Interview with Donald Tusk, the Polish premier

By Jan Cienski and Joshua Chaffin

Financial Times: Poland is beginning its European Union presidency at a momentous time for the Union – the euro crisis, Schengen, north Africa. What are the scenarios and solutions?

Donald Tusk: The most important task is to rebuild trust and faith in the idea that Europe makes sense – that the EU is truly a worthwhile invention. Sometimes I have the impression that Europeans have lost faith in the sense of Europe, that they live in the best place on earth – the best when it comes to laws, values and the deep concern for the individual. There is also a weakening of the view that Europe is founded on such values, which are not mere empty slogans, but the true sources of Europe's success.

Europe remains a source of inspiration for people around the world. I think only Europeans have stopped seeing Europe like that. Why? We cannot disregard the financial and economic roots of the crisis, because throughout history they have sometimes turned into dramatic political crises.

I would like the Polish presidency to renew the determination that the current financial drama of some countries not turn into a sequence of negative events that would call into question the sense of the existence of the EU ...

Schengen, in other words an EU without borders, is one of the most important European accomplishments. For many Europeans, Europe is above all the ability to freely move about the EU ...

> Map Of Poland
[In north Africa] we are ready to help with organisation, money and people, with our own resources as well as our own experience in the region. However, there will be no Polish warplanes [over Libya].
FT: How do you specifically see Poland’s EU presidency?

DT: In a completely different way from how I had foreseen it just half a year ago. Today, I understand that the presidency will mainly consist of reacting to sudden events, but we are determined to push through projects such as Ukraine, Croatia and Moldova, that is to move forward with negotiations. The Eastern Partnership is creating a larger impact, although we are in no way creating competition between [the EU’s southern policy] and the east.
FT: How is the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy affecting countries like Belarus and Ukraine?

DT: We cannot close our eyes to cases of human rights violations in Belarus. For [Belarusian president Alexander] Lukashenko, I am a personal enemy. We are also observing what is happening in Ukraine and, while the administration of [Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovich is not a model of democracy, we do see a difference between Belarus and Ukraine. With Belarus, Europe has learnt to react forcefully and with determination when Lukashenko beats or jails people. In the case of Ukraine, we are dealing with a wave, which flows in and out, but the trend is steadily positive.
FT: How do you see the Greek crisis and the future of the eurozone?

DT: Poland's situation is unique. On the one hand, we are beginning the Polish presidency, but on the other we are outside the eurozone. We will willingly take on some of the responsibility, despite what the treaty says, but we do not want to add to the cacophony of voices over Greece.

I value very highly the efforts of Prime Minister Papandreou. He is characterised by an honest determination he is acting in quite dramatic circumstances. Sometimes we have an impression that the lack of acceptance [of austerity measures] by the Greek people is slightly exaggerated, because those who are demonstrating are always louder and more visible. We should try to support Papandreou. I think it’s important for us to avoid the false notes when we speak with the Greeks. It is not just important that we help them, but it’s also worth being consistent in what we say. Too much is being said about whether Greece will continue to be in the eurozone or even in the European Union. And I think that does not help.

I remember the experience of Poland. When we regained our freedom in 1989, it was possible to introduce radical reforms but that was possible also because there was a positive atmosphere. The messages Poland had 20 years ago were quite unequivocal. There were very high demands, but in Poland, we didn’t really have any doubts that Europe wanted to help us. And objectively, we were in a worse situation than Greece is in today. So it can work.

Personally, I am very attached to a “northern” point of view. That means I am very careful about borrowing, and I feel it is better to spend only as much as the budget allows. I understand that this is the time for us to loudly talk about the rules which we imposed on ourselves, particularly the Maastricht criteria, and those rules have to be followed.

However, in my view the situation in Greece, and maybe in some other countries, is that there is a disappearance of what had been a European attitude of responsibility towards money and one’s own decisions. That is why I think there is a need to call both for help for Greece and other countries, as well as a return to principles and responsibility.

Summing up, I think that politicians have to show a maximum of understanding and trust to build a feeling of solidarity, because what is the most dangerous is not a lack of ideas, but a crisis of trust in which almost no one in Europe wants to think in European categories. That means when speaking of the unity of Europe we use slogans, and the hard words appear only when defending national interests.

In Poland we would like to, as far as possible, give an example of solidarity in these times of crisis. I see pessimism, or a lack of will to act, as a lack of realism. Some think that by saying “Greece cannot be saved” or “Let's not waste millions helping countries who caused their own problems” that they are being realists. Such “realism” leads to catastrophe, especially since by helping Greece, the largest countries are helping themselves.

In Europe we have a clash of tactical and strategic considerations. The tactical is often driven by internal pressures such as elections or pressure from populists. The strategic approach requires more courage and imagination, because it involves clearly saying that there is something like the common interest of the EU. It demands an ability to sacrifice some of your political or national interests.
FT: What is Poland’s view on negotiations for the new budget and on the EU’s structural funds?

DT: Poland is convinced that the EU’s cohesion policy is worth defending. It is a tool to integrate countries which, for many years have been left behind and for this part of Europe it is the main motor of real integration. I don’t agree with the view that occasionally appears that the budget is a source of the financial crisis ...

One certainly cannot bring in border controls because of the crisis in north Africa. That is not an answer to what is happening there – it is instead a response to the internal problems of some member states. The same can be said of the financial crisis, which is of a global nature. Reacting by cutting the budget is a false medicine. When it comes to the next budget cycle, I think it is important to talk when possible of common interests, and not national interests.
FT: Are you in favour of an EU tax to help pay for the budget?

DT: I am not an advocate of multiplying taxes, but the requirement of building financial capabilities for Europe to function as a whole demands serious debate on the subject.
FT: How do you explain Poland’s recent veto of a strengthening of the EU’s commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

DT: We negotiated hard when were creating the energy and climate pact in 2008 and achieved a compromise which for a country such as Poland – which generates almost 100 per cent of its electricity from coal – was extremely costly. We are still loyally defending that agreement. However, if more ambitious reduction plans emerge, they should have only a voluntary nature.
FT: What is your assessment of the state of the Polish economy, and does the government intend to embark on a new round of reforms if it wins parliamentary elections in October?

DT: If today we’re talking about public debt of about 50 per cent of gross domestic product, with a definite falling trend towards 40 per cent, then there is little to be ashamed of. The European Commission regards the plan of lowering the deficit to the required 3 per cent of GDP by 2012 to be credible.

Information that I have recently received indicates that the tempo of the fall in the deficit will be even higher. After five months, I can risk the prediction that the deficit will be 5bn zlotys ($1.8bn) lower than we had forecast.

Of course, we do have a problem with inflation, but even my enemies admit that the sources of inflation are external. I also have information that growth in the second quarter will be well above 4 per cent. Remember that in the first quarter growth was 4.4 per cent. This is growth in a country which has been steadily expanding – which did not undergo a contraction [during the financial crisis] as in some other countries. I think it is a very good thing to maintain growth at high rates, while keeping public debt at safe levels.