Two days ago, minister Jacek Czaputowicz spoke to the daily Rzeczpospolita about Brexit’s backstop.
Monday, 21 January. Minister of foreign affairs Jacek Czaputowicz in discussion with Jędrzej Bielecki, a journalist of Rzeczpospolita. The interview is published. The question is if the UK can be saved from hard Brexit. The minister: “We need brave actions. […] If the Irish government asked the EU to change the backstop arrangements so that they are applied for, say, 5 years, the problem could be solved. This would be, obviously, not as beneficial to Ireland as the unlimited backstop, but more beneficial than the approaching Brexit with no agreement”.
Then they continue. Jędrzej Bielecki, an experienced EU journalist, puts a bomb that the minister is unable to disarm. Question: “Has the EU become a hostage of the Irish government in the Brexit negotiations” to which Czaputowicz answers: “In a way, yes.”
What else did he say?
The rest is history. Unfortunately, as what the minister said was right about the European Parliament elections, that they will strengthen the EU legitimacy. Czaputowicz: “We want to build a community of increased trust towards a political pluralism. Our analysis suggests that the Commission has a tendency to subordinate itself to the interests of the bigger players. We want [the Commission] to include the interests of the entire community”.
Then he said that the relations with Germany are good, and with France there is room for improvement. He offered an explanation of his previous gaffe. In December he called France “the sick man of Europe”. Today he says it was in the context of the French deficit.
The reactions to the bravado
Yet it did not matter. After his comment about the EU being hostage of Ireland, the world turned round. So went the Union unity down the grain.
In Brussels, consternation. One diplomat quoted by Politico: “By now we are quite used to this minister’s comments,” and “It is not the first time he breaks rank. It’s surprising how Poland relies on the solidarity of others but never shows it when other member states need it.”
Brussels most likely will remain united. Politico quotes a senior diplomat as saying that the EU will remain behind Ireland, and that the issue of disunity is dangerous. Or, is it? After all, minister Czaputowicz did not say that Poland breaks the ranks. He just said what would happen if the Irish government changed their minds. Not that this is what the government in Warsaw proposes… Not exactly how they saw the things in London: “EU’s unity is cracking, finally!”
Rzeczpospolita is happy: their interview went viral. Bielecki wrote another article in which he offers his analysis of how the interview was covered in all major British and Irish media: Daily Telegraph, BBC, Politico, the Guardian, Huffington Post, the Irish Times… They all wrote about the interview! Congratulations to Rzeczpospolita, but can Mr Czaputowicz save Brexit from non-agreement, or was it a gaffe?
It may be that being “brave” can be confused with being “bold”. The British media should not be taken as seriously – after all, they are willing to jump at any signal of a new boat saving them from drowning into the unknown, even if it is just an ephemera.
Simon Coveney, Irish MFA was unconvinced. Heiko Maas, German MFA was unconvinced, too. On the other hand, Theresa May said she will “look into the issue”.
The following day, 22 January, minister Czaputowicz has some follow up to offer. He is glad the issue is debated, but he underlines: it was not his intention to break the EU unity. Was it unintentional, then? Czaputowicz: “it is not a proper interpretation. It is unjustified interpretation of various British media, but not the politicians”. Apparently the issue was not discussed with the prime minister, either. So it is clear: this is more of an academic proposal. In the diplomatic areas some people test ideas like this in a form of “non-papers”. If anyone ever asked, the issue was never on the table. But if a proposal flies, of course it was ours! This time, Mr Czaputowicz opted for a different method.
In Poland the critics turned cynical. One voice commented that the Warsaw government competes for the Razzie awards, the foreign initiatives are competing on being the worst: the Iran summit vs. the Brexit backstop proposal – which one is worse?
The liberal media sums up that the initiative is, in fact, dangerous. Bartosz T. Wieliński writes in Gazeta Wyborcza on Monday: “Czaputowicz’s doubtful initiative shows a dangerous tendency that Poland, for whatever reasons, is ready to derail the EU approach” and concludes about the Brexit backstop incident and the Iran conference: “are those just incidents, errors at work? Or maybe confronting the EU becomes Poland’s ‘new normal’?”
It may be all about nothing. It may end that the Europeans stick together and confront, or force, Britain into some sort of a deal. Or there won’t be any agreement and we will see a hard Brexit. Nobody knows. So maybe the world in fact belongs to the brave and ideas instinctively rejected earlier may come back later like a boomerang? Maybe. For now Mr. Czaputowicz left a stinky left over: rolling over eyes of Western and Central European diplomats, who, among many problems, deal with the unnecessary issue of disunity of the EU. It wasn’t a disunity, says the minister. Somehow others did not notice.
For now the Czaputowicz’s words qualify for a gaffe. They did not bring any positive solution and instead contributed to the worsening of the Poland’s stance in the EU (“unity breaker”) and relations with Ireland (“unreliable partner”). Instead the Warsaw government should be interested in building trust towards Warsaw. Trust is like a currency; you can trade it in the upcoming serious battles (the multi-annual budget, the rule of law and their interplay). Instead, the minister is betting on unconsulted (internally with the PM, externally with EU members) initiatives that in a diplomatic world hardly ever work.
Will the Polish relations with Britain improve? It’s doubtful. Poland will remain always second for Britain after larger nations of Germany and France, but also Italy, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Poland cannot become UK’s best friend. Instead Poland is forcing itself on Britain awkwardly: if someone doesn’t necessarily like you as much, but you love them so much, what do you do? You bring flowers. You risk being used.
… or maybe all the critics are wrong and the Czaputowicz bravado will save the day. Against all odds?