The Quest for the Commissioner is (not yet) over

Ursula von der Leyen has a busy summer. She is touring the EU capitals searching for her Commissioners. By now she’s been in Paris, Warsaw, Rome and Budapest, among other capital cities. In Warsaw she found her Polish Commissioner.

On her visit to Warsaw on 25 July Ursula von der Leyen underlines that there is a need for a revival of the Weimar triangle (France-Germany-Poland), without calling it such. Ms von der Leyen: “Poland is an important EU member state. (…) It was very important for me to come to Warsaw after Berlin and Paris”.

Her visit is a reaching out to the Polish and Hungarian governments, what the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) calls “an attempt to take Warsaw and Budapest out of isolation in the EU” (4 Aug). This move is an important opening and is welcomed in Warsaw. Suddeutsche Zeitung speculates that in a gesture to the two governments Frans Timmermans will no longer deal with the rule of law topic.

Ms von der Leyen wants a gender parity. This is why observers like me expected Mr Morawiecki, the Polish PM, to offer a female candidate as a future commissioner.

The Commissioner, potentially

Instead, she is offered Krzysztof Szczerski, the chief of the President Andrzej Duda chancellery.

Krzysztof Szczerski’s candidacy is a surprise move in Poland. Maybe it is a part of a power play within the Law and Justice (PiS), the ruling party? Gazeta Wyborcza wonders “why PiS puts forward a candidate everybody knows will be rejected?”. After all, the government of Morawiecki has been signalling for months they are interested in an economic portfolio. Mr Szczerski is not known for his economic experience; he mostly focuses on international affairs (once a deputy FM, advises President Duda on international affairs, and served on foreign affairs and EU affairs committees in the Polish parliament, the Sejm).

Most recently, Mr Szczerski was unsuccessfully promoted as a candidate for NATO Deputy Secretary General. Because of his foreign affairs and security specialisation the media are speculating he’s been already denied a security portfolio in the next Commission (RMF FM radio, 1 Aug).

Witold Gadomski, a liberal commentator for Gazeta Wyborcza, speculates that maybe the PiS mission in the Commission is to balance out Mr Timmermans? Maybe it is a misunderstanding (29 July)? Maybe he is sent as a candidate “to lose”? As GW reports, Law and Justice politicians are also unsure as why Mr Szczerski is sent to Brussels. Agata Kondzińska of GW reports that PiS is expecting for Mr Szczerski to be rejected in the European Parliament (2 Aug), and as the man of President Duda, his loss may create a positive turn for Law and Justice: back to Eurosceptic rhetoric just weeks ahead of the October elections (“Europe is truly against us” kind of narrative) and a space for someone else… who knows, maybe even PM Morawiecki himself?

Well, before September hearings happen, Mr Morawiecki is “certain Mr Szczerski will do brilliantly in the Parliamentary proceedings”, according to his interview in Radio Gdańsk (29 July). Mr Morawiecki on Szczerski: “he’s an excellent candidate”.

The speculators are sleepwalking. No one truly is “in the know” except for the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the prime minister, maybe.

The questions ahead

First we will need to wait for Ms von der Leyen to receive all 26 candidates. Britain is not sending a Commissioner, since Mr Johnson, the new British PM, is committed to Brexit by 31 October.

She promised a gender parity. In a Commission of 27, what’s a parity? 13-14 this way or another, most likely. She also mentioned she will send candidates back on this principle, the gender category. So, Ms von der Leyen might be sending back Mr Szczerski should she be short of female candidates.

If not, the next question is the portfolio for Mr Szczerski. Who knows, maybe he receives an economic portfolio, after all. All is discretion of Ursula von der Leyen and the secret negotiations of any government with the Commission President need to be put aside.

The Parliamentary hearings follow next. And this is the biggest challenge for Mr Szczerski, or, truly, any Warsaw government appointee.

Mr Szczerski on Europe in 2012

In the next few blog posts I shall introduce Mr Szczerski views on Europe with his own words.

For example, in 2012 Mr Szczerski wrote an article for Rzeczpospolita. In it, he asks “What Europe without the Union?” and how to prepare Poland for it. Second, he asks a question, “where to set limits, beyond which further membership in the Union will be inconsistent with our raison d’être?”

He writes: “I do not recommend to leave the Union today and immediately. I do recommend to begin a strategic debate about our ability to act and grow if the developments in Europe lead in the disintegration direction; and if the membership conditions and limitations related to it began to outweigh the positive elements”.

Mr Szczerski in 2012 accuses the ruling government of Civic Platform (PO) and the Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the time of “unconditional acceptance” of EU and of being “intellectually unable to work out an alternative plan”.

Mr Szczerski rejects then a simple division between Eurosceptics and Euro-enthusiasts and calls for a rational approach. He rejects the notion that EU will never cease to exist. Alternative options need to be analysed always using one objective: “the optimisation of benefits and minimisation of losses for the Polish national interest”. Mr Szczerski rejects the PO’s policy of “gradual deepening of Polish EU membership” asking “what if this process becomes dangerous?”

It should be understood that the 2012 narrative is different from 2019. Seven years ago the EU Commissioner-nominee was worry of Brexit (scheduled to happen on 31 Oct), inability to support the “countries of the South” (did not happen, yet there are persistent questions as regards Italy) and should Poland “stick to the core of the EU with France and Germany”?

If that debate is a bit old, the following statements still resonate today.

We must prepare ourselves for a situation in which the integration processes not only do not slow down, but, on the contrary, are accelerated. This may happen by taking a direction towards a close political and tax union, and that is established in the way of a pan-European referendum, as German politicians have recently proposed. The development of integration may go towards the increased centralisation of a separate “central belt” comprising the most developed regions of Europe with the other areas being relegated to the periphery states and maintained as a back-up and reservoir of land and human resources. Finally, integration can go radically in the direction of coordination of foreign and security policy, by centralising it, and thus subordinating the behaviour of member states in the international arena with guidelines from the Brussels headquarters, for example with the policy in Eastern Europe or the USA. Then the question arises: what is our, Polish, border of consent for the further development of European integration? Exceeding what “red line” will be unacceptable to us and we will have to say: no, in such a union it is not worth it! What elements should be in that balance of profits and losses, after all it is not only about the financial transfers, after all, membership is not a matter of “Brussels sprout squeezing”, but something much more serious. One can imagine a situation in which Poland should refuse to participate in the further deepening of integration for political reasons. We can not be stuck in the bookshelves and woe to how much money we will not get, if we leave the Union. We must be ready for a scenario in which we do not convert everything into “lost euros”, but we shall decide so in the name of the raison d’état and not the “dough”.

Krzysztof Szczerski, 2012

The last element of Mr Szczerski argument of 2012 is relevant today, too. He asks, “what if the European policy in following regulations does not include our needs” to the extent “the very EU membership becomes a burden for Poland rather that a source of growth”? Mr Szczerski argues “we do not know the real effects of the EU cohesion funds” and talks of “long-term effects” such as local government debt, wrongly invested sources and “most of structural funds money goes in the form of payments of executive contracts to net paying countries”. Maybe the transfers of resources from Western Europe to Poland and the free movement of people are more important than the budgetary support, Mr Szczerski ponders.

The next element in the balance of membership Mr Szczerski is seeking are “the costs of membership in areas where we are unable to secure our national interests”, for example the Polish ship-building industry. Another case is the climate policy, which “will finish off our economy from the other end of the same sharp stick”. This is when a question arises:

Does membership in such a union still make sense?

Krzysztof Szczerski, 2012

He says he asks those questions not because he wishes bad to the European Union, but because he wishes well Poland.

Et alors?

It is important to know what the views of future commissioners are.

It is important, because already some media are praising Mr Szczerski as a “good candidate” (Thomas Gutschker, FAS, 4 Aug).

Before anybody can say Mr Szczerski is a good candidate, his views need to be well known across Europe. I hope this blog will help in this process.

European Utopia

For this purpose I shall be reading and translating parts of Mr Szczerski 2017 book “European Utopia” – “Utopia Europejska” in the upcoming days and weeks.

Mr Szczerski is an important person and should not be rejected out of his Law and Justice affiliation. His 2012 analysis is just and important, even if one disagrees with the questions he asks. Those questions are defensive. The 2012 article signals once again what the EU is for PiS politicians at best: an economic opportunity. Not just the budgetary transfers, but the overall regulatory scheme.

What Mr Szczerski did not internalise back in 2012 is the co-responsibility for the success of the European project. As a European Commissioner he needs to fight for the European interests, not only the Polish one. As a European Commissioner he needs to seek for synergies between the national interests and the European one, not exploit differences between them. As a European Commissioner he is not a representative of a national government, but a part of a large and powerful executive in its own right.

I can only hope for Ms von der Leyen and the European Parliament to seek to make sure that by 2019 Mr Szczerski is able to serve as the European Commissioner.

I do not hope for him to be rejected – I hope before such a decision is taken he needs to be known. I hope he is not rejected by the European Left because of his affiliation to the Law and Justice. I hope – should he be rejected – is for the right reasons. For now the jury should be out listening to the upcoming hearing of Mr Szczerski.

And vetting the candidate.

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