Nicholas Richardson
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No to the Euro

“If its anything I can’t stand, it’s yes men.  When I say no, I want you to say no, too.” Words attributed to studio mogul Jack L. Warner, which might be seized upon, without a trace of irony, by any leader wishing to galvanize his supporters. Especially if the no is directed against a body with whom you are no stranger to disagreement.

Thus, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) said on Saturday, as reported by Reuters, that Poland should say ‘no’ to the euro and only adopt the common currency when its economy is as big as Germany’s. He was speaking at a PiS convention in Lublin, eastern Poland, ahead of the European Union election in May, which many consider to be a test both for PiS and the opposition parties ahead of the general election be held in Poland in October.

“We say ‘no’ to the euro, ‘no’ to European prices,” Kaczynski said. “We will adopt the euro someday, because we are committed to do so and we are and will be in the European Union, but we will accept it when it is in our interest.” “It will be in our interest when we reach a level very close to Germany (in) GDP level, standard of living.” Poland is obliged under its EU accession commitments to join the euro zone at some point.

While PiS has in the past said that Poland should not hurry to join the euro, it is repeating that argument now to attract more support for the upcoming elections. Most Poles do support Poland’s membership of the EU although they are less keen on the euro, according to opinion polls. For example, an opinion poll by pollster IBRIS for private radio station ZET showed on Saturday that PiS has the backing of 38.7 per cent of the electorate, while the European Coalition has 36.2 per cent.

The European Coalition comprises the leading opposition parties, including the Civic Platform, which came together earlier this year to fight the elections to the European parliament as a single opposition block. The Coalition has not publicly declared its policy on joining the euro, although it is widely seen as taking a more positive stance than PiS. Civic Platform has said Poland needs a debate on adopting the euro.

Be that as it may, Poland’s government does face a dilemma. As reported by Bloomberg, the economy is one of the EU’s fastest-growing – GDP grew 5 per cent last year and is on track to grow about 4 per cent in 2019 – yet the budget deficit is set to jump from 0.5. per cent of GDP in 2018 to close to the EU’s 3 per cent of gross ceiling in 2020, largely as a result of the economic programme to win voter support.

To teachers on strike over salaries – which strike does seem to enjoy a degree of popular support notwithstanding the inconvenience to parents – the government’s response has been to say, in the words of prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, that it has “exhausted” its room for manoeuvre. This after the programmes aimed at its core electorate of families, pensioners and farmers, to whom it’s now offering subsidies for livestock, albeit with the declared expectation that the EU will provide the funds for its “bovine 500+” scheme.

As Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University puts it: “For many, the message is clear – government has cash to throw at cattle and pigs but nothing for teachers”. “This may impact elections”, she said.

To put this in context, the teachers demanded salary increases worth 17 billion zloty a year before PiS announced a package worth 40 billion zloty for people with children and the elderly, which was followed by the farm proposal. The government shows no signs of backing down, although its negative campaign against teachers is seen as risky by some commentators.

The suggestion last month that teachers might share in government largesse by having more children doesn’t really seem to be the answer. “Teachers aren’t required to live in celibacy,” said Krzysztof Szczerski, who runs the office of President Andrzej Duda. “Payments for Polish families are also available for them.”

All governments face spending dilemmas in the need to balance competing interest groups, but in so doing they need to be seen to be acting fairly. The problem is to overcome the suggestion, as George Orwell identified, that: “All the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

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Coincidence

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” The words of Albert Einstein. And whether or not God chooses to remain anonymous, the European Commission Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, does not.  He was hitting back on Sunday at accusations of political bias from Poland’s government, as he campaigned as a candidate for May’s European elections.

On Wednesday, wearing his EU Commission hat, Timmermans had announced that the commission was taking fresh action against Poland over the government’s judicial reforms. In particular, he said, the new disciplinary regime for judges would have a “chilling effect” on judicial independence. On Thursday, Jarosław Sellin, a deputy culture minister in the Law and Justice (PiS) government, accused Timmermans of playing politics by launching the new infringement procedure ahead of the elections to the European parliament which take place in Poland on 26thMay.

Timmermans dismissed the accusations in comments he made to reporters in Warsaw Sunday, as reported by AFP.  ”There is no link whatsoever even though the Polish government pretends this is linked to the elections,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the election.” “It is clear from all evidence that the way the new disciplinary measures work, it has a chilling effect on Polish judges, so it intimidates them,” Timmermans added.

As Timmermans would no doubt agree, justice must be done and manifestly seen to be done and not, as is alas, all too often the case, seen to be believed. And herein lies a slight difficulty. While the Commission’s action against Poland is no doubt wholly separate from Timmermans’s own political views, and the fact that he was speaking at a joint press conference with Robert Biedron, the leader of Poland’s new progressive Spring party at a campaign event for the European elections was no doubt a coincidence, it does allow others to take a less charitable view.

On Thursday, Sellin said of Timmermans: “He has a political interest in it because he is in the heat of the election campaign,” the Polish PAP news agency reported. “He wants to be the chief European commissioner on behalf of the socialists, he fights for this position and wants to renew his mandate.” Appearing in Warsaw on a platform with an opposition party leader was thus grist to PiS’s mill.

And, of course, this is but the latest salvo in the battle between EU and the PiS government over the latter’ extensive reforms which it insists are needed to tackle corruption and to reform a judicial system still haunted by the communist era. The EU has already launched unprecedented proceedings against Poland under article 7 of the EU treaty over “systemic threats” to the rule of law that could ultimately see its voting rights in the EU suspended. In fact, suspension seems unlikely since all the other 27 EU member states would have to agree and Hungary, also under the same procedure, has said it will veto such a move.

Timmermans aside, those bastions of EU propriety, France and Germany, also expressed concern, as reported by Reuters, over the independence of Polish courts at a meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday, supporting the EU Commission view  that the new disciplinary system for judges, is intended to intimidate them into sentencing in line with the wishes of the ruling party.  “We hope that the infringement procedure launched by the European Commission last week regarding the new disciplinary regime for judges will allow some improvements, in particular regarding the right to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial court,” a Franco-German statement said.

“We want to seize the opportunity … to stress, once again, our concerns regarding the overall situation created by the reform of the judiciary system in Poland,” the joint statement said.  “In our view, the combined effect of the legislative changes could put at risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland”. Concerns over the rule of law in Poland that led to the launch of the Article 7 procedure had not been completely and properly addressed, it continued. “We reaffirm our support to the Commission in this regard… In view of the recent developments, we propose to hold a new session of the hearing of Poland after the European elections … in June.”

It seems that this saga will run and run. The Polish government has always maintained that the reforms are necessary, and that the EU does not understand Polish circumstances, the EU countering that, in effect, it understands only too well and knows a breach of EU principles when it sees one. In such a climate, some coincidences are just too convenient.

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Poland’s Future

“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” Words attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, which may or may not have been in the mind of Poland’s prime minister as he spoke about the future on Sunday.

Mateusz Morawiecki, and Elżbieta Rafalska, the labour and social policy minister, were visiting Puławy and attending an event to promote the government’s 500+ programme, which gives families with two or more children a payment of PLN 500 (EUR 116, USD 130) a month per child. According to the prime minister, the child benefit programme is an investment in the nation’s future. “Not only does the programme help parents across the country, but it also benefits the state as a whole. “With this programme, Poland is changing beyond recognition,” Morawiecki said.

The prime minister said that the payments “have created a new space for the development” of Polish children and young people and for the entire country. Morawiecki said that the government would not abandon or reduce the programme in the years ahead.  For her part, Rafalska said the “Family 500+” initiative was benefiting more than 3.6 million children nationwide, adding that payments to parents have totalled PLN 67 billion (EUR 15.5 billion, USD 17.5 billion) since the programme was launched on April 1, 2016.

Indeed, far from reducing the programme, the plan is to be extended to include all single-child families regardless of income, rather than being restricted to poorer families as at present. This extension is part of a package of measures dubbed the “Kaczyński Five” after Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who announced the package at a party convention last month.

Of course, for children to be the future they need to be properly educated, which is why the government resumed talks on Monday with teachers in an attempt to avert a teachers’ strike over pay which is scheduled to begin on 8thApril, just before pupils at various levels face important examinations.

After the meeting, the deputy prime minister, Beata Szydło said that four out of the five points offered by the government had been agreed upon by both sides. However, the chairman of the teacher’s union, Sławomir Broniarz, said it was too early discuss suspending the strike decision. Talks were to be continued on Tuesday.

The Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) wants the government to increase teachers’ wages by PLN 1,000 (EUR 230, USD 265) a month. In response, the education ministry has said that last year it began carrying out a government plan to raise pay and that spending on teachers’ salaries is set to increase by 16.1 per cent by September compared with March last year.

The Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper last week quoted a survey according to which more than six in ten Poles are against teachers striking at a time of important school exams, although respondents to the survey by pollster IBRiS said they were convinced teachers would eventually secure the pay rise they are demanding from the government.

Certainly, teachers’ salaries, like many in the public sector in Poland, are very low, with minimum gross monthly salaries ranging from PLN 2538 to PLN 3483 depending on qualifications. Over ninety per cent of teachers fall within this category. The average gross monthly salary in Poland in February was PLN 4,949.42 (EUR 1,153). Hardly the best way to invest in the future of the nation, to attract and retain the quality of teachers needed to produce the educated citizens needed, one might think.

Of course, all public employees are equal, but some are more equal than others; not everyone has friends in high places. Be that as it may, it is a great shame, and not only in Poland, that those who do essential work – teachers, nurses and so on – are often taken for granted and undervalued. The problem seems especially acute in Poland where salaries in general, and public sector salaries in particular, are far below comparable salaries in the more westerly EU member states.

And therein lies the danger. With free movement folk increasingly have a choice – a choice which Poles have not been slow to exercise – to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Rome might not have been built in a day, but it was built on solid foundations.  The challenge for the Polish government is choosing those policies that build the best home for the children, Poland’s future, and in which they are happy to dwell.

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Step by Step

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The words attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which at least have the merit of being as self-evidently true as they are simple, and of universal application. Thus, may the decision announced by NATO on Saturday about storing military equipment here be seen as the potential first step towards a permanent US base in Poland, or merely an unrelated happy coincidence?

On 23rd March, NATO confirmed that it plans to establish a storage facility in Poland for US military equipment. The facility, which will cost $260 million and be located in Powidz, some 200 km (120 miles) west of Warsaw, will house armoured vehicles, ammunition and weapons for a brigade. The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that work on the site will begin this summer and take two years to complete.

Stoltenberg said that the storage facility would help “underpin the increased U.S. presence in Poland.” Poland has been lobbying hard for a greater US military presence in the country beyond the 5,000 American troops that are already stationed here on a rotational basis as part of NATO operations, with the suggestion that a permanent base be created – for which Poland has offered to pay – dubbed “Fort Trump”, doubtless as a way of appealing to the current US president’s ego.

Secretary General Stoltenberg also said NATO will complete some 250 other infrastructure projects across Europe by 2021 which are designed to increase the capacity of airports, harbours, railways, and roads to handle heavy equipment. These are all part of NATO’s stepping up its defences in the face of increased Russian assertiveness, especially increasing defences along the eastern flank in response to Russia’s annexing of Crimea in 2014 and its role in the continuing conflict in Ukraine.

Since then, battlegroups have been deployed on a rotating basis in the three Baltic states and Poland and NATO has launched an overhaul of its command structure and is working to improve the speed at which it is able to move troops and equipment around Europe in case of incursion. This practice of pre-positioning equipment in strategic locations is also designed make it easier to deploy resources quickly in a crisis.

Maintaining close military and other ties with the US, going beyond NATO membership, is a key element of Poland’s foreign and security policy. Last month Poland agreed to buy American mobile rocket launchers worth $414 million, and a year ago signed a $4.75 billion contract for the US-made Patriot anti-missile system.

Another long-running issue, and a reason for staying close to the US, is that of Poland’s becoming part of the US Visa Waiver programme. The US ambassador to Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, in an interview with Polsat News on Thursday, said she was working to make Poland part of the US Visa Waiver Program by the time she leaves her post in Warsaw, if not by the end of this year. During a visit to Warsaw last month, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo said he hoped visa requirements for Poles traveling to the US would be revoked “soon.” “There are a set of requirements that we have in place. Poland is getting closer and closer”, Pompeo said.

The threshold for a country to enter the US Visa Waiver Programme is a three per cent application refusal rate. According to the US State Department, American consulates in Warsaw and Kraków in 2017 rejected 5.9 per cent of visa applications submitted by Poles, up from a record low of 5.37 per cent in 2016. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia are the only EU member states not included in the US Visa Waiver Programme.

It is hard to see any Polish government pursuing a different policy. Unyielding the US may appear, especially on the visa issue, and however small the rewards to date for Poland’s unceasing support of the US, including taking part in military operations in the Middle east, there is for Poland little realistic alternative, from a security point of view, of staying close to the US. Not every member of NATO is as committed to meeting its obligations as Poland. Given its geography and history, this “NAT0 plus” approach seems sensible and realistic as, step by step, Poland seeks to achieve long-term security.

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Global Peace

“Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.” The words of George Washington, first president of the United States and a soldier, so somebody who might be expected to know a thing or two about war and peace.  And when it comes to cultivating peace and harmony with all, Poland is ready to share responsibility for global peace and security.

Speaking in the Polish parliament on Wednesday, the foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said: “Poland stands ready to share responsibility for peace and security in Europe and beyond, in the spirit of the 360 degree approach.” He added that “to defend allied territory, Polish troops are present in Latvia and Romania as part of NATO forces, while Polish aircraft police the skies over Lithuania.”

Delivering his annual foreign policy speech, Czaputowicz told deputies that Poland is also helping to combat terrorism and address the causes of migration beyond NATO, through activities in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Mediterranean and Africa. “Furthermore, we are part of military operations of the Global Coalition against Daesh, and of NATO’s training missions in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Qatar,” he said. Some 1,500 Polish soldiers are currently stationed abroad, standing as “an example of solidarity with our allies,” Czaputowicz said. “Their commitment is helping to maintain peace in the world, and it is making our country safer”.

Moving to the priorities for Polish foreign policy over the year ahead, Caputowicz said that “today Poland is an active country whose voice is being heard, and a country that commands growing respect among its foreign partners.” And in this area, “our overriding aim must be to restore the EU’s full and unquestionable legitimacy, to win back voters’ trust in European institutions, and to restore their ability to solve people’s real problems,” Czaputowicz said.

The foreign minister warned that the European project was under threat from populist movements on both the left and the right. “We consider these threats as a symptom of the crisis Europe is going through, not as its cause. The EU institutions should operate on the basis of powers set out in the treaties and pursue objectives that advance [the interests of] all the members.”

“We are in favour of a strong EU, enjoying the support of the countries and nations that are part of it, an EU that contributes to the economic growth and prosperity of its societies and supports equalising the living standards of citizens of all member states,” the minister said. For Czaputowicz, “by taking care of Europe’s future, we are also looking out for Poland’s interests.”

And the priorities for relations with the United States include the continued efforts to expand the US military presence in Poland (please see Historic), the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank, and joint security and defence projects, including enhancing energy security cooperation. Polish-US energy cooperation should make Poland less dependent on Russian gas and he said that Poland, like the US, will consistently oppose the Nord Steam 2 project.

By supplying the Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing eastern EU member states, the project is seen as a threat to the region’s and the EU’s energy security. A major part of Russian gas is currently exported via Ukraine. It would be possible once Nord Stream 2 is operational to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine, while leaving those to western Europe undisturbed. The situation to the east of Poland remains a challenge for Poland, he said and noted Russia’s continuing aggressive policy against Ukraine

Other issues tackled in Cazputowicz’s speech included Brexit, Polish-Israeli relations, relations with France and Germany, including renewing cooperation via the Weimar Triangle. He also stressed the role played regional cooperation as an element of European integration, through the Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), the Three Seas Initiative (countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas), and the Bucharest Nine (Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria).

In the conclusion to his speech, Czaputowicz appealed for cross-party cooperation in foreign policy, stating that “the country’s foreign policy is a national, and not a party matter.” And that is the point. Perhaps not going quite so far as Lord Palmerston, that nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests, Poland’s foreign policy appear to have a coherence which, leaving aside the current manages realistically to balance a response to historical threats with current opportunities and long-term security.

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Historic

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” The words of Thomas Jefferson which have particular resonance in this part of the world where the history of the past is all too often, among politicians at least, apt to be a distraction from the dreams of the future. But not always, as we think of one celebration of the recent past which does realise a dream of the past, present and future.

Thus, Poland marks the twentieth anniversary of joining NATO, something which Poland’s president Duda described as historic. Speaking during a visit to the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, the president said: “Poland joining the alliance finally confirmed Poland’s sovereignty and independence, as well as its departure from the Russian sphere of influence and entrance to the Western geopolitical zone”.

A day earlier, prime ministers and defence ministers from Poland, the Czech, Hungary, and Slovakia, the countries which make up the Visegrad Group (V4) met soldiers from the 1st Armoured Brigade in Warsaw. During the meeting, the Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that “today we cannot imagine NATO without our countries.”

“We are supporting each other, and we make up a community, which guarantees safety”. He also said that the troops from the 1st Armoured Brigade in Warsaw are soon to be deployed to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki added that over the last 20 year, the V4 countries have proven to be valuable members of the alliance. Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini said during the event in Warsaw that joining NATO was for his country “the highest security guarantee.” He added: “Our strength is the ability to discuss our differences and finding common answers to challenges”.

On Tuesday the celebrations moved to Prague, where the presidents of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were to attend an event at Prague Castle. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, the Czech Republic’s Miloš Zeman and Hungary’s János Áder were expected to be joined by President Andrej Kiska of Slovakia, whose country joined NATO five years later than the others in 2004.

And there is cause for celebration. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Warsaw in early March: “We are very grateful for the contribution Poland makes to NATO every day”. “Poland is a very committed ally, an ally which is contributing to our shared security, to our collective defence in many different ways,” Stoltenberg added. “And that’s something which we really welcome.”

Poland is one of the few members meeting the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence, participates in NATO foreign missions, such as in Afghanistan, and enthusiastically welcomes the presence on NATO troops in Poland. Indeed, it goes further and is actively lobbying for a permanent US base to be established in Poland as an enhancement of its security beyond the current rotating NATO battalions, introduced in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

It is this perceived threat from Russia, which inevitably opposed Poland’s accession to NATO, which motivates Poland to continue to look beyond NATO membership as the achievement of a strategic goal, and to the United States as a security guarantor. The permanent US base is but the latest step in a policy of staying close to the US which began with Poland’s being in 2003 one of the few European countries, along with the United Kingdom and Spain, to send troops to participate in the US-led war in Iraq.

As far as “Fort Trump” is concerned, according to a 2018 document entitled “Proposal for a permanent US presence in Poland” which was sent to US government officials, members of Congress, and Washington think tanks, Poland is seeking a US tank division to be based here for which it is prepared to spend up to $2 billion (€ 1.77 billion) to achieve.

For critics of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, which expresses ideological sympathies with US president Trump, this effort to increase the US presence in Poland is a frolic of the party’s own. Others think that such a project should take place within the NATO framework, rather than bilaterally. But that is to miss the point. At a time when many NATO members are less than whole-hearted in their defence commitments and their effective operational readiness – for example, Germany – and when the US is questioning their perceived failure to contribute adequately, it does make sense for Poland to seek something more.

In the event of an attack on Poland, the presence of US troops would no doubt make Washington think twice about hesitating to implement the security guarantees of the NATO treaty. From the government that introduced the 500+ programme to help families, the “NATO+” programme to help security is not such a bad idea.

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Defiance

“While politicians may be forgiven for failing to predict the future – who can, alas? – it is amazing that they defiantly ignore the past.” The words of novelist Michael Korda which, while they seem to apply in general, perhaps apply less in particular to the politicians of Poland, where the past is seldom ignored even though it is not always remembered in the same way by all.

One subject on which there does seem to be general agreement is the need to be wary of Russian intentions, whether by lobbying for a permanent US military presence in Poland or substituting LNG imports for Russian gas supplies, for example. Thus, the latest potential environmental flashpoint between Poland and the EU, the proposed canal across the Vistula Spit, a heavily wooded sandbank on the Baltic coast. The Spit, 55 km long and under 2 km wide, is, with the coastal lagoon it encloses, shared between Poland and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

At present, the only access from the lagoon to the Baltic Sea is via a channel at the Russian end of the Spit. Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS), which is deeply distrustful of Russia, says that the proposed canal, which is estimated to cost PLN 900 million, is needed for both security and economic reasons. PiS says the canal will turn Elblag, a small port with a high unemployment rate, into one of Poland’s biggest harbours, along with Gdansk and Szczecin, as more vessels will use it. “Elblag citizens support the project. What kind of port is it if it does not have access to the sea?”, said Witold Wroblewski, the mayor of Elblag.

As reported by Reuters, Poland’s minister for maritime affairs, Marek Grobarczyk, said: “The first and basic reason for the construction … is a threat from the east.”  Russia has deployed advances Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. “This is the border of the EU, NATO, and above all of Poland, and it cannot really be controlled now because ships can only enter the Vistula Lagoon with Russia’s approval,” he said. According to him, work will start in the second half of 2019.

For critics this is a costly vanity project with same potential for conflict with EU as the increased logging in the Bialowieza Forest which the European Court Justice ruled was illegal. Indeed, an EU official said on Friday that Poland should not build the canal before the European Commission approves the project since the Spit, like the Bialowieza Forest, is protected under EU Natura 2000 programme. “The Commission services will assess the additional information provided by the Polish authorities and the technical discussions will continue,” the official said. “Pending a final Commission decision … no works should be undertaken.” Preliminary logging has, however, already taken place.

Environmentalists say that it is difficult to predict the impact of the canal on local wildlife and according to Michal Goc, a biologist from Gdańsk university, “There is no species that will benefit from the project.” Jolanta Kwiatkowska from the mayor’s office in Krynica Morska, a town that will be cut off on what will become a Polish-Russian Island after the canal is cut, said that residents are worried that tourism will be affected since it is not clear what will happen to the beaches.

Vanity project or strategic necessity? Environmental degradation or economic rejuvenation? It is understandable that when it comes to their eastern neighbour, Polish politicians cannot ignore the past, but does this canal represent the best prediction of the future?

Given the proximity of the major ports of Gdańsk and Gdynia, it seems unlikely that the need for the canal is being driven by purely economic needs. Not, of course, that the needs of the local economy should be dismissed. Nor, from a purely military point of view, does it seem likely that the lagoon would be of major strategic naval significance.

Be that as it may, symbols matter in politics. Last year, Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, said the canal project demonstrates “that the times when the Russians dictated to us what we can and what we cannot do on our territory are over.” He added that the canal was a demonstration of Polish sovereignty. When you are determined not to ignore the past, the present is more important than the future.

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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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