Interview with Poland's Foreign Minister 'Our Losses Were Much Bigger'
Poland is currently regarded as the EU's problem child. The country's national-conservative government refuses to deal with the refugee issue and it continues to undermine the rule of law. In an interview, Foreign Minister Czaputowicz explains why Warsaw is once again demanding war compensation from Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Czaputowicz, only a year ago, the issue of World War II reparations appeared to be a thing of the distant past in Polish-German relations. Now, politicians with the the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), yourself among them, want to discuss getting compensation from Germany again. Why?
Czaputowicz: Seventy-three years after World War II, people in Poland are still talking about our suffering and our losses. It is a part of our identity, so to say. And in Poland, we think that our losses were much bigger than those of other countries. But if you look at what Germany has compensated other Western European countries for their losses, like France or Belgium, for example, and what it has compensated Poland for our losses, you will see a discrepancy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In January, you said that World War II reparations are not an issue between the governments of Germany and Poland. But at the end of August, you made headlines by saying that this has to be discussed. What has changed?
Czaputowicz: Nothing has changed. In January, we agreed with then-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel that compensation is to be discussed between experts. I simply confirmed that position when asked by the media.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the position of Germany's government is clear: They consider the issue to be settled legally.
Czaputowicz: Of course, there are different opinions between lawyers of both countries. Minister Gabriel said that for Germany, the issue is legally closed. It is, however, contested by Polish lawyers. There is a moral perspective, too. Currently, this is not a discussion going on in the Polish government. But there is a parliamentary committee which is investigating the issue. It is also important for our history, not only in relation to Germany.
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SPIEGEL ONLINE: According to a member of the Polish parliament with your PiS party, Germany should pay up to $850 billion, or around 730 billion euros. Do you also have a specific number in mind?
Czaputowicz: No, that would be premature. And Minister Gabriel agreed that this should be looked at by experts. We have a right to discuss this issue. If relations between states are mature, such a discussion should be normal. It would not be proper to shut it down.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this purely a discussion about history? Or are there also political reasons behind the call for reparations, such as domestic policy or the ongoing spat with the EU about breaches of the rule of law in your country? Politicians in several EU member states, Germany among them, are already calling for EU subsidies to be reduced for Poland and other countries.
Czaputowicz: There is no connection between compensation and criticism from Germany related to the rule of law question. Those are separate issues.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In its recent proposal for the EU's next seven-year budget, the European Commission has proposed a new mechanism for sanctioning member states that violate the EU's standards concerning the rule of law. Will the Polish government oppose this?
Czaputowicz: Perhaps we would not oppose the idea of combining the spending of money with the respect of the rule of law in principle. But we do not see that the commission has any tangible criteria for this. Instead, we see it as a way to exert political pressure. The plan is presented as a punishment for Poland. Therefore, yes, we would oppose it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your government has lowered the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65 years, the result of which would be the retirement of dozens of judges in one blow -- unless President Andrzej Duda gives them permission to stay on. Now, Poland's Supreme Court has asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to establish whether this is legal. Do you worry that your reform may be in jeopardy?
Czaputowicz: We will see what the ruling of the court will be. We hope that we will win because we have a right to reform our system. We want to make it more independent, transparent and effective.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the Polish government also says that one reason for the reform is to cleanse the judiciary of communist ties. Is that not a political goal?
Czaputowicz: Indeed, there are among the older judges the ones who passed sentences against the opposition during the communist regime. But we do not want to politicize the judiciary. Nothing in our reform is against EU standards.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The European Court of Justice might rule differently. Should that happen, would the Polish government apply the ruling?
Czaputowicz: It would be premature now to say if we would defy that ruling.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that is exactly what Poland's deputy prime minister Jaroslaw Gowin said only a couple of days ago: That Poland would have no choice but to defy the ECJ, should the court rule against the reform.
Czaputowicz: You are right. But Mr. Gowin later explained that this was his private opinion. Also, there was a statement by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki clarifying the issue. Should the ECJ's ruling not be positive for Poland, we would have to discuss with the commission how to implement the ECJ's ruling.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So let us try to be clear: Is there a consensus in the Polish government to respect and apply the ECJ ruling, no matter what it will be?
Czaputowicz: Yes, there is such a consensus. It was expressed by Prime Minister Morawiecki and myself. Then again, if you look at it from a legal perspective, it will be a very hard task for the ECJ to say something against our system. By now, some judges have retired, others have been elected. But we will have to find a solution together with the commission.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Minister, we thank you for this interview.