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For foreign ministers, crises are often the most professionally rewarding of times, as well as the most personally trying. So it would appear to be with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, who has been at the forefront of the European Union’s response to the turmoil in Ukraine. Sikorski has arguably become the first Polish foreign minister in history to play such a prominent role in the biggest international relations issue of the day. In the corridors of Brussels, his name is now muttered as a strong candidate to succeed Baroness Catherine Ashton as the EU’s top diplomat.
Yet as he walks into an antiseptic meeting room in Poland’s red-brick foreign ministry in Warsaw, it is evident that the months of nonstop diplomacy are exacting a toll. The 51-year-old exudes a sense of weariness and has a slight tic under his right eye. Oxford-educated Sikorski may have had an unusually varied career as an award-winning photojournalist, war reporter, author, defence minister and staffer at a conservative US think-tank, yet little can have prepared him for the intensity of what he calls the greatest geopolitical crisis since the end of the cold war.
In recent years, he has argued that his country is more secure than at any point in the past 300 years. Its membership at Nato and the EU have brought unprecedented stability and prosperity. It was almost as if Poland had been able to escape its tragic past in the strategic “badlands” between a militaristic Germany and an expansionist Russia. “Twenty five years ago we were eastern Europe. When we joined Nato and the EU, we became central Europe. Now, because of our resilience in the face of the financial crisis, we are northern Europe,” he says. In front of him is a cup of tea bearing Poland’s white eagle symbol on a red background; the saucer reads, “Serve Poland, Build Europe, Understand the World”.
The situation in neighbouring Ukraine highlights how Poland’s fate could easily have been very different. And the predations of a revanchist Russia are sending shivers of concern through the region. Can Poland prolong its holiday from history?
Sikorski is confident it can, although he admits he is less sure than he was a year ago. He is clearly alive to the dangers of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and firm in his resolve that the west must sanction Moscow for its behaviour. But he believes the situation may yet be “retrievable” if Russia can be brought to its senses. “Russia has an interest as a neighbour in the stability of Ukraine but that doesn’t give it the right to destabilise Ukraine,” he says, in his impeccably clipped English.
Fresh from a meeting with Petro Poroshenko, a leading candidate in Ukraine’s presidential elections, Sikorski is hopeful that a new democratically elected leader in Kiev can reassert political authority and re-engage constructively with Moscow, reassuring native Russian speakers of their rights and devolving more powers and taxation income to the regions. “What better way to recreate legitimacy than to have a fair presidential election?” he asks.
Of all EU countries, Poland is the only one that borders both Russia and Ukraine and its diplomats have been assiduous in developing close ties with Kiev. It was natural, therefore, that Sikorski should have been so central to the EU’s response to the crisis. Alongside his German and French counterparts, he travelled to Kiev in February to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement with President Viktor Yanukovich. While the three foreign ministers were meeting officials, snipers began firing on the crowds outside the presidential administration, setting in motion the events that led to Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev the following day.
In Sikorski’s telling of recent history, the US and the EU have been intent on trying to involve Russia in the international system, not isolate it. In turn, Russia had been very broadly converging with the west. The symbolic visit in 2010 of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s then prime minister, to the Katyn forest – where the Soviet secret police massacred thousands of Polish prisoners of war during the second world war – showed how far relations between the one-time enemies had improved.
But Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine have shattered relations between Russia and the west. Sikorski admits there is a “significant risk” of a new cold war developing, although he stresses it would not be of the west’s choosing. “Russia is taking over territory and financing terrorism,” he says.
In response to such actions, Sikorski argues that Nato must ensure that its members’ borders are sacrosanct, that EU states increase their defence spending and that both the US and the EU impose tough sanctions on Russia – even though this will hit the Polish economy particularly badly. “Sanctions are hard and costly and double-edged. But they are cheaper than the consequences of war between Ukraine and Russia,” he says.
When we put to him the argument made by George Kennan, the veteran US diplomat, that Nato’s embrace of former Warsaw Pact members in 1998 was “a tragic mistake” and needlessly provocative towards Russia, Sikorski shoots back with an edge of anger: “It is very easy to trade with other people’s freedoms.” Poland joined Nato for the same reason all other members joined the alliance: collective security. “The more scary Russia seems to her neighbours the more countries will want to join Nato.”
While he is proud of the EU’s espousal of democratic values and its ability to project “soft power”, he argues that it must also develop more military muscle to counter threats from troublesome neighbours. The EU can no longer rely on the US to be the region’s policeman. “To be effective, to do what is right for the largest area of human rights and civilised government on earth you need some traditional tools of foreign policy. But sometimes, when all else fails, you have to be able to back up your diplomacy with force.
“We [the EU] are the largest economy on earth and we have an increasingly unstable periphery from the Central African Republic, to Mali, to Libya, Egypt, Syria and now Ukraine. Why should the US provide security to an economy that is larger than the US?”
Extreme scepticism of Russia and the need, when necessary, to confront her robustly have been a constant in Sikorski’s – and Poland’s – worldview. But in some other respects, his views have undergone a startling evolution. Over the past decade, his attachment to the US has cooled while his appreciation of the EU has warmed markedly. “I believe in the logic and justice of the modern European project,” he said in a speech in 2012. “And my country, Poland, will do its utmost to help it succeed.”
In his youth, Sikorski was a student activist in the industrial town of Bydgoszcz at a time when the Solidarity movement was rattling the foundations of the Soviet empire. When General Wojciech Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity and imposed martial law in December 1981, Sikorski applied for political asylum in the UK. As a student at Oxford university, he grew to admire Margaret Thatcher’s radical free-market politics and her uncompromising approach towards the Soviet Union. He also formed a riotous association with other young conservatives of his generation, including David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and was admitted to the notorious Bullingdon Club. His association with Britain remains strong: his two sons with his American journalist wife, Anne Applebaum, attend Eton College.
As someone whose political views matured during the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II era, Sikorski espoused a fiercely free-market, Atlanticist and moralistic view of the world. The US’s strong support for Poland’s accession to Nato, in the face of European equivocation, also confirmed Sikorski as a pro-American by instinct and a eurosceptic by conviction. As he put it in a later speech, “I ticked every box required to be a life-long member of London’s Eurosceptics club.”
Yet Sikorski’s views on the US and the EU changed significantly as a result of the Iraq war in 2003. At that time, he was working in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank that is one of the spiritual homes of the neocons, where he enjoyed a front-row seat in the build-up to the war. Many of the invasion’s most powerful advocates were staunch anti-Communist conservatives, whom Sikorski knew well and trusted.
“The Iraq war was a mistake for the US, for US standing in the world, for US authority in the world, for the US military and its finances,” he says. “Poland joined the US rather uncritically and enthusiastically and so we now take our own view.”
Sikorski’s intellectual odyssey, from eurosceptic Atlanticist to enthusiastic pro-European, has in many ways matched his country’s evolution. Even though there is a deep strain of nationalism in Poland and scepticism about joining the euro, opinion polls show that a large majority of Poles support EU membership. That makes Poland the most enthusiastic of the 28 members.
As foreign minister, Sikorski has emerged as one of the EU’s most eloquent, and perhaps surprising, advocates, even daring to promote the cause in other member states. Given the long shadow of the second world war, it is hard for any Polish foreign minister to be wildly enthusiastic about Germany but Sikorski has worked hard to deepen relations with Berlin. He has described Germany as Europe’s “indispensable nation” and at the height of the eurozone crisis urged it to take the lead. He said he feared the country’s inactivity more than its exercise of power – a startling statement for any Polish foreign minister. “At that particular moment Europe needed Germany’s leadership to save the eurozone from collapse. And it was saved,” he says.
Sikorski has also waded into sensitive political terrain in Britain. In 2012, he gave a remarkable speech at Blenheim Palace arguing that Britain was suffering from a “false consciousness” over Europe and skewered eight commonly held “myths” about the EU. He urged his eurosceptic Conservative party friends to rethink their hostility and engage with their European partners more constructively.
Given his strong ties with Britain, Sikorski understands better than most other EU foreign ministers what drives British concerns. “It is hard not to be eurosceptic in Britain because the mainstream press – the FT excepted – does not give you basic facts about how the EU actually works. When I lived in Britain in the 1980s, I was convinced that EU directives were something that Brussels bureaucrats cooked up and imposed on member states. It’s not true,” he says.
Although he reveres Thatcher’s political legacy, and attended her funeral, he freely criticises her views on the EU. He says she was wrong (after stepping down as prime minister) to urge Poland not to enter the EU and never fully understood how the organisation functioned. “On Europe she needed guarding by officials. She needed to be supplied with facts about how the EU actually worked,” he says.
The irony is that Sikorski believes her free-market views have triumphed in the EU debate. The European Commission, he argues, acts to enforce responsible budgets, open up markets and smash national monopolies. “I know some of my British friends will regard this as shocking – or at least controversial – but here it is: I regard the EU as a Thatcherite force,” he says.
Sikorski also takes aim at those who worry about the erosion of national and regional identity in an ever-expanding EU. He argues it is not a question of choosing between the nation and the EU – it is possible to enjoy multiple layers of identity. “We like our town, our region; the locus of our identity is our nation. But we also like to be effectively represented as Europeans. We have certain interests in common as Europeans which we cannot guard as nation states,” he says, citing trade policy as an example.
The arguments deployed by Cameron in favour of the preservation of the UK, he says, can just as well apply to the EU too: we are all better off together. “If you substitute the EU for Scotland his argument is as forceful.”
He cautiously predicts that Cameron will make some headway in his attempts to reform the EU. The working time directive is just one policy that needs to be amended. “I can imagine sensible things we can do to satisfy reasonable British demands next time we have a treaty,” he says.
In the case of Poland, Sikorski attributes the EU’s popularity to the financial benefits it has brought and the sense of security. “Thirty years ago, we dreamt of joining the west. Nato and the EU are the embodiment of that.”
He adds that the EU is also a lot more visible in Poland than the UK. Whenever Poland builds something with EU structural funds, it puts up a sign acknowledging the fact. He has never noticed that happening in the UK.
Harsh critics may argue that Poland’s enthusiasm for the EU owes as much to correlation as causation. Poland’s economy has conspicuously flourished since EU accession but that does not necessarily mean it has been the principal cause of the country’s success. After it regained independence, Poland re-embraced capitalism with a passion. In the words of Sikorski, Poland conducted those initial market reforms in the early 1990s like a “cavalry charge”. Ever since, it has benefited from solid, fiscally responsible policies, attracting high levels of foreign investment. Poles have shown themselves to be naturally entrepreneurial; about two million are working abroad, remitting money back home.
Poland is the only European country not to have suffered a recession in more than two decades. Its factories have become a crucial cog in Germany’s export engine, providing high quality but cheap labour for components. Poland’s per capita GDP at purchasing power parity has risen from about 30 per cent of the level in western Europe in 1989, the year that communist rule ended, to about two-thirds of the level now.
In a recent paper, Marcin Piatkowski, an economist with the World Bank, estimated that Poland had achieved “the highest level of income relative to western Europe since the year 1500, thus in just about 20 years offsetting more than 500 years of economic decline”.
Poland’s economic success and Sikorski’s visibility during Ukraine crisis have led many to tip him to take over as the EU’s next foreign affairs representative later this year. European diplomats say he has been successful in driving his fellow foreign ministers to take a harder line against Russia. But they add that it has come at a price, bruising egos even among some natural allies, and that his growing bull-in-the-china-shop reputation may hurt his chances. “The real question is whether he doesn’t carry more historical baggage than he can conveniently contain in Brussels,” says one EU diplomat from a country resistant to Russian sanctions.
Sikorski himself is playing coy on the subject of any potential job move. “I am happy where I am,” he says, flashing a winning grin. “I am a victim of these rumours.”
John Thornhill is deputy editor of the FT. Jan Cienski is a former FT Warsaw bureau chief.
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