As the eurozone flirted with disaster in 2011, Radoslaw Sikorski took the stage at a high-level gathering in Berlin. Urging Germany to save the single currency, Poland’s then foreign minister warned the assembled dignitaries that he was beginning “to fear German power less than German inaction”. Germany had become the EU’s “indispensable” nation.
From the foreign minister of a country that suffered dreadfully at German hands, it was a striking statement. It was also typical of many of Sikorski’s pronouncements as foreign minister. Provocatively put; heard in Europe; and a red rag to Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party, who were then in opposition, and are now in government.
The latest book by Sikorski, who spearheaded Poland’s foreign policy from 2007 to 2014 in the centre-right governments headed by Civic Platform’s Donald Tusk, is in a similar vein. Part memoir, part polemic, the book charts the attempts of the Tusk-Sikorski tandem to manoeuvre Poland into the big league of EU and global decision-making.
At home, Sikorski has long cut a divisive figure, but abroad the approach paid off. Poland forged close ties with Germany and France, and negotiated a huge chunk of funding in the EU’s 2014-2020 budget. In alliance with Sweden, Sikorski carved out a key role for Poland in the bloc’s policy towards Russia and Ukraine. In 2014 Mr Tusk became the first Pole to head the European Council.
When Sikorski argues Poland can be better, he means in two respects. The first is in relation to other countries. Sikorski’s world is a hierarchy in which states move up and down. In the EU, he spent his time in office trying to make Poland one of the five or six key decision makers. In the wider world, he argues that the G20 should be Poland’s target.
The second is in relation to today. Since Law and Justice ousted Civic Platform in 2015, Poland’s foreign policy has been pockmarked by rows. A disputed judicial reform has soured relations with Brussels. A law that (before being amended) introduced jail terms for attributing Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state sparked a crisis in relations with Ukraine, the US and Israel. Talk about reparations has not helped ties with Berlin.
Sikorski is scathing about this turn of events. Whether Poland is trying to make itself an attractive ally for the US, deal with a resurgent Russia or support Ukraine, he argues that it is better placed to do so as an influential member of the EU, rather than a country whose determination to be sovereign has left it isolated.
To reinforce his point, Sikorski — an Anglophile who knows former UK prime minister David Cameron and Conservative MP Boris Johnson from his student days in Oxford, and cautioned them against a referendum on EU membership — cites Brexit. He sees Brexit as the result of delusions about Britain’s global heft, and decades of using the EU as a scapegoat. The same mistakes, he warns, would be even more expensive for Poland, not least because it has neither the English Channel, nor a nuclear arsenal, to protect it.
If the Tusk-Sikorski efforts to boost Poland’s profile within the EU bore fruit, their efforts to reset relations with Russia did not. Sikorski’s term was bookended by Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea six years later. He devotes significant space to both crises. But surprisingly he gives far less room to another saga that he concedes crucially soured Polish-Russian relations: the 2010 Smolensk air disaster that killed President Lech Kaczynski, and the toxic fight over the wreck that followed.
Sikorski also never really tackles the reasons for Civic Platform’s ousting by Law and Justice. Given that his focus is foreign, rather than domestic, policy, this is perhaps understandable. But with nationalist groups that share many of Law and Justice’s reservations about the EU expected to make gains in many countries in May’s European elections, this feels like a gap.
Sikorski is optimistic that Poland can still reverse course. There has been speculation that he might even return to politics to take part in the effort. His time out of politics has not made him any less polarising a figure. But in this book, he sounds like he is tempted to return to the fray.
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