Interview with Poland's Prime Minister 'Europe Has Run Out of Gas'

In an interview, new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki discusses his country's reputation problems, EU proceedings against Warsaw, Poland's controversial refugee policy and the heated debate over history.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
Piotr Malecki / DER SPIEGEL

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

Interview Conducted by

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, since your party, Law and Justice (PiS), has been in power in Warsaw, Poland has suffered from a bad image. It used to be the model pupil among the new European Union member states, but now it is considered un-democratic, nationalistic and quick-tempered. What happened?

Morawiecki: Those are opinions and not facts. Poland is a democratic nation-state like all the other countries of Europe. And we are pragmatic. We have a problem with a part of the European political elite and with journalists, but not with the normal people. For example, 97 percent of all foreign investors would come to us again. You are right, though, that we need to make a greater effort to explain our policies. We are facing major changes in Poland. Now, we would like to see the majority of our population benefit from our economic growth. Just because foreign observers used to praise Poland does not mean that the policies of the time were also good for the majority of the population.

DER SPIEGEL: But Poland isn't being criticized for its social policies or its administrative reforms. It is being criticized because your judicial reform, in the EU's view, violates the principle of the rule of law. That's why your country is facing EU proceedings that could end with the loss of voting rights in Brussels.

Morawiecki: We consider this allegation to be false. According to polls, three-quarters of Poles consider the judiciary to be "bad" or "very bad." We are now improving our communication and have revived the dialogue with the European Commission. We have already achieved improvements and Brussels is now acting more as a partner and less as a schoolmaster. We will also attempt to address the concerns point by point and clarify our position.

DER SPIEGEL: The fact that your country has become the first in the history of the European Union to be subjected to such proceedings is not just due to communications shortcomings. The accusation is that your party wants to control the staffing of the courts.

Morawiecki: We, meaning Poland and the Commission, are absolutely united about the fact that the condition of the Polish justice system is a millstone around our neck. Our courts are completely ineffective, they take a lot of time to reach decisions and they are not transparent. Poland spends three times more on its judges than the average among EU countries. We have 10,000 judges compared to 7,000 in France, a much bigger country. Does Poland want to control the staffing of the courts? No, Poland wants to once again place its judiciary under democratic controls. In Germany, for example, the justices of the highest courts are appointed by a committee for the election of judges. Half of that body is comprised of ministers from the states and the others are members of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament). Furthermore, there was a failure here to discharge judges who were contaminated by the communist era. In former East Germany, after being screened by the Gauck Agency (the Stasi records agency), only 58 percent of the judges and prosecutors could keep their jobs. In Poland, it was 100 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: That was at least 25 years ago. How many of them are even still in office?

Morawiecki: As a young activist with the Solidarity union, I experienced repression myself. And a few of these judges who convicted my comrades-in-arms are still sitting in the highest court. Our reforms make the judicial apparatus more transparent, effective and independent. We now have random assignment of cases to courts in order to minimize suspicions of partiality. We will explain that, and it will hopefully provide the basis for working out a compromise.

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DER SPIEGEL: Poland appears in many respects to be removing itself from the core of Europe. The term a "Europe of Nations" is used in your party. What role does Poland want to take within the EU?

Morawiecki: The majority of European societies want a Europe of Nations and not a federation of the United States of Europe. The trans-Atlantic alliance and North America's alliance with Europe are essential for peace in the world. They guarantee democracy, freedom and prosperity. I would like to see Poland make its contribution so that Europe and the United States continue working together toward these goals. As part of that, we want to be a good, predictable partner here at the eastern flank of the EU, not far from Russia.

DER SPIEGEL: So there is no chance that Poland could leave the EU?

Morawiecki: Correct, it is as unlikely as Germany or France leaving. Like the overwhelming majority of Poles, I am very pro-European. We are pushing, for example, for the development of a joint defense program. We also support working together to close tax loopholes. At the same time, we also believe that Brussels should not create policies that disregard the societal moods in the individual countries. Podemos in Spain, the success of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), Le Pen and Mélenchon in France, Five Star in Italy -- there is lava flowing beneath us, there are massive tensions... …

DER SPIEGEL: Do you not count PiS among this group of protest parties?

Morawiecki: I count PiS as being among the parties that want to correct the unjust consequences of the transformation of 1989. We are handing the opportunity for development back to millions of Poles who were excluded by the economic boom. As such, we are channeling discontent. People in Europe should acknowledge that.

Polish opposition activists at a pro-EU demonstration in Krakow
Artur Widak / imago / ZUMA Press

Polish opposition activists at a pro-EU demonstration in Krakow

DER SPIEGEL: Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Poles are still in favor of the European Union, but also that their great euphoria for the EU has evaporated. What caused that?

Morawiecki: I would say that Europe has run out of gas in terms of ideals. During the post-World War II era, this fuel was the prospect of growth and lower unemployment. Later, it was the integration of the formerly communist countries. People today consider that to be self-evident. Peace, the market economy -- that worked for decades, but it is no longer enough. European societies are making that loud and clear. They want fairness and less inequality. I am an idealist. We have to work on new ideas for Europe. For me, that would be things like the question of how we are going to deal with robotization, with accelerated capitalism, with the transformation of our working world through automation and artificial intelligence, and with inequality, which has grown exponentially? Those are the questions of the future, I agree with Thomas Piketty on this ...

DER SPIEGEL: … ... the French economist and critic of capitalism.

Morawiecki: We have to consider whether there are European answers to these questions. We need a new European partnership agreement.

DER SPIEGEL: You speak of inequality. Why is it such a massive problem for a country with 38 million people and a flourishing economy to take in a few thousand refugees from Syria? Your government has doggedly refused to do so.

Morawiecki: Poland is taking in refugees from the countries to the east of us, from Ukraine.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you really make that comparison? Ukrainians have been coming to Poland for years -- they benefit Poland as cheap laborers and are well-integrated.

Morawiecki: The influx has increased five-fold since the war in Ukraine and, particularly from the Donbass region, more and more are coming. They no longer have a roof over their heads and they have often lost family members. This kind of refugee is not even recognized in the West. After our interview, incidentally, I will fly to Lebanon, where I will visit a refugee camp and take considerable financial support along with me. There, in the Syrian border region, Poland is providing for 20,000 refugees. Studies have shown that you can do a better job of helping people there than here by building hospitals and schools. Of all the countries participating in the Economic Resilience Initiative, Poland has given the most money: 50 million euros. It is a project by the European Investment Bank to provide local economic support in the region. I give you my word that we want to do even more. But you also have to keep in mind that forcing intake quotas on a sovereign nation creates societal tensions.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean by forcing? The liberal government that preceded yours agreed to the quota in Brussels in 2015.

Morawiecki: You are right about that. But such important decisions that affect sovereignty, the defense of borders and protection from terrorism should not simply be pushed through via a majority votes in the European Council (the powerful EU body that represents the member state governments) and against the reservations in those societies. If a country is incapable of defending its borders, it should not turn it into everybody's problem.

DER SPIEGEL: By that, you mean Germany?

Morawiecki: Not only. I also want to enter a dialogue on this issue. We want to provide our contribution to refugee policies, and the problem can become significant again at any time. If, for example, Moscow further escalates the conflict in Ukraine. If a second Baltic Sea pipeline is built, as Germany desires, Russia will be able to deliver gas to the West without having to rely on any pipes that go through Ukraine. The country would then be entirely defenseless, and Russia could advance in the east even more aggressively. It could not be ruled out that there would suddenly be millions of refugees at the EU's eastern flank.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you understand that many Germans consider the Polish position to show a lack of solidarity? On the one hand, you have a Poland that profits from money sent by Brussels. On the other hand, it doesn't want to help in an emergency.

Morawiecki: At best, I can halfway understand it. Even German politicians, like (Foreign Minister) Sigmar Gabriel, for example, admit that the German economy also benefits from the EU structural aid provided to the new member states. Some 80 percent of the money flows to German companies because they are implementing EU-sponsored construction projects here. In Poland, we know very precisely what solidarity means. It is an important goal, but another is domestic security and policies that are independent and sovereign.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Germany still the most important partner in Europe for your government?

Morawiecki: Yes. There are tensions every now and then -- when, for example, a radical article is published here or there. But for me the glass is half full rather than half empty. I have long worked in the business sector and our economic ties are closer than ever. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have together become the most important export market for Germany, more important even than France. I want to support this development.

DER SPIEGEL: Poland disclaimed reparations payments from Germany in 1953 for the crimes committed during World War II. Now leading politicians in your party want to demand damages retroactively. What is your position?

Morawiecki: The Sejm (the Polish parliament) just agreed to do another precise calculation of the material damages and the loss of human life. So far, the Poles have received 1 percent of the compensation that citizens in the Western countries or Israel have received. Yet our losses as a share of the total population were the highest in the world.

Polish Prime Mateusz Morawiecki on Polish-German relations: "For me the glass is half full rather than half empty."
Piotr Malecki / DER SPIEGEL

Polish Prime Mateusz Morawiecki on Polish-German relations: "For me the glass is half full rather than half empty."

DER SPIEGEL: Your government introduced a law that makes it a crime to use the term "Polish concentration camp" or statements that attribute any complicity by the Polish nation or government in the Nazi crimes. Is the penal code really the right way to fight historical misrepresentation and cluelessness?

Morawiecki: Yes. Germany and Israel also do this. You can be punished there for denying the Holocaust or incitement. Last year alone, Polish embassies intervened 250 times around the world because someone used the formulation "Polish death camp." Our Supreme Court is currently giving the law another review to determine if it contains any misleading wording.

DER SPIEGEL: But the plan has been strongly criticized by the Israeli side.

Morawiecki: We are explaining our position and I believe that the Israeli side is growing more understanding toward us. We are noticing that in diplomatic discussions and we are seeing increasingly friendly editorials in the press. Yes, we did have thousands of "Szmalcownicy," Poles who murdered Jews or betrayed them to the Nazis. At the same time, however, even in occupied Warsaw, hell on earth, 90,000 Catholic Poles helped their Jewish neighbors. The Polish underground state and the London exile government never collaborated with the Nazis. We support precise research into our history.

DER SPIEGEL: Most Germans understand why it is wrong to use the term "Polish concentration camp." Isn't your reaction a bit over the top? The term is usually used out of sloppiness and not because Germans want to relativize any guilt. Do you believe, like many of your compatriots, that the Germans don't want to take responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis?

Morawiecki: The recent statements by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who have clearly admitted German guilt, show that there is much understanding for our position in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: The greatest concern of most Poles is neighboring Russia. Vladimir Putin has clearly demonstrated his expansionist desires in Ukraine. At the same time, U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Moscow has become unpredictable. Has life become more dangerous in your region?

Morawiecki: We have to take this threat from the east very seriously. That is why we welcome joint defense efforts and perhaps it will even result in a joint army someday -- within the framework of NATO.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you feel that the European Union is watching Moscow closely enough?

Morawiecki: No, unfortunately I do not believe so. Russia is not only playing an ominous role in Ukraine, but also in Syria. We want to discuss the problem with the Germans, but also, of course, with France, a nuclear power. But let's not deceive ourselves: Although we don't know what policies the White House will choose, we are still under the Americans' umbrella. In that sense, the Germans are getting a free lunch -- they spend little but enjoy full protection. Of course, I do hope that we can come to agreement with the Russians in the future. At the moment, though, it is good to be strong militarily. That makes understanding easier.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.


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