Interview

Our priority is to restart economic growth in Europe: Poland's Foreign Minister

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: 'I think the business of journalism and politics is somewhat similar'. Photo: Special Arrangement  

As a student leader in Poland, Radosław Sikorski was forced to flee to the U.K. and seek political asylum there in 1982. He went on to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, after which he became a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Angola for British newspapers. He returned to Poland — and politics — in the 1990s, after the fall of Communism in that country. In 1987, at the age of 23, Mr Sikorski trekked through war-torn Afghanistan with the mujahedeen fighters, a Kalashnikov under his arm, to witness the war as a journalist.

Next week, days after Poland took over the presidency of the European Union on July 1, he returns to the region to visit India in a very different avatar — as Foreign Minister of Poland. He is also vice chairman of the party he represents in the Polish sejm (Parliament), the Civic Platform, and has been Defence Minister in a previous government.

On June 29, Mr. Sikorski spoke at length to Smita Gupta at his office in Warsaw about his impending visit to India, starting July 11.

What will be on your agenda when you visit India?

I will be going there in coordination with Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the entire EU for foreign policy. It will be during our presidency of the EU, so I'll be presenting not just Poland's agenda, but Europe's agenda in relation with the EU. That will be trade issues but also political issues, which are well known. The agenda will also concern resolving the continuing instability due to radical politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What can Pakistan do?

We'd like Pakistan to overcome its internal problems. We lost a citizen two years ago who was kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban and brutally executed, and we know how important Pakistan is to preventing the spread of radicalism into Afghanistan.

You've been to Afghanistan as a journalist and I understand you even won an award for a photograph you took there.

Oh, yes. I have been going to Afghanistan regularly for the last 25 years. In 1986, I spent six weeks in Tora Bora, when it was a mujahideen base against the Soviets. And I brought out the first pictures of Stinger missiles in the battlefield. In 1987, Herat, for instance, was a hard place to get to because it was the furthest point away from the Pakistan border. It took me six weeks at that time to get to Herat.

Afghanistan is economically doing extremely well but, of course, the politics is still tricky. We decided last year in Kabul to accede to President Karzai's request and to be gone by 2014. So we need to prepare Afghanistan for standing on its own feet as regards security. We will continue to be involved on the development side but I believe that the neighbouring countries have the biggest stake in stabilising Afghanistan and so, after 2014, they will take over the responsibility.

Does Poland support India's ambition for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council?

The U.N. Security Council should reflect the co-relation of the forces in the world and India, the most populous democracy in the world, is a natural member of the Security Council. But we also feel that Western Europe is overrepresented and central and Eastern Europe is underrepresented. So we have our own proposals that envisage a seat for the European Union and strengthening the role of central and Eastern Europe in the Security Council.

How does Poland view its role in Europe and in the wider world during its EU presidency?

After [the] Lisbon [Treaty], in foreign affairs, I play a supportive role of Cathy Ashton, but our sectoral ministers will actually chair the various councils, agricultural, finance, science and environment, health. And so there is some scope to move along the European agenda there. Our first priority is to restart economic growth in Europe because that affects confidence, generosity, the capacity for solidarity with our neighbours, our candidate countries and with other partners. And to that end, we want to complete the single market in services and internet trade.

We also care about Europe remaining open, primarily to its neighbours, strengthen the management of Europe's external border. We want to encourage democratic transformations in North Africa and eastern places such as Belarus; we want students and businessmen to be able to travel more freely. We also want to create a European Endowment for democracy that will promote democracy in those countries.

We also believe in strengthening Europe's security in three areas, energy [food and defence]. We have had a gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine, interruptions in supplies of oil and gas from Libya. So it's very important to diversify and to liberalise Europe's energy markets. But [there is] also food security, [with] food safety issues and speculation in food prices. Poland would also like to strengthen Europe's defence identity. You sometimes need to back up diplomacy with force and Europe should be able to act in the Balkans or in North Africa even when our major allies, such as the United States, make the judgment that they are involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps don't want a third war on their hands.

How have you coped with your difficult history with Germany and Russia in rebuilding relations with those two countries?

With Germany, we are a treaty ally in NATO and members of the same European family. We [recently] had a joint session of the governments of Poland and Germany here in Warsaw and we signed a political declaration on the 20th anniversary of the Polish-German treaty with a work plan of almost a hundred initiatives, closely modelled on the German-French work plan. So relations with Germany are excellent, the best in history because of a commonality of interests and models of development. We are both now northern style industrial economies with our levels of indebtedness under control and balanced finances. We have had a true reconciliation and buried the problems of the past. The best expression of that is that under the Schengen system we have removed border controls. If it wasn't for the river you wouldn't know that you are crossing from one country to the next, which is miraculous given how many millions of people died over a thousand years in wars over where that border should lie.

With Russia it's different. Russia is not a member of NATO; it's not a member of the EU. We have a brittle but pragmatic relationship. We are at the stage of resolving difficult issues of the past, improving our trade relations which is very important as Russia is our second trading partner and we are working to facilitate travel between the two countries, including local border traffic agreement for Kaliningrad Oblast, and investments in trade are growing very rapidly.

And the energy sector, as far as Russia is concerned?

God gave Russia gas and oil, and we have the funds to buy them, we are a major customer. We have signed a new gas agreement with Russia that complies with EU regulations. We would like to be a major transit country for Russia but, at the same time, we want energy to be a business issue, not a tool of politics.

You've said somewhere that you see Poland as a loyal ally of the U.S., not a vassal state. How do you see the relationship?

For most countries, including [those in] Europe, an alliance with the United States is a very important relationship. The Indian-American relationship has also strengthened in the last few years. So Poland does what other European countries do. We are at the same time a good ally of the United States and loyal Europeans.

You've been educated at Oxford, you've been a journalist for several British papers, and your wife is an American journalist. How has that shaped your perspective as Foreign Minister of Poland?

I think the business of journalism and politics is somewhat similar. You need to rapidly synthesise huge amounts of information and then give them succinct expression whether in diplomatic fora or while explaining the policy to the public. I think a background in journalism actually helps in politics but as many journalists who enter politics have found, to their cost, fellow journalists don't like you crossing to the other side of the barricade.

Has that been a problem?

Not any more. I have been in government cumulatively for over a decade now but originally, one day you are a colleague of journalists and the next day they are supposed to call you Minister and not everybody likes that (laughs).

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