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“We certainly want to be more present in European institutions”

An interview with Paweł Jabłoński, Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Interviewer: James Jackson.

March 6, 2023 - James Jackson Paweł Jabłoński - Interviews

Paweł Jabłoński. Photo: wikimedia.org

JAMES JACKSON: Why did it take so long to get the official approval regarding the Ukrainian request for tanks filled in?

PAWEŁ JABŁOŃSKI: We’ve been preparing this together with other partners. The main obstacle wasn’t about filling the papers in on this day or another one, but whether we would get political approval. Regarding the political decision in order to get it, public pressure was necessary. It was the public pressure that changed it. We’ve been doing it both ways – we did a lot of diplomatic work that wasn’t publicly communicated, talking to our partners, convincing them to convince Germany to come along with us. At the same time, we’ve been doing what we needed to do publicly.

In the end, do you think Scholzs solution of asking for American support worked?

The more the better. It’s good that there will be even more tanks, we are also sending more than we announced before. It’s good that we managed to achieve this understanding and that everyone is involved, so we can send more tanks to Ukraine because this improves our security. All the diplomatic approaches that we were presented with turned out to be effective in the end.

Does getting Ukraine into the EU improve Polish security?

It improves it because it improves European security. We believe that every nation should be able to choose for itself what international organisations it belongs to. If the Ukrainian people want to join NATO or the EU, nobody should forbid them from doing so – this is the main principle we adhere to. If we have better relations with one of our largest neighbouring nations, this is good for us. We prevent aggressive Russian tendencies from dominating Ukraine, and this goes also for other countries like Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. These countries that have been dragged into the Russian sphere of influence could be a threat, simply speaking. We need to support the people who don’t want this dominance.

Russia is certainly trying. Russia has a lot of influence in Georgia, they are trying to capitalise on it and drag Georgia into their camp. But if they will be defeated in Ukraine, there is a chance that their influence there will also decrease. In some Central Asian countries, for example, they are gradually loosening their ties with Russia. This is a sign of Russia becoming weaker and weaker. The weaker Russia is – in this state as an imperialistic aggressive country – the better.

Would the centre of EU gravity move to the East?

I wouldn’t call it moving the centre point or any kind of rivalry, but working on a better balance for Europe. We are still witnessing the issue that the idea of Europe is often not fully applied to the countries that joined during and after 2004. This process started almost two decades ago. We are no longer new members of the EU. There should be much greater balance in decision-making, responsibility and influence. This is something we need to work on. Even before Ukraine joins this is a problem for Europe, this imbalance of power. It’s also good for the European project to be sustainable, because if people see that they cannot influence what’s happening they’ll be less eager to support it.

Do you back the potential Western Balkans expansion?

We are absolutely in favour of that, because we were not able to deliver the promise that we made to the Balkans some years ago, pending some requirements. These requirements were quite high. If we are not able to deliver, they will view us as not trustworthy. They could turn their political outlooks towards an alliance with other powers. If we want to be a leader at home or close to our own borders, we need to avoid that.

Big statements from Morawiecki not the foreign minister, why?

Because of gravity of importance. But the foreign minister has also been outspoken, maybe not in foreign media but in Poland yes.

Is there still tension with Germany?

Reparations are a big issue, and they’ll remain so until they’re resolved. It’s good that in the security situation today we are doing everything in our power to end this war in the only sustainable and permanent way, which is the defeat of Russian imperialism. We are seeing positive developments and have been praising Germany for their actions because they’re worth praising. We never avoid praise if it’s well-earned but this doesn’t wipe out some other bilateral issues that we have to discuss and resolve.

Did you want to create a coalition regarding the reparations issue or do you see that as a bilateral issue?

Depends on the German approach. If Germany will be eager to discuss this, this is only just one approach that we can take. They should have the decency to sit down at the table to discuss something that was never resolved. After the Second World War we never received any compensation for the crimes of murdering between five to six million of our people, for stealing property, destroying over 1000 cities and villages, stealing works of art. This was never addressed. We hope that Germany will at some point be ready to sit down around the table and start talking about this – the sooner the better. We sent a diplomatic note in September, this was an invitation to talk. We believe that our request was well substantiated and well prepared. If Germany has some other opinions on this, we are happy to discuss them.

Do you think that talk from coalition partners and the media close to your party about opposition figures being German agents undermines this willingness to talk?

The vast majority of our coalition and also the opposition too

I mean from the German side, if being German is bad, they might see this as a lack of good faith?

Being German isn’t a bad thing, what’s bad is refusing to talk about the problems between us, or pretend that they don’t exist, or even worse pretend to be offended if we start talking about it, or remind them that the issue was never addressed. It is not about being German. We don’t have anything against Germans for being Germans. Instead, we are very much against people who refuse to engage in discussion about history.

We understand that this process will probably take a long time because of the nature of similar events in other countries. That’s why it’s difficult to understand the accusations that this is all part of the election campaign. We have no illusions that this will be resolved before the elections. We know that this could take not months but years, but we need to start at some point.

What would you say is the big foreign policy achievement of your government? How does Polish diplomacy and foreign policy look now?

Certainly, one of the biggest achievements is becoming one of the leading members of the coalition of support for Ukraine. The Russian invasion shows a level of aggression that has not been seen since the Second World War in terms of borders. We were able to respond to the refugee crisis, we as a nation not just as a government. Obviously the national and local governments did stuff but most of all this was the result of the actions of every single member of our society, millions of Polish people were active in helping Ukrainian refugees.

The other main achievement is encouraging joint military support for Ukraine and gathering a coalition behind the effort. This wasn’t that certain in the beginning. We all know that some countries in Europe may not be outright pro-Russian, but at least they are not decisive enough to support Ukraine that much. The fact that this coalition became reality I think is one of the greatest successes.

Do you feel vindicated as a party? Is there a sense of “we told you so”?

Maybe, but what is much more important than this feeling of momentary satisfaction is what are we going to do right in the future? We were right about Georgia in 2008, the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and repeatedly said that Russian investment in Europe is a bad idea. We have constantly said that we shouldn’t trust any Russian propaganda about how they want to build peace or be a reasonable partner. We have seen enough that shows that they are of an aggressive and imperialistic nature. The most important challenge is not to feel vindicated about being right at some point, but to build a positive change in European politics in the future. This is the greatest challenge, to change European politics vis-à-vis Russia for good, not just in the near future.

Your government is known to be more Eurosceptic than others in countries like France and Germany, would you say that now rather than complaining about Europe you’re aiming to lead within Europe?

I wouldn’t say we’re Eurosceptic. We are certainly against some changes in the EU that would turn it into a body that is more centrally governed with less decision-making powers for particular member states. Precisely for this reason we believe that the European policy against Russia was bad. If for example we had a change to qualified majority voting, Germany, France and a few other countries would have decisive power. Would European policy against Russia be better if Germany could decide? We believe it wouldn’t be better. That is why we believe each and every country should have the right to make its own decisions. Being an ally in international organisations such as the EU and NATO, you have to use it to the advantage of global security. At the same time, we should be allowed to not only speak about our perspective but also act based upon it. This is why we oppose some centralising tendencies that are still there in the EU. We are very much pro-European. We simply understand that the more voices we allow to be more present and have an equal footing, the better it is for Europe.

Has your party changed on this issue? Is there more engagement in EU institutions? Now that Poland has in some ways been proven right on European security issues, do you think there is a reconciliation where there have been some divides before? Is Poland aiming to show more leadership?

We certainly want to be more present in European institutions. This is still far from the current state of it – the current geographical distribution of representation is very much skewed against the countries that joined during and after 2004. There is certainly a lot of work to be done. We are doing this even right now – it is a process that takes time. We are not getting out of the EU. There was never a question of it in Poland, I think between 80 to 90 per cent of people are in favour of the EU. Any government that said they are preparing the process of “Polexit” would be out in a week.

Paweł Jabłoński is Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

James Jackson is a freelance journalist covering the changes in Germany and Central Eastern Europe caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine. He writes for publications like Time Magazine, The Times among others and is a fluent German speaker and former staffer at Deutsche Welle. 

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