Nicholas Richardson
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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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Restitution

“As for restitutions, to nobody in particular do I owe any, but as for those I owe to the realm, I hope in the mercy of God.” The words of Louis XIV, the passing of the glories of whose reign one feels France still regrets, revolution or no revolution. Be that as it may, the mercy of God may well be needed, for restitutions owed, if not to the realm, but to the city of Warsaw, with news that nine more individuals have been charged in a continuing investigation into a property restitution scandal in Warsaw.

Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who also happens to be the country’s prosecutor general, told reporters on Monday that the charges included suspected corruption amounting to some PLN 50 million (EUR 11.58 million, USD 13.32 million) arising from the individuals’ attempt to take possession of real estate in Warsaw by unlawful means. Prosecutor Michał Ostrowski said that a former Warsaw City Hall official who was a deputy director in charge of real estate management was among those indicted, alongside three lawyers and a former ministry of justice employee.

In many parts of the world, the intersection of real estate and local government provides a potentially rich seam of corrupt activity, from land acquisition to planning, and Warsaw, if these allegations prove to be correct, is no exception. Indeed, according to a report of a special parliamentary commission released on Monday, less than two weeks before local government elections, the losses to Warsaw stand at some PLN 12.2 billion (EUR 3.25 billion, USD 3.25 billion) in property unlawfully returned to private owners. The total value of property that reverted into private hands in Warsaw had exceeded PLN 21.5 billion by 2016.

As reported by Polish Radio’s IAR news agency, the head of the commission, Patryk Jaki, a deputy justice minister who is also running for mayor of Warsaw in the upcoming elections, said that property restitution in Warsaw after 1989 was often “criminal in nature” and marred by corruption and the existence of a “reprivatisation mafia”. Last December, Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CAB) detained three Warsaw City Hall officials suspected of accepting bribes in exchange for approving property restitution and compensation claims.

The special parliamentary commission began last year to investigate the scandal over the restitution of real estate in Warsaw that has already seen the dismissal of several officials at Warsaw City Hall and calls for the mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, to resign. The commission aims to either uphold the restitution decisions or to revoke them and decide that owners can be stripped of unlawfully obtained property.

Inevitably, the scandal has a political element. The Law and Justice government says that the commission has helped to address blatant cases of injustice amid allegations of a massive web of malpractice involving Warsaw City Hall officials, while opposition maintains that the commission encroaches on the powers of the courts. Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who has been the mayor of Warsaw since 2006, and who was once a leading figure in the opposition Civic Platform party, has refused to appear before the commission, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

The origins of the scandal date back to the seizure of property under the Bierut Decree from October 1945, named after former Polish communist leader Bolesław Bierut, which legalised the confiscation of private property. This led to thousands of buildings being taken from their owners. Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has been possible to submit claims for the return of such confiscated property although, absent specific legislation to deal with restitution claims, the process is far from straight forward. This, given the passage of time, also increases the scope for skulduggery by those so minded.

It seems that the scandal cannot simply be dismissed as political infighting. According to the CAB (last December) a total of 68 investigations were under way into suspected property restitution irregularities, involving some 200 addresses in Warsaw, most being valuable plots of land and residential buildings worth millions of zlotys. And the commission also examined the reprivatisation of a residential building at in Warsaw to which Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s husband acquired part of the rights in 2003.

Nevertheless, with the minister of justice and prosecutor general, and the head of the commission and candidate for mayor of Warsaw being in political opposition to the current mayor of Warsaw under whose watch much of the alleged corruption took place, there is a need to ensure the entire process is above board. This is a good example of why there is so much concern about the changes to the appointment of judges brought by this government. With a politician now having, short of great self-restraint, the ability potentially to influence the judicial process, it is more important than ever that not only must justice be done but it must be seen to be done – rather than be seen to be believed.

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Inclusive

“Smart, sustainable, inclusive growth is the key to job-creation and the future prosperity of Europe.” The words of Jose Manuel Barroso, former prime minister of Portugal and president of the European Commission who, one assumes, might have known although the words are as blindingly obvious as to merit no detour on the road to enlightenment. No matter, the Polish prime minister for one is happily presiding over a booming economy which is geared towards “inclusive growth” to create equitable opportunities for all, according to an opinion piece posted on the wsj.com website entitled Meet the Polish Tiger.

Mateusz Morawiecki wrote that Poland’s market economy is booming allowing the government to take care of the least fortunate.  “Poland recently became the first country in nearly a decade to graduate from emerging-market status and enter the ranks of the world’s developed economies.” Last Monday Poland had its capital market upgraded from emerging to developed market status by leading index provider FTSE Russell. Thus, the Polish capital market became the first in Central and Eastern Europe to join the ranks of developed markets such as the United States, Japan and Germany.

According to Morawiecki, “the distinction is the fruit of a long effort to build a flourishing market economy on the ruins of the communist system that the Solidarity movement helped topple in 1989.” Reprising a familiar theme, he said that while the economy as a whole prospered some people found themselves left behind as success “too often” depended on “connections, not hard work”. He also said that his government led by the Law and Justice party had “cracked down on rampant tax fraud and evasion,” increasing revenue from value-added tax by 26 per cent in just two years, assisted by enhanced enforcement and innovative digital tools.”

Morawiecki said Poland’s ruling conservatives had invested in healthcare, education and public works projects. “We have shown that helping the least fortunate isn’t incompatible with growth,” adding that Poland’s economy had expanded by more than ten per cent over the past two-and-a-half years, “the most among the top 10 EU economies.”

And the statistics do look good. Ratings agency Moody’s last month revised upward its forecast for Polish GDP growth this year to 5 percent,  projecting economic growth next year at 4.2 per cent. The Polish economy grew 5.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year, the country’s Central Statistical Office said in late August. According to Eurostat, Polish unemployment in August was the second lowest in the EU at 3.4 per cent, against the highest, in Greece at 19 per cent, and an EU average of 6.8 per cent.

So far so good, but the economy may slow according to Grzegorz Maliszewski, chief economist at Bank Millennium, who was speaking after Poland’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) hit a 23-month low of 50.5 points in September, according to Markit, a provider of financial information services. This was compared with analysts’ expectations 51.5 points, and a December figure of 55 points. According to Markit the Polish manufacturing sector was “close to being stagnant” in September, with the number of new orders shrinking for the first time since October 2016.

Be that as it may, thousands of police and other uniformed services took to the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday to demand higher pay and more favourable pension rules.Police officers, border guards, prison service employees, firefighters and others took part in the rally, during which protesters planned to petition the country’s president and prime minister with their demands. Deputy Interior and Administration Minister Jarosław Zieliński told Polish Radio 24 beforehand that the demonstration appeared to have been politically motivated. He said the government had increased the monthly pay of police officers by over PLN 1,100 (EUR 256, USD 295) on average since coming to power, and noted that protests over pay were not held when police wages were unchanged stayed put under the previous government led by the Civic Platform party.

And according to BIG InfoMonitor and the Credit Information Bureau, companies that collect data about debt, over 345,000 people aged 64 or over have failed to make payments on their loans, the PAP news agency reported. The average debt among people aged 64 or over stands at PLN 21,230, with many citing medical expenses as a reason for indebtedness, along with arrears of rent, telephone and utility bills.

So, there is still some way to go before everybody is included in Poland’s economic boom.  And as the economy’s period of catch-up draws to a close, and economic growth slows, those clouds on the horizon, demography, innovation, and skills will grow larger. Let’s hope the government is making hay while the sun shines.

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Gift

“A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.” The words of Seneca, a Roman philosopher and writer of tragedies, who no doubt had in mind the words “timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” from Virgil’s Aenied, generally translated as: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. These words are at somewhat odds with the English proverb, never look a gift horse in the mouth, and had the Trojans taken Laocoön’s advice and done just that, Troy might have endured longer. Be that as it may, it is a gift of a different sort which occupied the thoughts of the Polish prime minister in Poznań on Thursday.

Mateusz Morawiecki opened the plenary session of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, attended by representatives from 45 countries, being held there by saying that Poland’s tradition of solidarity is the country’s gift to Europe. “Solidarity and freedom … is anchored in the teachings of the Church, in the great Christian tradition, the tradition of all of Europe,” he said. In the view of the prime minister, solidarity gave dignity to people in times of oppression. Speaking of Poland’s experience under two totalitarian regimes – the WWII-era fascism and the communism which followed – Morawiecki said that solidarity was Poland’s answer to those oppressive times.

And, famously, Solidarity was the name of the Church-backed anti-communist movement which emerged in Poland in the 1980s. Morawiecki said the Solidarity of the 1980s embodied values such as community, justice, and support of the weak which values, according to him, Poland continues to promote. He said that “solidarity is a Polish brand, the living incarnation of the Polish spirit … and our most valuable contribution … to the future of Europe”.

The Church had been, the prime minister noted, a refuge for Poles and Polish culture during periods when those were being suppressed, for example during the periods of partition and foreign rule which lasted for over a century. He reminded those present that this year Poland is celebrating a century since the end of those partitions, when Poland regained independence at the end of the First World War.

Leaving aside the cynicism which suggests that most expressions of solidarity are of as much practical use as expressing solidarity with the drowning man while staying safe and dry on the water’s edge, Polish solidarity is to be welcomed. There is no reason to fear Poles bearing gifts, although, inevitably, not everybody may expect to receive this gift in equal measure, although, with delightful lack of irony, it is freely expected of others.

Thus, the Polish government criticised Germany for allowing NGO head Lyudmyla Kozlovska to visit Berlin despite Poland putting her on a list of people barred from entering the EU, saying that “We would have expected Germany to show solidarity.” At the same time, Polish state-owned television allowed an academic to ask whether this meant Germany had “declared war” on Poland and resurrected the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Kozlovska’s name was added to the Schengen Information System after Poland’s Internal Security Agency rejected her application to reside in the European Union. Stanisław Żaryn, the spokesman for Poland’s special services coordinator, Mariusz Kamiński, said the agency had “serious doubts concerning the financing of the Open Dialogue Foundation, which is run by Ludmila Kozlovska”. In response she said the move was “Kamiński’s personal political revenge on my husband, Bartosz Kramek” who onet.pl reported, had been involved in “anti-government civic movements”.

Kozlovska also said that her deportation had complicated her plans to take part in the planned Bundestag conference, entitled: “Human rights under threat – the dismantling of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary”, but that she had been issued a special visa which allowed her to attend, onet.pl reported. According to Kozlovska, the Polish authorities consider her to be a threat to the Polish national interest, but she claims to be defending both Polish and European interests, which happen not to be in line with the interests of the Polish government.

Poland did however demonstrate solidarity with the Hungarian government on Wednesday when the EU parliament voted in favour of a motion to trigger Art. 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union against Hungary over rule of law concerns. Similar action was taken against Poland in December, at which time Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen had vowed that his country would defend Poland against “unjust” and “political” measures by the EU. In aquid pro quo, Poland will “vote against any possible sanctions” that could be “imposed on Hungary within … European institutions,” the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

Which is to say nothing of the EU’s frustration with Poland over the latter’s perceived lack of solidarity with those EU members, especially Greece and Italy, grappling with the influx of refugees from across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Or, indeed, with EU values such as the rule of law, judicial independence and so on. Perhaps Seneca was right after all.

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