Interview with His Excellency Marek Szczygiel, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Bucharest

H.E. Mr. Marek Szczygieł

Reporter: Lecturer Corina Buzoianu

1. What were Poland’s development strategies after 1990’s? Can we discuss about a Polish European integration model?

I think that today, 25 years after the collapse of the communism and the beginning of the economic-social-political transition in Poland and with more than 11 years after our adhesion to European Union we can identify some specific features of Polish’s road towards European Union and some features of our membership. If we go back to the early ‘90s, our membership to the European and Euro Atlantic structures was from the early beginning a strategic goal that enjoyed broad political support. There was no question about the willingness, it was maybe a question about the pace and the opportunities that we had. But I think that early in the ‘90s, we understood that in order to be ready for EU, at that time there was the European Communities, we had to modernize our economy and to implement sometimes painful, but radical reforms. The goal of accession to European Union was a powerful transformative factor in our reforms. And already during discussions on our constitution, which was adopted in 1997, we had in mind our future integration within the European structures. The same happened with the structural reforms, which we implemented in the second half of the ‘90s. So, the main aim was to prepare our administration, our governmental structures for cooperation with the European Union and for the absorption of the EU funds, as well. During those years, we managed to prepare our economy, our administration and, to a certain extent, our society, to this big challenge: the membership of the European Union. And I think that today, to a certain degree, we still profit from those reforms of the ‘90s. Our economy became more competitive, our business community and our entrepreneurs achieved the level of maturity that allowed them to compete and to use the opportunities of the common market. Our goal was to close this gap in development between Poland and Western Europe, represented at that time by the 15 members of the European Union. If we look back, this is actually one of the most impressive records as we registered 23 years of consecutive economic growth, fact that can be compared to Japan in the ‘60s and ‘70s or to Germany in post war time. It is pretty unique and I think that we’ll beat this record as next year we also expect growth and the risk of recession is minimal.

2. Was this conducted by the ruling party at that time or was this obtained through a cooperation between the ruling party and opposition?

We managed to maintain a very high level of unity of views among the political parties and strong support of the citizens. There were some differences with regard to the tactics or how to approach some issues, but I think that until now we have substantial support for the European integration. In the entire society, 72% are happy with the Polish EU membership and only 22% are not satisfied. It is the highest level in the European Union and I think this shows that this is not connected with one or other political party, but it goes much deeper and broader. Paradoxically, those groups in the society that were more skeptical towards the EU accession, like farmers, are now one of the strongest supporters because they benefitted largely from the availability of direct payments and the rural development funds. They managed to use this opportunity to almost maximum extent. You can see it also when you take into account the Polish export of food products. We became one of the biggest food exporters to the EU market. Polish agriproducts are very competitive on the common market, not only for the price level, but also for the quality level. During the 11 years of Polish membership in the EU the share of the Polish agro exports doubled due to a very active approach of our farmers. In general, I think that the level of the public support is necessary in order to have this kind of effective EU policy. You cannot be a strong player in Brussels, you cannot achieve your goals or protect your interests if this public support at home is at a low level. And it is also somehow transferred to the activity of our parliamentarians in the European Parliament. They know that they have this political mandate from the country pretty strong manifested in this Euro enthusiasm, so they are more active and more credible in their actions in the European Parliament.

3. So in order to deal with Euro skepticism you have to show people real benefits that EU offers…

Exactly. And paradoxically we see a kind of opposite impact on our public attitude towards adopting the common currency. Although we have a growing support for EU membership, the support for our accession to the Euro zone is rather low. It used to be much higher before the crisis, but since we performed quite well during the crisis in the public perception there is no need to change our currency and to join the Euro zone. Right now, the potential benefits for Poland joining the Euro zone are primary political. In order to remain in the core of the European integration, we need to seriously think about our relationship with the Euro zone countries. But the economic benefits are not so tangible any longer, as in the past we were talking about reducing the foreign trade costs and currency exchange costs, but they are now already quite low, our exporters are doing pretty well and don’t see it as a kind of obstacle. The difference between the interest rates, meaning that it would be cheaper to have loans in Euro compared with Zloty, is right now nonexistent. Also, people are afraid that entering the Euro zone might trigger some raise of prices and inflation. This is why I think it will take some time to decide on this. There are many experts and politicians in Poland who say that it will not be possible before the end of this decade, so probably the decision will be postponed until the next decade. In order to change the currency we need to change the constitution and for this we need a qualified majority in the parliament and probably the approval in the referendum. If the situation in the Euro zone would be dramatically improved in the coming years and the problem of some countries would be resolved and the Euro zone would be a kind of a center of economic growth, it may affect the public perception in Poland.

4. Do you have at the moment political cooperation in favor to entering the Euro zone?

No, there is no majority in the Parliament right now. We’ll have Parliamentary elections on October 25th and it will show us the level of support for the parties. But right now, in the current composition of the Parliament there is no clear majority in favor of joining the Euro zone. This is the issue that is dividing the political parties and although EU membership is widely accepted, entering the Euro zone is something that is treated with carefulness.

5. It seems a very pragmatic perspective…

Yes, this is a very pragmatic perspective, but it is also, to a certain degree, based on our experience. We used to have a very high level of inflation in the ‘90s, so people are still a little bit afraid, they know it from their experience. On the other hand, we have quite a significant number of emigrants or migrant workers who emigrated to other EU countries and they have also their personal experience. So it is not only about doing an information campaign where you can present only the facts, but you have to confront the existing opinions and perceptions. In this case I think that the most convincing argument in favor of joining Euro zone will be the improvement of the situation in the economic performance of the Euro zone.

6. You were referring to the management of EU funds, how does Poland succeeds in having such a high absorption of EU funds?

We managed to implement a very successful and effective model of EU funds management with well-prepared structures and people already from the beginning of our EU membership. Also, a very specific feature of the Polish model is the high level of decentralization of the absorption. In this current financial perspective, the majority of funds are managed on the local-regional level, so it is not up to the central government to decide what the needs of the local communities are. On the regional level the management is definitely more effective and is closer to the citizens and is less bureaucratic. In the previous financial perspective, which ended in 2013, we managed to breach the gap in the development of the infrastructure, transportation and environmental investments, so now the first stage is basically over. We have the hardware in place. The network of highways is completed, we have a sufficient amount of airports with required capacity, we modernized the railway network, this is still ongoing, but main investments were already done. We have a much better level of satisfaction of needs in case of water treatment, water supply, and the network of treatment stations. Those areas represented the distance between Poland and the rest of the European Union and we addressed them in the previous financial stage. In the 2014-2020 financial perspective, we want to change the approach and to invest EU funds mainly in more knowledge-intensive areas, invest in innovation, research and development, creativity and those areas that will create the basis for the future economic development, not only based on the relatively well skilled but cheap labor force, but something that will give us more solid basis for the future, for the long term development. We need to build the intellectual capital. This is the main guideline of the new financial perspective which will change the modus operandi: less grants and more financial instruments. This will give us the possibility to have a better evaluation of the projects, not only giving away money, but having a constant involvement in the process. We hope that Poland being the biggest beneficiary of the structural policy of the European Union will actually remain a kind of positive example of the absorption of EU funds and how they can transform the country. This will benefit the entire Europe, as it is not a one way traffic, definitely our growth is making a contribution to the economic potential of the European Union. This is a mutually beneficial approach. And I hope that this will be convincing for those who are skeptical about EU structural policy. Not to mention that these can be convincing arguments when starting the negotiations for the financial perspective after 2020. I see in this area a positive development in Romania and I hope that you’ll be able to catch up not only with the numerical level of absorption, but also with the generating a kind of critical mass that will help the economic development of the country.

7. Poland recently ended the elections for the President. What about the EU-related topics addressed during the campaign? Were there differences in this respect between the two candidates?

Surprisingly, the European agenda was not so prominent during the election campaign, so the differences between the two main candidates were not so big. We know already that Andrzej Duda is our new president, which shows that Poland is a mature democracy, as 56% turnout in the second round is quite high for then presidential elections in Europe. People wanted to make a difference, wanted to change something, maybe this new dynamic, because the president is only 43 years old, will be able to energize our domestic political life and our activities abroad. He may bring some new ideas, so it will be a new opening in certain spheres. With regards to the level of support for our external actions, like Eastern Partnership, they represented similar views. Therefore, I don’t expect significant changes with regard to our active involvement in the promotion of certain areas like European energy policy or Eastern partnership program or equal treatment of all workers in the European Union.  All these will remain high on our agenda, but I think that some elements of the program of the successful candidate, Mr. Andrzej Duda, for example better conditions for young people, as we have a pretty level of unemployment among young people, will be addressed. This is something that needs to be taken into account both domestically and at European level. There will be a high level of continuity, even despite the change of the president, as there is a broad support for the EU membership. The main approach will be the same: active role in the EU and in the region, focused on the protection of our specific interests and priorities.

8. There are a lot of discussions in regard to the significant differences between North and South in Europe, which some call gap or fracture. Would you see this also between West and East?

What we experienced in the recent years, especially after the economic crisis, is that these old divisions are not any longer so valid, like divisions between old and new Member States. Today we have much more complicated situations in the European Union. We have groups of countries that apply slightly different models of development, for example with regards to the fiscal consolidation. On the other hand, we see all kind of attempts to differentiate with regard to the social models, and here it is a big challenge for the European Union to protect some level of cohesion. For example we see the differences regarding unemployment, in some Southern European countries like Greece or Spain, this level is extremely high, whereas in the Nordic countries we see in The Netherlands or in UK a more flexible model of employment and social protection. It is still an opened question in what direction are we heading, and probably that some level of diversification is unavoidable. In Poland we don’t think that we need a total unification of the policies because those solutions that we apply in our countries, like the level of taxation, provide European Union with some level of flexibility. So, there can be some comparative advantages to have lower taxes in some countries that are still on the path of economic consolidation and I have in mind both Romania and Poland. On the other hand, we also need to provide business people and entrepreneurs with some choice if they want to invest in those countries that have lower taxes, lower labor costs. Here an important discussion is the minimum level of salary. If we introduce right now a kind of harmonized minimum level of salary, definitely the competitiveness of the Eastern European countries will suffer. Maybe in few years this will be the right approach, but for the time being we think that we need to achieve higher level of convergence. There is no size that fits all. We are rather in favor of protecting this diversity, not in favor of uniformity.

9. How do you see the conflict in Ukraine, near EU’s border? Do you see it a long term conflict?

This is the biggest challenge for the security, stability and unity of European Union. The Russian aggression against Ukraine, the illegal annexation of Crimea, the current ongoing conflict inspired and supported by Russia in Eastern Ukraine is exposing some different opinions in the European Union in terms of how to deal with Russia, what is our common set of values that we are ready to defend, how far are we ready to go in order to accommodate the aspirations of our neighbors like Republic of Moldova, like Ukraine, and Georgia. This is indeed a very difficult moment and a big challenge for the European Union. For the time being, we managed to respond very effectively and we managed to maintain a high level of unity which is manifested in the set of economic measures that we adopted and we continue to apply with regards to Russia. We also need to be more proactive, to have some positive agenda towards our Eastern neighbors to show them that we really care, that we are serious when we talk about extending this zone of democracy, rule of law and market democracy. Ukraine is a kind of test case of our intentions and our credibility. This is a very important element of the European identity and is maybe more emotionally perceived in our part of the European Union, countries that are neighboring Ukraine, like Romania, like Poland, because we are most directly affected. We have our historical memory, we remember what the foreign domination can do. I hope that we’ll be able to convince other member states of the European Union that we can’t turn our back to the countries like Republic of Moldova or Ukraine. They deserve the support with regards to their European aspirations and every country has the right to freely choose what kind of future they want to have. This is why we should reject this thinking in terms of zones of influence or some specific rights of Russia in the post-soviet space. I am convinced that in the longer term, having a kind of peaceful, stable and economically performing neighborhood will definitely bring benefits to the entire European Union, as well as to Russia. So those challenges that we face in the Eastern neighborhood and the Southern neighborhood are not the products of our hyperactivity, rather of our lack of involvement.

10. It is highly acknowledged that the Polish development model is a very successful one. Could you mention three aspects that Romania or other countries in the region might consider?

I think that Romania has a great potential to have its own success story. You are maybe in a better starting position now because of the high level of support for the EU membership. You have a very good situation with regard to the energy independence, this is something that should be better used and capitalized. Definitely, in the case of Poland there were some ingredients that were very important and that contributed significantly to our success. The reform of the administrative structures, which created strong regions and local authorities, and delegated the power to the local level. This was implemented 15 years ago and is uncontested as a good solution. Secondly, in Poland we had a common understanding of the economic activity of the population, which should not be restricted. It is important to give the chance and to maximize the potential of the entrepreneurship and to empower people and to base the economy on the activities of private owners. In the case of Poland, privatization of the former state enterprises transformed our economy and gave the sense of ownership to the private owners. Together with the development of the capitol market and of the stock exchange, privatization distributed the economic wealth in the population. Maybe not equally, but definitely it was a big stimulus for economic growth. Also, Romania should better use the human capital, which in my opinion, after four years here, is of a really high quality. Not natural resources, but human capital is something that can decide about the competiveness of the countries in the future. And Romania has an excellent position as it has young, well educated people with lot of creativity and innovation. I have also in mind education, which is something that should be put in the center. In Poland we managed to dramatically increase the quality of education. Very recent research conducted by OECD in 76 countries, addressing the competence in mathematics and similar competences, shows that Poland is on the 5th place in Europe after Estonia, Finland, Switzerland and Netherlands. We registered during EU membership huge progress, as we used to be on one of the last places and now our young people are on the top of the list in terms of performance. To invest in the human capital and in education is the model of the development for today and for the future.

 

I think that what we can draw from our experience is that in order to be treated as an important player in the European affairs, you need to identify your priorities and to have your own agenda. Be active in Brussels, propose some projects, solutions, and ideas. Poland managed to identify few areas: energy security, competitiveness, Eastern partnership, cohesion policy, freedom of movement of the labour force. It is important not to be only a recipient of agreed decisions, but to be a co-author of those decisions, be able to shape them. I think that Romania, after its first years among Member States is now ready to make a full use of the EU membership. The upcoming EU presidency in 2019 will confirm Bucharest ability to fully realize its interests and aspirations.

 

Photo source: Official website of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Bucharest

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