His cosmopolitan background and bullish enthusiasm for the EU have made Poland’s foreign minister a key voice in European politics. Now Radek Sikorski is urging Europe to learn the hard lessons of its own history.
Most foreign ministers know better than to interfere in another country’s affairs. Radek Sikorski isn’t most foreign ministers. Not content with going to Berlin to warn Germany its lack of leadership threatens to destroy the European Union, he’s now turned his fire on the UK, telling right-wing Eurosceptics – prime minister David Cameron included – in no uncertain terms that they will be worse off if they leave the EU.
Sikorski’s confidence stems, perhaps, from his international upbringing. He studied at Oxford, where he was part of the same infamous Bullingdon Club of raucous, upper-class drinkers that counted Cameron, British chancellor George Osborne and London mayor Boris Johnson among its members, and later he lived in the US; Sikorski feels as comfortable in London and Washington as he does in Warsaw.
It also owes much to his keen understanding of Poland’s – and Europe’s – history. Poland is a country that knows only too well how important it is to be allies with its big neighbours. Squeezed between Germany and former Soviet states, the country has fully embraced membership of the EU since joining alongside nine other Central and East European nations in 2004. Meeting in the Warsaw offices of the foreign ministry, Radek Sikorski makes clear that, despite the EU’s current problems, Poland is there to stay.
Monocle: You recently argued that Europe was on a precipice. Are we still there?
Radek Sikorski: People now see what I meant. We have a financial crisis that everyone has got used to but it doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to solve. I think we are into a situation where some countries will be on an exit trajectory.
M: When you say “some countries”, which do you mean?
RS: Well, we read opinion polls in the UK just as well as you do. We will be very sorry to see you go but we understand the political pressures.
M: David Cameron and the Conservative party saw you as their natural allies.
RS: And we are. But the European Union always was a political project and we in Poland don’t want it reduced to a customs union. We believe that it is a strategically crucial project in view of the withdrawal of the United States from Europe, which is a reality. Unless we stick together we will not be able to maintain the influence that entitles us to set the global rules.
M: How would you persuade them to stay?
RS: Membership gives Britain a huge increased influence in the world. It’s a force multiplier. For example, the sanctions we imposed on Iran. They work as European sanctions. Do you think they’ll be as effective as British sanctions? We get better deals when we negotiate on trade, but it also goes for foreign policy.
M: Are you surprised at the Tories’ policy on Europe?
RS: I’m surprised because the education I received in Britain was about pragmatism; about basing decisions on reality, not romantic myths. We are the romantics and it cost us very dear many times in the past. I thought one of the more constant principles of British foreign policy was to prevent the continent from uniting to the exclusion of the UK. I thought wars were fought over this one.
M: You say you don’t want to interfere…
RS: Too late for that. (Laughs.)
M: …but you’ve done it with other countries too, such as Germany.
RS: In this country we no longer regard other EU states as fully being abroad because we are interlinked in so many intimate ways that developments, including political developments, in other EU countries affect us directly. Therefore we will; we show that we care.
M: And how will you do that?
RS: By saying, “You’ve benefited the most from the eurozone, you have to put up the most to save the eurozone because its dissolution would be a catastrophe for us all.” And to give them credit, the Germans have done it.
M: Why has the EU struggled to deal with its crisis? Was it poor leadership?
RS: The Stability and Growth Pact was breached 60 times. By everybody. That shows the limits of that method of integration, namely the reliance on the goodwill of member states. But it was tactical mismanagement, too. When the Greek crisis occurred Europe could have subcontracted it to the imf, which has huge experience with many such crises. It was Gallic pride that foisted this crisis on an EU that was institutionally unprepared to shoulder it, and the result is not a happy one.
M: Gallic pride?
RS: I understand President Sarkozy didn’t want the imf to be sorting out a eurozone country. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Mr Strauss-Kahn was head of it at the time. (Laughs.)
M: Do you still want to join the euro?
RS: Because for a decade it was a boon to all its members, giving everyone the credibility of the Bundesbank, which meant cheaper mortgages, cheaper loans to industry. And then some people went on a spending spree instead of carrying out the same reforms that gave Germany its credibility. People now think there is something inevitable, being the powerhouse of Europe. Fifteen years ago, there was talk of Germany as the sick man of Europe. It was Schröder’s labour market reforms [that fixed Germany’s economy]. The eurozone heightens your competitiveness. The eurozone is good for those who want to pursue sound policies.
1963 Born in Bydgoszcz, Poland
1981 Chairman of Students’ Strike Committee
1981-1989 Political refugee in Britain
1986-1989 Foreign correspondent covering Afghanistan and Angola
1992 Deputy minister of National Defence following fall of communism
1998 Under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
2002 Resident fellow at American Institute of Enterprise in Washington DC
2005 Returns home to become senator for Bydgoszcz
2005 Becomes minister of national defence
2007 Foreign minister