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North-South axis and the orientations of the Polish foreign policy

Published on March 12, 2011 by: in: Politics

Wojciech Białożyt speaking with Adam Balcer, Director of the Programme “Politics of expansion and neighbourhood of the European Union” – in DemosEuropa – the Centre of European Strategy


The article “Orientations of the Polish foreign policy” published in the magazine “Debata” contained the main theses of the future book “Player or a pawn”. You, together with Kazimierz Wóycicki, offered a reorientation of the foreign policy towards the North-South axis, and argumented that the North-South axis will not be sufficient to lead an effective foreign policy.

Expanding the strategic perspective of the Polish foreign policy is essential. Polish way of thinking is limited to the eastern direction, while effectiveness on the East will be possible provided the azimuth is south-eastern. This is because the South, mainly the world of Islam, will be very important for Europe. Without the modernization of the South, the European Union will be threatened by unstable neighbours and will not be able to play an important role in the world – it will be marginalized. This, in turn, will be negative for Poland.

The south-eastern azimuth means, to say jokingly, a sense of ‘islamization’ of the Polish foreign policy. In this way, Poland will focus on the borderline between the South and the East: on Turkey, the Black Sea direction and the Central Asia as well as the Islam in the post-Soviet areas.

Why is this direction North-South so important to Poland within the EU framework?

The position of Poland in the European Union is exceptional, since it may find itself in the group of the great European countries, such as France or Germany, which play the key role. It is clear that Poland, due to its demographic and economic potential, should play such a role. But it should bear in mind that it is perceived by many countries from the North-South axis as a potential ally and an organizer of cooperation between these countries that it can build various task coalitions within the EU.

It is essential that Poland plays on two pianos, aware of these connections – on the one hand it is worth having a group of average countries and thus have a stronger position among stronger players. On the other hand, we should use the position among the great countries to promote the cooperation on the North-South axis.

Which countries belong to the North-South axis?

We are talking about countries of the Visegrad Group, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia, the Baltic republics as well as the Scandinavian countries, and in the future, after accession to the EU countries of the Western Balkans. It is very important that the coalition is not limited to the post-communist countries, forming a sort of a ‘poverty group’. Hence, participation of, for example, Finland and Sweden, is very important. The latter country shares with Poland particularly many issues, for instance the eastern policy of the EU. The next stage should always be searching for coalition partners in the EU beyond the axis. Sweden is also an important investor in our country and is highly interested in our market. Poland needs supports in terms of R&D and the Swedes boast with great achievements in this field. Besides, Poland must change its energy balance, move from coal and open to the issues of renewable energy, biomass, nuclear power, CCS – the Swedes are strong in each of the fields. This partnership may have strategic and permanent character.

In the article, you indicate that consequences of emerging the Central Europe as an independent European player will be visible after 10-20 years. What will be the consequences?

The Central Europe, geopolitically, that is the Visegrad Group, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Romania, means almost 100 million residents and has the GDP similar to Italy.

Our part of Europe has generally good long-time perspectives (20 years), its economic potential will be rising. As a result, it may become a little motor for the Union. This region may, however, as well become Europe’s Achilles’ heel. It is going to face serious challenges, such as demographic (population shrinking faster than in the West). From the Polish perspective, the situation in other countries of the Central Europe is very important, as it will define our place in the EU. It will be difficult for us to remain the green island if we stay near long-lasting problems.

Thus, we need to take measures against the situation when the region Poland belongs to becomes the weak point of the EU, a periphery bordering with the unstable areas in the East, which is losing significance in favour of the South. Preferably, countries of the Central Europe should coordinate the social and economic policy leading to the shared economic model based on innovation.

In the text, you evidently pay attention to the significance of Turkey, and refer to Ukraine with moderation. Is Turkey or Ukraine a more important potential member of the EU for Poland?

The strategic objective for Poland is that Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union. We believe that we ought to be prepared for a scenario when this does not happen. Currently, it is more probable that within the next 20-30 years Ukraine will not only remain outside the EU, but it will not even be on the way to join it. At the moment, Ukraine has the GDP with spending power lower than the GDP of the Czech Republic, and is poorer per capita than Albania, its population is shrinking quickly.

Of course, we should do everything we can to prevent the scenario of Ukraine outside the EU, because stabilization of the eastern neighbourhood belongs to our and the Union’s objectives. We have to convince the EU that a long-term stabilization of countries located to the East and South of Poland (Turkey, the Western Balkans) requires liberal democracy based on the rule of law. Success is improbable without a long-term perspective of membership.

Why is Turkey so significant?

We have to revise our way of thinking about the eastern post-Soviet area, bearing in mind the current situation and processes that are going to take place. Now, we concentrate almost obsessively on Russia as the main point of reference. We need to notice new and very important players. China is certainly a heavyweight player, very strong in the Central Asia, but already participating in the Eastern Partnership. On the other hand, Turkey, which has better demographic prospects than Russia. Within a few decades, Russia is going to have a population only slightly bigger than Turkey. The same refers to the economics.

During the first two quarters of this year, Turkey experienced a two-digit growth of the economics. According to OECD, the following several years will bring the average growth of even 7 percent. The Turkish economics will be growing stronger, which will strengthen Turkish influences on the post-Soviet area. At the moment, they are already strong, especially in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Turkey will start influencing Russia on a large scale, as the religious mosaic in Russia is going to change. The population will be much more Muslim, and the straight majority of the Muslims will be of Turkish origin (Tatars, Bashkirs, Turkish people living in the Northern Caucasus). Russia will maintain its important role on the international stage, because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has nuclear arsenal and energy resources. At the same time, it is a country that has to deal with many very serious domestic problems (for example, unstable Northern Caucasus, authoritarian political elite with limited modernising power, very high level of corruption, mono-economy). Of course, Turkey also has to face domestic challenges, including the crucial one – the Kurdish issue. The processes that are happening in Turkey instil some optimism. However, realization of the most positive scenario for Turkey (a stable, democratic and wealthy regional power) depends to a large extent on the future of the Turkish process of European integration. A permanent crisis of this process will have serious implications for the EU.

In the case of a long-lasting break between Turkey and the European Union, we may have to deal with Turkey as a refined and soft version of Russia, as a country that will ally itself China, Russia and Iran, thus hindering the realization of our union agenda in the East and South. Worth mentioning is the fact that Turkey, due to its strategic location, is important to the EU, too, in the context of energy diversification (transit of non-Russian gas beyond Russian control).

For Poland, Turkey may be significant in terms of our demographic problems. Opening Poland to immigration constitutes one of the essential activities. Currently, immigration, particularly from the world of Islam, is a taboo topic in Poland. It seems inevitable that at least some citizens of Poland will be Muslim, considering the migration trends in Europe and very difficult demographic situation in our neighbourhood. The Turkish population, especially after the accession of Turkey, may prove to be optimal immigrants for the world of Islam in Poland.

Membership of Turkey in the EU is under fire in the Western Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy states that Europe cannot afford a border with Irak and that Turkey itself is located in Asia Minor, not in Europe.

From the geographic point of view, Cyprus is also located 100% outside Europe. France was 75% outside Europe when the EU was being formed, because it was in Africa – Algeria was its integral part.

Do opponents of Turkish membership notice the negative effects of breaking the process of accessing Turkey? What is going to happen to the policy of neighbourhood, regions such as the Middle East or the Black Sea? The world has globalized to such an extent that considering a border with Iran or Irak as a threat is ridiculous. Turkey is now a country that has much better prospects, when it comes down  to the development of the EU countries. It is a country that is being modernized very quickly, for example the rural population is shrinking very rapidly, and expenditure for R&D are rising. Within a dozen or so years it is going to be a much wealthier country, and much more modernized. Membership of Turkey is going to be an opportunity for the EU, not a burden.

Accession of Turkey to the European Union may become a positive impulse, for the Union itself, too. Membership of Turkey may result in something positive for the internal structure of the Union, it may force certain institutional and budget reforms. Many times in the history of the Union, expansions resulted in institutional and budget reforms.

How to convince citizens of the Old Europe?

Above all, we have to think strategically about us, that is the European Union, and Turkey, which should be seen as a very important element in the process of rise of the EU as a global player. The Union is able to ‘digest’ membership of Turkey, but our elites ought to show political will and strategic vision of Europe. The three following scenarios stand before the EU and the process of expansion. According to the first one, the EU integrates internally and expands effectively, thus becoming a global player capable of stabilizing its neighbourhood. In the second one, the EU demonstrates a reserved attitude, and becomes a besieged fortress surrounded by the area of instability. According to the third scenario, the EU weakens due to badly-conducted process of integration, which results in internal conflicts. The two latter situations marginalize the EU in the global scale.

What are the strong cards in Polish hands, which can be attractive to countries located to the East and South-East?

Our international position is going to depend on our economic condition. We are the sixth member of the EU in terms of population and GDP in spending power. Poland is among 20 biggest economic powers in the world and has GDP per capita significantly above the world average. According to the Human Development Report, we are already a developed country, not a developing one. Poland has better economic prospects than countries of the Western Europe and it is important that we keep the high pace of development. This can be achieved above all by efficient solving of the demographic problem and modernizing our economy.

We must radically reduce the sector of agriculture and introduce innovations to our economy by major investments in research and development.

What are the major barriers for the development and effective foreign policy of Poland?

The last 20 years mark a great success of Poland, though now Poland does not make use of its whole potential. Certain countries with great potential in Europe are not able to use it. Italy serves as an example of such a country, which could be in the first European league, but certainly is not. Unfortunately, such a situation might apply to Poland and we will box below our weight category. 15% of the Polish population are farmers and their number is decreasing at the least rate comparing all new members of the European Union. This group reduced by 50% during 10 years in Bulgaria, while in Poland only by 10%. Poland donates to little amounts of money for R&D (0,6%) – it is over two times less than Estonia. If we have a look at the European Innovation Score Index, it shows that other countries in this part of Europe are much more quickly catch up with Europe.

In the field of the foreign policy, Poland should translate words into action and use its potential to build a position in other countries more efficiently. Expenditure on developmental aid reaches 0,08% of GDP, while Portugal spends 0,24%, though it is only slightly richer than Poland. It is also inexplicable why the main beneficiary of Polish bilateral developmental aid during the recent years has been China.

Poland occupies the last place in the EU in terms of foreign students at our universities – 0,5%. We talk about the importance of educating elites in the East, but we do not realize it sufficiently. Our investments abroad are minor and reach Central-Eastern Europe within a limited scope. In 2008, before the crisis, Polish accumulated investments abroad were slightly bigger than Hungarian, though Hungary has over 3,5 times smaller economy than we. A great majority of Hungarian investments aimed at countries of Central-Eastern Europe, much more than 20% of Polish.

How do you perceive the chance of orienting the foreign policy in the manner we have talked about?

Poland has already built inside-Union coalitions on the North-South axis several times. Our cooperation with partners within the framework of the Visegrad Group, Romania and the Baltic states is developing as well.

Poland is apparently becoming more interested in Turkey. What we still need is increased engagement in the Western Balkans. Generally, Polish relations with countries located on the axis should not focus on visits and cutting the ribbon, but facts (investments, trade exchange). Cooperation with EU countries on the North-South axis should have more resolute and creative rather than improvisatory and reactive character. Full expansion of cooperative agenda would be beneficial.

We are currently passing our transitional period, when Poland has to contemplate its position in the world and in the European Union, its foreign policy. We have to consider new strategic directions and priorities bearing in mind changes in the world, for example growing significance of China and India. I hope that this reflection will bring reorientation of the Polish foreign policy along the North-South axis.

Thank you for the conversation.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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About Wojciech Bialozyt

Graduate of Ecole Internationale des Sciences Politiques. He was an intern in the office of the European Parliament member Miquel Mayol and Raynal (ERC) and a consultant of the Regional Centre of European Information in Katowice. He took part in the observatory mission of the OSCE during the presidential elections in Ukraine in 2004, in 2006 he represented Poland on the UN conference ‘European youth Leadership Summit’. He works in the consulting company in Warsaw.

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