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‘Do not blame the crisis on enlargement’

After his remarkable speeches in Berlin and Oxford, which we have commented on in this blog before, Leiden University had the pleasure of hosting the third European integration speech by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The speech he gave today in the Academiegebouw in Leiden was dedicated, as is only fitting, to Dutch-Polish relations, but also, like the previous ones, managed to combine the diplomatic pleasantries with a passionate plea for European integration and solidarity between the European Union’s member states. Many of the arguments and quotes deserve a special mention and we will return to them in the coming days. For now, I wanted to highlight two themes close to several of this blog’s key discussions: his understanding of the role of political leadership for promoting the EU and the look back on the Eastern enlargement.

The role of political leaders in Europe according to Sikorski: to promote European integration and to keep explaining that Brussels is us. He specifically mentioned several times that Prime Minister Rutte has recently said that he would need to sell ‘Europe’ to the Dutch public. Diplomatically, Sikorski stressed how much he agreed with this statement, but, as watchers of European politics in the Netherlands, we had to wonder whether the Prime Minister has ever really taken this task to heart. We have been waiting for him to do this for quite some time. In fact, most of the time he returns from a meeting in Brussels, he expresses to the media his satisfaction that he had been ‘fighting really hard’ for Dutch interests. This approach, as Sikorski noted with respect to all political leaders playing such two level games, has exhausted its logic. And I think we can safely add it is getting more and more dangerous if we want the European Union to survive.  In any case, we hope the Prime Minister would take the hint and the start indeed promoting Europe and its benefits to the public. As we have witnessed in the Leiden speech, there are enough good things to say: Dutch pragmatism, it was said, has put European integration back on track at its very beginning.

The Polish vision of the EU as having at its core the internal market underpinned by the four freedoms, especially freedom of movement of labour, was not new or controversial, but it needs repeating in the current context in the Netherlands. From this point of view, the movement of citizens between EU member states is not immigration, but an exercise of fundamental rights. These rights of course, stem from the core bargains at the heart of European integration, the establishing of the internal market. But also from enlargement and all the work done by the member states from central and Eastern Europe to comply with EU standards. The Polish view on this, we can safely say, is shared among the EU’s member states from Central and Eastern Europe. The moment of accession to the EU – 2004 for Poland and other Central European states, but also 2007 for Bulgaria and Romania – was seen as the end of history for post communist states, a return to freedom and ability to move around Europe, to  innovate and create new things. Freedom and independence are the ideals of United Europe which Poland saw as a return to Europe that they have always belonged to.

As Sikorski has also stressed before, the economic growth among a number of the new member states is also the best proof that enlargement was not the cause of economic crisis in Europe. In fact, Poland has been one of the few states in the EU that has not had a recession in the last 5 years. Still, to this very day, it is quite difficult to convince even my students in the classroom that the economic crisis had nothing to do with the accession by the less wealthy countries from the East. His call for solidarity in Europe was strengthened by his reminder that drawing new dividing lines in Europe might result in unexpected results: not a division of old and new Europe but one between growth and non growth Europe. Wise warning, worth the repetition.

Last but not least, a categorical statement from Sikorski regarding attempts to change the rules of free movement in Europe, ( and this, I think, includes Schengen): Poland will veto any attempt to challenge the fundamental four freedoms in the EU.

Disclaimer: This post is written in personal capacity and does not represent the official view of Leiden University and the Institute of Public Administration

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