seem at their happiest dwelling on misfortune.  But I jest, because a recent survey suggests that Poles are more optimistic than pessimistic – at least for now.

According to a survey conducted by CBOS between November 29 and December 9 on a representative group of 942 adult respondents, 47 per cent of Poles are optimistic that the country is moving in the right direction, while 36 per cent are pessimistic about the future. Compared to a similar survey a month ago, the proportion of optimists had shrunk by 6 percentage points, and the number of pessimists risen by 7 points. The number of Poles who think the economy is doing well decreased by four percentage points over the same period.

Back to normal then. Yet there are reasons for optimism, particularly on the economic front. For example, average wages in Poland rose 7.7 per cent in November compared with November 2017, the Central Statistical Office (GUS) announced on Tuesday, with the average Polish monthly wage in November being PLN 4,966.61 (EUR 1,158, USD 1,317). And, based on employers with more than nine employees, employment in Polish businesses increased by three per cent over the year. Overall, unemployment was 5.8 per cent in November, having been at a new 28-year low of 5.7 percent in September.

Industrial production grew by 4.7 per cent in November compared with same month last year, GUS announced on Wednesday, although some 3.6 per cent lower than in October. Output in the construction and assembly sector rose by 17.1 per cent in November on a year on year basis, and 0.3 per cent on a month on month basis. A total of 163,800 new homes were completed in the first 11 months of this year, 2.5 per cent more than in the same period in 2017.

From which it will come as no surprise that the Polish economy is expected to grow by over five per cent this year. According to said Piotr Arak, director of the Polish Economic Institute. “This year was better in terms of the economy than many people and institutions expected,” with both private consumption and public investment having driven growth.

As announced by GU S at the end of last month, the Polish economy grew by   5.1 per cent in the third quarter of this year, prompting Enterprise and Technology MinisterJadwiga Emilewicz to say at the time that macroeconomic data indicates Poland has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union. She added that Poland had stable growth fundamentals, with domestic consumption remaining high and investment figures encouraging.

The public finances are also in good shape. The Polish finance minister said on Tuesday that both the budget deficit and debt are shrinking on the back of efforts to ensure spending discipline and growing tax revenue. “We are maintaining discipline in government expenditure and high growth in tax revenue, thanks to which we are consistently reducing the budget deficit and debt,” Teresa Czerwińska said, as quoted by Poland’s PAP news agency. She said that after the first 11 months of the year, Poland’s budget showed a surplus which was higher than a month earlier. Czerwińska told the PAP news agency that Poland was on track to end 2018 with a general government deficit of around 0.5 per cent of GDP. “Step by step we are building sustainable public finances,” she said.

All of which are reasons for genuine optimism, especially if one looks at what’s happening elsewhere, particularly the UK, where the latest fall-out from the Brexit uncertainty is the projection that the UK’s GDP will fall from fifth to seventh in the world. There may be clouds on the horizon, economic and geo-political, but perhaps, in this season of goodwill, we might end on an optimistic note and look positively to the future.

Thank you for reading in 2018; please continue to do so in 2019. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

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Flexible

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Words attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu which, while obviously true when applied to water’s ability to erode rocks over time, bespeak of a flexibility largely absent – perhaps understandably so – from the Brexit negotiations. With the constant talk of red lines, non-negotiable principles, respecting the will of the people, and the like, it was never going to be straight forward to reconcile the irreconcilable: all the advantages of membership of the European Union with all the advantages of non-membership. Nevertheless, as the Brexit journey reaches a critical point, the Polish foreign minister has urged the EU to take a flexible approach.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Jacek Czaputowicz told reporters that Poland was advocating “a certain measure of flexibility” since a no-deal Brexit – so beloved of some in the UK – would be the “worst solution”, not just for the UK but for the almost one million Poles who work and live in the UK. This comes as British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday postponed a parliamentary vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the EU since, as May herself told the House of Commons, she wished to avoid a situation where “the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.”

May told the Commons that she would return to Brussels to seek more concessions while the European Commission said it did not intend to renegotiate the agreement, albeit that it might explore ways of helping Parliament to ratify the deal, whatever that means. The simple fact of the matter is that May has managed to come up with a withdrawal agreement that satisfies nobody except, perhaps, the EU. While all rational thinkers might have expected the deal to offer worse terms than membership, the withdrawal agreement, all 585 pages of it, seems not only to reduce the benefits available to the UK, but also to impose additional restrictions and, potentially, financial commitments. And as a binding international treaty, it commits the UK neither to heaven nor hell but perpetual purgatory, the escape from which would be wholly in the gift of the EU. No wonder everybody from ardent leavers to committed remainers is against it.

So where next? That depends on whether common sense prevails. While it is noble that Parliament does indeed feel the need – against its better judgement – to respect the will of the people as manifest in the result of the referendum in 2016, as circumstances change, so must one’s opinions. For anybody brought up in the British parliamentary tradition with its emphasis on genuine democratic accountability, something seemingly absent from most continental European systems, the EU has always been problematic. And it is no answer to say economic well-being should always trump democratic considerations, or you end up with some totalitarian system: rampant crony capitalism with little real freedom – China perhaps.

Be that as it may, one has to start from where one actually is rather than from where one would like to be. And, after 45 years in the EU and its predecessor manifestations, leaving was always going to be a complex task with questionable immediate benefits for either side. Of course, the Germans will continue to wish to sell us their cars and the French their wine, but the relationship is more complicated than finished good. Supply chains and just in time manufacturing mean that parts cross borders many times before the finished goods do. Interrupt that and the Germans will continue to sell us their cars, but they may simply decide not to build them in the UK. Which has an impact on the livelihoods of many folk, for whom the realisation that a no-deal Brexit, however attractive in economic laboratory conditions, may take a generation from which to recover is cold comfort, however they voted.

No wonder that over 61 per cent of Poles, according to a survey by IBRiS, believe that Brexit will have a negative impact on Poland. According to the survey, 10 per cent of respondents said Brexit could be beneficial for Poland, over 15 per cent said it would have no effect on Poland, while 13 per cent were undecided. This despite that fact that the withdrawal agreement includes, according to Polish Radio’s IAR news agency the two most important points for Poland: guarantees of EU citizens’ rights in the UK after Brexit, and a pledge that the UK will continue to contribute to the EU budget after Britain leaves.

So, to answer my question: tear up the withdrawal agreement and start again. The European Court of Justice helpfully ruled on Monday that the UK is free to withdraw the article 50 notice unilaterally before 29thMarch 2019. There is a better deal to be done for the long-term advantage of UK than those who advocate either a scorched earth Brexit or perpetual vassalage, a false dichotomy if ever there were one.

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