Nicholas Richardson
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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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Climate Change

“Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” The words of Sir David Attenborough, speaking on Monday at the opening ceremony of the United Nations-sponsored climate talks being held in Katowice in Poland. The 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP24, runs until 14thDecember.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, told delegates from almost 200 countries that climate change was already “a matter of life and death” for many countries. He said that the world is “nowhere near where it needs to be” on the transition to a low-carbon economy. “Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.” But, the UN Secretary-General said, the conference was an effort to “right the ship” and he would convene a climate summit next year to discuss next steps. The solution to every problem is always one summit away it seems.

And, apart from hosting the conference, where is Poland in all this? Speaking at the opening ceremony President Andrzej Duda said that Poland was “ready to take its share of responsibility for international security,” including in terms of climate policy. Duda said that Poland, at present marking the centenary of its recovered independence, was “actively working for peaceful cooperation between states, based on the principles of observance of international law, equality, solidarity and mutual respect.”

This COP is the first to be held since the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C came out in October. The IPCC stated that to keep to the 1.5C goal, governments would have to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 45% by 2030. But a UN Emissions gap report 2018 showed that CO2 emissions are actually rising again after being relatively stable for four years.

According to reports on Polish Radio, the conference aims to adopt a road map for putting into practice the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which seeks to slow climate change. Heads of state attending the conference were expected to be asked to adopt a Declaration on Just Transition drafted by the Polish government to ensure a fair and solidarity-based transformation amid efforts to protect the climate while maintaining economic development and jobs.

Needless to say, you can’t please everyone all the time, and the fact that COP24 is taking place in a strong coal region in a city that is home to the largest coal company in the EU, troubles some government negotiators and observers alike. So much for preaching the gospel of carbon reduction amongst the unfaithful, then, and attempting to persuade them of the error of their ways.

For its part, the Polish government said that it will stick with coal and that it is planning to invest in the construction of a new coal mine in Silesia next year. As Andrzej Duda said in his opening remarks, coal “does not contradict the protection of the climate and the progress of climate protection.” But there’s more. As Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law, said, “unfortunately, this week’s announcement by the Polish presidency that it will include coal companies as sponsors of the COP sends a very worrisome signal before the conference even begins”. Polish Deputy Environment Minister, Michał Kurtyka, took over the presidency of the UN climate summit on Sunday.

And in a move that some may consider beyond parody, the Polish government also decided to deck the halls of the exhibition centre with piles of coal. As delegates entered the hall, escaping the sweet air of Katowice, fragrant with smell of coal, they were greeted by a band of coal miners. Since 78 per cent of its power comes from coal, Poland has a vested interest in keeping it alive from both an economic and a political standpoint. But this particular tide of history may be turning against Poland – science would suggest that burning coal is no longer viable.

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Aggression

“Our capacity to retaliate must be, and is, massive in order to deter all forms of aggression.” The words of John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State under president Eisenhower, who concentrated on building and strengthening Cold War alliances, especially NATO. Different times, different measures perhaps, but the problem of aggression has not gone away. And the capacity to retaliate must extend beyond men and matérielbut also include the necessary will power. Thus, the question of how to deal with the latest Russian aggression against Ukraine which saw three Ukrainian naval vessels fired on and seized by Russia near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and divides Crimea from Russia.

Polish deputy prime minister Piotr Gliński said: “We cannot allow any manifestations of aggression, especially from a country which has behaved aggressively before in recent years and a country that borders Poland.” And in a statement on its website, the Polish foreign ministry wrote: “We strongly condemn Russia’s aggressive actions and call on its authorities to respect international law. We urge both sides to show restraint in the current situation, which may pose a threat to the stability of European security.”

Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s defence minister, said on Monday that there are no signs that a naval stand-off between Ukraine and Russia does pose an increased threat to Poland. He also told a news conference that he had instructed military commanders and state agency chiefs “to monitor the situation on a continuing basis and to report continually on how it develops.” Since both Ukraine and Russia are Poland’s neighbours, Błaszczak said that “what is happening in eastern Ukraine also affects the situation in Poland”.

Ukrainian president Poroshenko has held telephone talks with Polish president Andrzej Duda about the crisis, according to Krzysztof Szczerski, the latter’s chief foreign policy adviser. “We believe that stepping up the sanctions regime against Russia should be considered and discussed with allies internationally,” he said, as quoted by public broadcaster Polish Radio’s IAR news agency.

Russia’s FSB security service said that the Ukrainian ships had entered Russian territorial waters illegally, and a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry has accused the Ukrainian authorities of “provocation.” This seems unlikely. The Ukrainian ships were entitled to be there, and a 2003 treaty guarantees the rights of both nations to use those waters.

So far, so typical. But to what end? The war between Russia and Ukraine continues in the background, albeit that few seem to remember, so it probably serves Putin to remind folk that the occupation of Crimea is not going to end soon. It may also be that it serves as a useful diversion from Russian domestic politics where there have been protests against the changes to the pension laws in Russia and a frustration with the lacklustre economy.

Above all, Putin probably did it simply because he can. The UK, a staunch supporter of sanctions against Russia, is distracted with the continuing negotiations over its withdrawal from the EU and the United States has also taken its eye off the ball, with president Trump potentially facing an investigation into his own past dealings with Russia. Poland managed to publish its official condemnation of Russian aggression long before the US reacted, with the US ambassador to the United Nations’ denunciation of Russia’s “outlaw actions” coming many hours after other statements, the US State Department still not by then having commented. A man with a plan, however weak he may be, will always beat a stronger opponent if the latter is disorganised. Putin presumably counts on this and, until Russia is faced with something rather more effective than ritual condemnation and angry tweets, this particular conflict is likely to rumble on for some time, alas.

Be that as it may, and although nobody is actually yet advocating military action against Russia, the incident does make one wonder whether an EU army would be any more of a deterrent.  The answer must be a resounding no. Those siren voices advocating this seem blind to the dangers of a weakened NATO, whose strength lies largely in the massive US military contribution which, if turned his direction, is the one thing that would give Putin pause for thought. An EU army, without US capabilities, and representing countries, some of whom are neutral, is unlikely to deter Russia. Nordstream 2anybody?

Indeed, one imagines that Putin would be delighted to see NATO weakened in this way, a point not lost on Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “We would like Europe as a whole to strengthen its military potential,” Morawiecki said in a TVP Info interview from Brussels, “but at the same time today we emphasize that the only real guarantor of security in Europe, including the eastern flank of NATO, is the US.” He is not wrong.

And finally, on a separate note, this is my 300th blog post. When I started, I did not expect something I created for my own amusement to continue for so many years, but I am glad it has.  Thank you to all those who are kind enough to say you like these pieces. Your encouragement means much.

 

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Accusation

“Though the bribe be small, yet the fault is great.” The words of Edward Coke, the great Elizabethan jurist. How much greater, then, the fault if the bribe be big? For that is the question potentially facing the Polish government as it is alleged that the head of Poland’s financial supervision authority (KNF) solicited a bribe from a private bank.

On Tuesday newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that Leszek Czarnecki, the owner of Getin Noble Bank, had alleged that Marek Chrzanowski had offered him favourable treatment in return for about PLN 40 million (EUR 9.3 million, USD 10.5 million). The KNF denied that Chrzanowski had made such an offer and claimed that the report by Gazeta Wyborcza was untrue. In a statement, the KNF said Chrzanowski had “taken legal steps in connection with false accusations put forward by Mr. Czarnecki and in connection with defamation” which it claimed was aimed at undermining public trust in the head of the KNF.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki demanded an immediate explanation from the KNF president, and directed the country’s prosecutors and state agencies to “promptly gather information” on the matter, his chief of staff told Polish radio station RMF FM on Tuesday. Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, said that “there will be no leniency” if the allegations against Chrzanowski proved to be true. Chrzanowski resigned, while insisting that he had done nothing wrong.

As reported by theFinancial Times, Czarnecki and Chrzanowski met in the latter’s office on 28th March, which meeting was recorded by Czarnecki. During this meeting, the head of the KNF, according to the deposition which Czarnecki made to prosecutors, was advised to engage a particular lawyer and to pay him over three years a fee which Czarnecki understood to be equal to one per cent of the value of Getin Bank.

The meeting discussed Getin Bank’s financial problems and the fee was to be for “support and confirmation of the procedure of restructuring of the bank, including ensuring protection by KNF.” In the recording the head of the KNF is heard telling Czarnecki: “I don’t know whether that suits you. You can talk with him. However, it seems to me that it is a solution that in a certain way is motivating in the environment in which exists, and we are talking about this institution and restructuring this institution.” Czarnecki said he did not contact the lawyer or pay any money.

A KNF spokesman said that the KNF interprets Czarnecki’s action as an attempt to influence the regulator as he had not immediately notified the prosecutor as he should have done in the case of a justified suspicion that a crime had been committed. Czarnecki explained the delay in reporting the crime – he submitted his deposition to the national prosecutor’s office on 7th November – as being due to his concern about the impact that allegations would have on the bank.

Rather surprisingly, one might think, despite resigning on Tuesday, Marek Chrzanowski spent several hours in the KNF office on Wednesday with possible access to documents that might be of interest to investigators and which hadn’t been yet taken away. Indeed, the fact that the authorities have not yet secured the material is, according to experienced prosecutors who were contacted by RMF24.pl, “scandalous”. “It may be assumed that certain things may get lost,” said one. Be that as it may, on Thursday, Marcin Pachucki was appointed as the acting head of the KNF. Pachucki has been the deputy head of the KNF, responsible for the oversight of Poland’s capital and insurance markets.

Is it a case of there being no smoke without fire, or, as the KNF suggests, an accusation that conveniently coincides with media reports that the regulator may take action in relation to another lender under the control of Mr. Czarnecki? We won’t know for sure until the investigation is concluded, but it is clear that the regulator, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. The integrity of the financial market in Poland, as elsewhere, depends on this. Which is no doubt why the prime minister, a former banker himself, was so quick to act.

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Energy Cooperation

“Whoever thinks that the European economy can be competitive without economic cooperation with Russia, whoever thinks that energy security can exist in Europe without the energy that comes from Russia, is chasing ghosts.” The words of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, not everybody’s first choice for words of wisdom perhaps. Be that as it may, the Polish government, no stranger to chasing ghosts, is pursuing this particular one and, for once, cannot be faulted for so doing.

On Thursday Poland’s state-run gas company PGNiG signed a long-term contract to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States as part of efforts to reduce the dependence on gas from Russia. As reported by Polish Radio’s IAR news agency, the 24-year contract was signed deal with US supplier Cheniere in Warsaw in the presence of Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and US Energy Secretary Rich Perry. Duda said that Poland was interested in diversifying its gas supplies and that talks about the contract began when US President Trump visited Poland last year.

Under this contract, Poland expects to import 29.5 million tonnes, or nearly 40 billion cubic metres, of American LNG over 24 years. PGNiG last month said it had finalised a 20-year contract for the purchase of two million tonnes of LNG from two subsidiaries of the US-based Venture Global LNG company. Poland’s state PAP news agency quoted PGNiG’s CEO Piotr Woźniak as saying that Poland would be paying “20-something per cent” less for US gas than for Russian supplies. Poland uses approximately 17.5 billion cubic metres of gas annually.

This is in keeping with the Safeguarding Freedom, Building Prosperity Through Poland-US Strategic Partnership declaration which presidents Duda and Trump signed at the White House during Duda’s visit to Washington in September. The declaration contains a section on energy whereby Poland and the United States undertake to “enhance cooperation on energy security” and “explore new opportunities stemming from the transformation of energy markets” and to “work to ensure better energy diversification of Europe.” The two countries also agreed to “continue to coordinate” their “efforts to counter energy projects that threaten our mutual security, such as Nord Stream 2.”

Indeed, as a follow-up to that declaration, on Thursday in Warsaw Rick Perry and Polish energy minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski signed a joint declaration on enhanced energy security cooperation. This second declaration covers the security of gas supplies, the development of nuclear energy and cyber security support. Rich Perry had been due to visit Poland’s LNG terminal at Świnoujście until the weather intervened.

Speaking in Warsaw instead to launch the US-Poland strategic energy dialogue he re-iterated that the two countries will enhance cooperation on energy security, support expanded efforts to enhance energy cooperation and diversification – including nuclear energy – and to continue to coordinate our efforts to counter energy projects that threaten mutual security. Through the dialogue, the focus will be on the critical areas of cybersecurity, nuclear energy, fossil energy and energy infrastructure.  The US energy secretary said that he looked forward to convening the inaugural round of the dialogue at the beginning of next year in Washington.

He also expressed repeated concern about the Nord Stream 2 Project which he described as not a commercial project, as its proponents proclaim, but rather a political gambit to drive a single-source gas artery deep into Europe, giving the Russian Federation further leverage over Europe. On the other hand, he said that the US has long advocated for projects like Baltic Pipe, which would bring new supplies of natural gas from Norway via Denmark to Poland. Indeed, once the Baltic Pipe opens, Poland will be able to import 17 billion cubic metres of gas a year from sources other than Russia by 2022, the target date for ending dependence on Russia.

Thus, when it comes to ending dependence on Russia for gas supplies, the Polish government is taking sensible steps. Now, if only it could be as equally adventurous in dealing with coal.

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Permanent

“There is nothing permanent except change.” The words of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, known as the “weeping philosopher” and noted for the obscurity of his work. Be that as it may, and this being Poland, some politicians wish to swap the change for the permanent, this time the changing NATO battalions for a permanent US military base.

According to the Polish defence ministry, 55 per cent of respondents answered yes when asked whether they were in favour of a permanent US military base being established in Poland, quoting a survey by pollster Kantar Polska. Twenty-seven per cent opposed the plan, while 18 per cent were undecided. Thedefence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, told public broadcaster TVP Info on Saturday that the Polish government was making every effort to bring about the establishment of a permanent US army base, dubbed “Fort Trump” to Poland to improve security.

Błaszczak flew to the United States on Sunday to meet officials, including the National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss strengthening bilateral cooperation and the plan for the permanent military base. On Monday, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz had told NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that a strengthened US military presence in Poland would help “strengthen the security of our country, of the entire region and of the entire North Atlantic Alliance.” Czaputowicz said at a conference in Warsaw on Wednesday that a US military presence was essential to ensure security in Europe.

At present, following a decision made at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016 in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea in in 2014, NATO deploys four rotating battalions to Poland and the three Baltic States. The battalions are multi-national (including US troops), comprise some 1,000 troops, and are deployed for six to nine months before being relieved by a successor. In addition to which the Polish section of the US missile defence shield over Europe is being built by the Americans at Redzikowo in the northern Poland.

Nevertheless, of the talks now underway in Washington, Błaszczak said “negotiations with our American partners are continuing, the atmosphere of these negotiations is good… I’m optimistic”. This would chime with president Duda’s suggestion this month that a new permanent US military base in Poland could effectively be a done deal, with a decision to be made next year. His spokesman, Błażej Spychalski, said at the end of September that Warsaw wished to spend some USD two billion to build infrastructure for American soldiers in Poland, including “housing, as well as educational and medical facilities.”

Is such a base necessary? One can well understand why many in Poland might think so, given the history of Polish Russian relations over the years, but is Russia likely to attack Poland? On every measure, military, economic, demographic, Russia is weak and is vastly inferior NATO. Of course, brother Putin has a tremendous capacity for mischief making and one man with a plan is stronger than many men without, but a Russian attack on Poland seems to be beyond the bounds of possibility. By article 5 of the NATO treaty, such an attack would be an attack on all and would no doubt bring a swift response. The deployment of the rotating battalions certainly demonstrates a resolve that appeared missing for some years and, for all his faults, president Trump has at least caused NATO members to rethink their military budgets.

Besides, in geo-political terms, the long- term threat comes from further east, where China and the Unites States seem destined to square up against each other. When this happens, it seems probable that Russia and Europe will have common cause, another reason why, despite the sabre rattling, a real Russian military threat to Poland may be discounted.

Of course, all things being equal, one can never have too much security and a US base would no doubt be welcomed in Poland, even if not necessary militarily. Whether there is much to be gained by provoking Russia or strengthening Putin’s appeal to his domestic audience by enabling to playing up fears of imagined NATO aggression is another question.  Being British, it is perhaps easier to discount fears of Russia, than it is for Poles whose experience of Russia has historically been very different.

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Reinstatement

“What is it that makes us trust our judges? Their independence in office and manner of appointment.” The words of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835, the longest serving Chief justice in Supreme court history and one of the most influential. And the appointment, or retirement, of judges to Poland’s supreme court, albeit a court of a different function, is the latest battle ground in the continuing conflict between the EU and Poland over the rule of law and what is seen by many as a political attempt to fetter judicial independence.

On Friday the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued an injunction ordering Poland to suspend the reforms that brought about the early retirement of the judges. On Monday ten of those forced into retirement returned to work, including Malgorzata Gersdorf, the supreme court president, who urged remaining judges to return. A spokesman for the court said they were expected to do so this week.

The ruling Law and Justice party has yet to decide its response but the initial stance of party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was that Poland would appeal against the decision. On Monday the foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said that some judges could return to work and acknowledged that changes to the law would be needed to implement the ECJ decision. However, Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a Law and Justice member of parliament, said that he “did not think that Poland would have to amend anything”. No change there.

For his part, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, responded to Friday’s ruling by saying: “After analysing this, we will address this.” The Polish government has consistently insisted that it has the right to carry out the reforms which it says are needed to deal with, in its view, an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system which is tainted by the communist past. It has accused judges of being an elite, self-serving clique often out of touch with the problems of ordinary citizens.

Meanwhile, the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, has said that he would like Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to examine whether lower Polish courts may ask the ECJ for guidance on issues not covered by European law.  This came some days before last weekend’s local elections, and led to claims from the opposition that this represented an attempt to bring about Poland’s exit from the EU. “It is not true that my request was an attempt to have Poland leave the European Union,” Ziobro said on Wednesday. Although Kaczyński, said the application of the Polish constitution, and how it was affected by EU regulations, needed to be made clear, he also denied plans to leave the EU.

Cynics will no doubt be amused at the idea of the minister of justice and chief prosecutor – the latter a post which the Polish constitution provides shall not be held by a member of parliament – referring this matter to the constitutional tribunal, the changes to which body started off the conflict with EU in the first place. Again, this illustrates the potential conflict of interest when politicians, however well-meaning, have the power to influence the appointment and way of working of the judiciary.

Be that as it may, not everybody sees democracy as under threat in Poland. According to Cardinal Gerhard Mueller from Germany, no country has the right to lecture to Poland on the principles of democracy because Poland has done the most to maintain democracy in Europe. Speaking at an international conference in Poland, Cardinal Mueller said on Thursday that “no nation can be a teacher of others in Europe” and that “no European institution can impose its values on others,” Poland’s dziennik.pl reported.

The cardinal, who served as the Church’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2012 to 2017, told the conference that “there is a continuing attack on countries that are working to re-Christianise the continent”. Such “attacks” are being driven by “Marxist ideology,” which “denies all those principles that lay at the foundation of Europe,” he was quoted as saying.

In the cardinal’s view, Poland was being targeted through actions such as “teaching Poland about the principles of democracy,” while “Poland is the European country which has done the most for democracy, for freedom, for the self-determination of the nation, for the dignity of the human being.” Referring to the 123 years from partition until independence in 1918, he said: “Poland was divided, there were partitions, but the Polish soul was not affected. Today’s attack on Poland is worse because back then only the body was torn apart. Today the aim is to deal a deadly blow to the Polish soul.”

Not everyone will agree with his analysis, of course, but it will no doubt come as a comfort to the Polish government to have the support of such an eminent cardinal whose message, as reported here in Giftchimes with the prime minister’s words that Poland’s tradition of solidarity was the country’s gift to Europe.

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Brexit

“Affairs are easier of entrance than of exit; and it is but common prudence to see our way out before we venture in.” The words of Aesop which have stood the test of over two millennia. A way out of the European Union (or European Economic Community as it was then) was not see by any one at the time the United Kingdom joined in 1973, and a formal exit process was introduced only in 2009 with article 50 of the Treaty of European Union. That article 50 is by far from clear is apparent as the UK seeks to find a deal following its exit from the EU which, barring any dramatic developments, will take place on 29thMarch next year.

Whatever Brexit may mean for the UK, obtaining the right deal is important for Poland given both the trade links and the large number of Poles in the UK, whose continuing rights Poland is keen to protect. To this end, Poland’s prime minister met the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator on Friday for talks about the UK’s impending departure. The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said via Twitter that the talk with Michel Barnier was “good”, and Barnier called the meeting constructive.

Ahead of that meeting, government spokeswoman Joanna Kopcińska had said that Poland wanted to protect Polish exports to the UK and to ensure that Poles living in the UK keep their rights after UK leaves the EU. She said that Poland wished to convince Barnier that a deal with the UK was possible and that to listen to those who said otherwise was not worthwhile. Of course, a deal is possible, but the EU and the UK have differing objectives: the latter to find a deal which gives effect to a democratic decision, the former, pace Voltaire, pour discourager les autres.

Whether one is pro or anti Brexit, none would claim that the current position is ideal for anybody. The UK, logically, is keen for an exit deal to include an agreement on future EU-UK arrangements, which is what article 50 envisages, whereas the EU has taken a different negotiating stance in dealing with the issues separately. If no deal is agreed – which seems unlikely since it benefits neither party – customs and border controls would return, with trade being carried on under World Trade Organisation rules. And for those who think this would be acceptable, only one country does so – Mauritania, which has a GDP of $4,714million (0.2% of the UK’s), and 50% of whose exports consist of iron ore.  I have been to Mauritania and, however delightful the heat and dust of the Sahara may be, this is hardly a model for UK trade arrangements.

All of which leaves us with a puzzle – how did we end up here? A full discussion of the reasons is beyond this piece, but a mistaken perception of reality is the main culprit. Those voting in the referendum to leave EU did so for a wide variety of reasons, from genuinely held convictions in areas such as democratic accountability, and economics, to those who used the referendum as a protest vote against the government for all sorts of perceived ills, not necessarily all attributable to EU membership. This has left the government struggling to give effect to a democratic decision while trying to obtain a deal for the economy that cannot, in the immediate future, be better than the current one.

The UK market is already one of the most open in the EU and, indeed, the world (meaning it has proportionately less to offer in new trade deals), which is why so many EU citizens, especially Poles, chose to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. One can hardly blame the EU for the UK government’s failure to utilise the mechanism which all EU member states have to control immigration if, as seems to have been the case, immigration was an issue in the referendum. Nor can the EU be blamed for non-EU immigration which appears similarly chaotic.

It is no accident that as successive UK governments have reduced the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we are witnessing the casual abandonment of five hundred years of consistent foreign policy. It is simply not an option for the UK not to be closely involved in what happens on its doorstep. With suitable engagement, all the perceived problems could have been solved and, far from losing sovereignty, the UK could have used the EU to expand British interests, for example with the single market, as many in continental Europe believe it did anyway. Alas, as Edward de Bono said: Logic will never change emotion or perception.

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