Report: Visiting the Polish Embassy with the European Movement

On 1 December, I had the pleasure of being hosted at the Polish Embassy by His Excellency, Ambassador Witold Sobków, along with other members of the London European Movement, for an evening of discussing the Polish take on Britain’s EU negotiations.

It was interesting to see Europe, and question of whether Britain should stay in Europe, from the new perspective of a power that isn’t at the centre of European politics, like Italy, France or Germany. Poland is however a rising power in Europe, and therefore their opinion is certainly important. Poland will join the euro at some point, as that is stated in its accession treaty, and by its membership of both of the Union’s flagship projects, Poland will be squarely at the heart of European politics. However, as was also pointed out, Poland currently has its own currency and as such its interests are aligned more in the direction of the UK than its western neighbour Germany, and Poland thus falls into this category of European nation-state; northern, liberal market-orientated, with the importance of national parliaments and competitiveness placed at the centre of their European agenda.

Poland, for other reasons has links with the UK; Britain has a large Polish minority, although exact figures are unknown. It has been suggested the figure is around 800,000, however it’s important to remember that exact figures cannot be given as people move back a forth all the time – something we pro-Europeans understand but which the populist right always seems to overlook. As ample proof, Ireland has been used as an example, which before the crisis in 2008, had an estimate of around 330,000 Poles resident. After the crisis, the figure dropped to around 150,000; that’s the point of Schengen and the concept of free movement – moving to regions of prosperity to find work. The Poles understand it, we pro-Europeans understand it – it’s a shame that most of Britain seems to fail to understand this. European migration is different from the waves of migration we saw in the 50s & 60s – people aren’t necessarily coming to Britain to stay permanently, that’s why they send their child benefit back home, because their children are still in Poland and those children’s parents have come to Britain to work.

A Polish take on the current state of affairs

Anyway, onto the substance. It was very similar to what I have heard from other European politicians if I’m honest – competitiveness is of course a top priority, the power of national parliaments should not be thrown away but strengthened and given a greater role in European law-making, there’s room for discussion to protect those nations outside the Eurozone, and the Freedom of Movement is a principle which is at the core of EU values and cannot be tampered with unless you’ve got a really good plan and a lot of persuasion power.

There were some additions made considering the Poles are in a different position in the Union, compared to Britain – which has a total opt out from entering the Eurozone and Schengen Area – or Ireland – which is a member of the Eurozone, and not of the Schengen Area. Poland’s Accession Treaty, signed in 2003, states that Poland will one day adopt the euro as a currency. This means that in terms of eurozone-non eurozone relations, Poland has to balance itself rather precariously; it can’t shoot itself in the foot and give veto powers to a non-eurozone bloc, however protections from an overbearing eurozone voting bloc would be useful for the moment. As such, Poland and the UK cooperate on many issues. What was interesting was that I heard for the second time a misinterpretation of what the ‘red card’ plan by Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne actually means. The red card is apparently a way to win back powers to the national parliaments and give them a greater role in European decision-making, and like the chair of the House of Lords EU select committee, Lord Boswell, it was instead suggested that a ‘green card’ be implemented, to provide a positive role for parliaments, as well as using the current systems of national parliamentary checks on the European executive (the orange and yellow cards).

However that misses the point entirely. Osborne and Cameron know they cannot win a national veto from the negotiations. They also did not get much of a positive reaction from the ’emergency brake’ idea. This is the purpose now of a red card; its job is precisely to block legislature, exactly the same legislature that the Eurozone voting bloc is supposedly going to try to steam-role through the Council of the EU in the coming decades. A green card would be a much better idea, especially in providing the sense that national parliaments provide a positive contribution to the European project, not just a block on progress. Of course, national parliaments should have the ability, I believe, to highlight potential problems, and to begin some sort of process of revision of policies which the Commission wants and national parliaments do not. Checks and balances can be worked out in negotiations, and this could certainly be used constructively. However that is simply not the purpose Cameron or the Tory-Eurosceptic wing of the party have in mind.

Freedom of movement is a very important issue to Poland – it was said that the 4 European freedoms are to some degree untouchable, especially in the context of a large Polish minority in Britain, who could be directly affected as a result of this referendum. It seems to Poland that this is the most difficult demand of the entire list, airing on the side of the European Commission representative Jacqueline Minor, who said the same last Wednesday at Europe House. A concession could be that when it comes to new states entering the Union, this could be discussed, and abuse of the system of course must be rooted out. However the fundamental idea of a non-discriminatory stance towards European residents of the UK cannot be challenged. This aligns with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Martin Westlake last week – if there are going to be any amendments to the welfare system, they should affect UK citizens just as they do EU citizens. Naturally this will not go down well with the populist right, and anyone who thinks that these sentiments will be taken positively and constructively by UKIP members, or any eurosceptic who feels wronged by the EU is gravely mistaken.

Poland’s understanding of Europe, simply taken from what I saw last night is interesting to me. Like ex-Italian Finance Minister Domenico Siniscalco, the Poles don’t seem to question whether the EU is good for them or not; nothing so fundamental is doubted, like it is in Britain. And for me this seems interesting. It was first shown by a different interpretation of the phrase “ever-closer-union”, which emphases the peoples of Europe, and not the states – it’s doubtful that this phrase alone should be sufficient proof for suspicion of the founding of a superstate. Furthermore, as Poland is far from a founding member, and as such is one of the more prosperous northern states which nevertheless is not as pro-European as Germany or the Netherlands. And yet still, the question of whether Poland should be a part of Europe does not seem to come to the mind of Poles. Sure, the EU isn’t perfect, but the subsequent question is “how do we fix it?”, not “does it work?” or “should we leave?” I do wonder whether there is such a question in any European country really. Of course, there are eurosceptic movements all across Europe – but the popular ones in the south (Syriza, Podemos) aren’t necessarily against the idea of Europe, just its current path (how do we fix it? question again), and the AfD in Germany for example suggest that the southern economies should be jettisoned from the Eurozone, they don’t consider abandoning the project altogether. Front National in France, and Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy are the only movements in Europe which both attract large audiences and has totally anti-Europe policies like UKIP does, and M5S is on the complete opposite side of the political spectrum to its French and British counterparts. I feel Britain perhaps has the most eurosceptic population in Europe, in the British sense of the term; we’re really not sure if the EU works for Britain at all, not simply whether it is working now.

Poland may be ruled by PiS, and the objections by a fellow guest not to underestimate the eurosceptic credentials of the ruling Law & Justice Party may be valid. However, I don’t think there’s any other country whose relationship with Europe is quite like Britain’s. Of course every nation’s is different, shaped by its history, its location, its economy etc. Nevertheless, with a 500 year-long policy of distancing ourselves from Europe (beginning essentially with the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII), coupled with about 100 years of world domination in the form of the largest empire the world has ever seen and still strangely exists in the form of the Commonwealth, Britain’s history is not conducive to being a piece of a larger European puzzle. It’s the same reason that the English are the real eurosceptics in Britain, and Wales, Ireland and Scotland are more partial to it. This is an unfortunate fact that will have to be contended with in the coming referendum.

The real obstacle to a successful negotiation

A last interpretation I have from the affair is the difference between what is believed to be the most difficult of Britain’s demands. Toby Young, a Telegraph journalist, believed it was the demand to reform the relationship between euro-and non euro countries, whereas another interpretation is the question of altering the parameters of the Freedom of Movement in Britain for EU citizens. I think these are two fundamentally different understandings of the obstacles the two demands face in the European corridors of power. Whereas the latter has the more opposition from the member-states to it – Poland being chief among them, but also those national figures in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Romania and so on who believe in the principles of the 4 freedoms – the former, the question of empowering the states who are not in the Eurozone, has the more institutional opposition, and opposition from the most powerful states in the Union; France and Germany. Naturally, Italy, Spain and Austria (among others) would be against this critical shift in the balance of power and perhaps even direction of European progress, from one of 2 speeds to one of 2 blocs. But it is the vested interest of those 2 driving forces of European integration which would really get in the way of this demand. Europe à la carte would be enshrined permanently in EU law, which if nothing else is a challenge to the German and French plan for Europe which would probably be a little too difficult to swallow.

A couple of final points; like many who want Britain to remain in Europe who aren’t British, Poland believes Britain’s limitless power to balance European policy in a more liberal, free and competitive direction. Wolfgang Münchau is one of the many journalists and politicians who does not believe in this however. I’m not sure what to think. As Britain is outside of the European mainstream (being neither a member of Schengen, nor the Eurozone), it makes sense that our influence should be limited in some way. But that does not mean that British influence is unnoticeable; the idea has to have come from somewhere. Also, it is feared across Europe that a negative outcome and Brexit could well lead to a destabilisation of the European project; such a large nation in the eyes of the world leaving the EU would be a severe blow to the EU’s credibility and prestige, and a victory for the eurosceptic right that may not have the same roots as Britain’s, but will be invigorated nonetheless. Therefore it is true that Brexit, whilst certainly a British issue to be decided, will not be a purely domestic one in any sense of the word. It will have ripples all over Europe, and I think it’s important to consider that.

I thank Mr Sobków for an interesting evening.

by Sam Hufton