The EU’s political centre of gravity is shifting eastwards as a result of the Ukraine war, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz claimed in a speech in Prague in August. Vladimir Putin’s invasion vindicated the eastern member states’ hawkishness towards Russia. But according to Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister, Poland, because of its poor relations with Brussels, has squandered the opportunity to become a more influential member of the union.
“We were right to have protested against the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines, and we were right to have warned western Europeans against Putin,” Sikorski, 59, said from Washington, where he was on a personal visit. Yet because of the Law and Justice (PiS) government’s conflict with the EU over the party’s illiberal policies, Poland does not have “the influence on Europe’s eastern policy that we deserve, as the only country that is the neighbour of both Russia and Ukraine”.
Sikorski grew up in communist Poland. After the government declared martial law in 1981 he went to the UK as a political refugee. He studied PPE at Pembroke College, Oxford (he was a member of the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson and David Cameron). “I spent eight years in Britain remembering it very fondly and still feeling gratitude for the education I received,” he said. “I hope I’ve been something of an asset to Polish-British relations.”
He returned to Poland in 1989 just as communism was falling. In 1992 he married the American journalist Anne Applebaum and in the same year he entered politics, serving in various defence and foreign policy-orientated ministerial roles as Poland abandoned its Cold War-era geopolitics and aligned with the West. In 2007 he was named foreign minister by Donald Tusk.
As foreign minister Sikorski said in a 2011 speech to a German think tank that he feared “German power less than … German inactivity”. German inactivity is surely the theme of the moment. Hours before our interview Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, announced his intention to supply German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, which would fulfil one of Kyiv’s key demands. Sikorski said he supported the decision. Germany, however, which holds the export licenses for the tanks, has not yet approved their transfer. The Leopards have yet to be sent to Ukraine.
Sikorski is critical of Berlin’s past approach to Moscow: “Germany did make the mistake of thinking that Russia can be transformed through trade, which was a sort of ideological cover for a policy of making money on cheap Russian gas.” But his assessment is much more measured than his compatriots in PiS, who have accused Scholz’s government of trying to turn the EU into a “Fourth Reich”.
“We need to be careful, because I’m told that Germany provides more assistance to Ukraine [than any other country in Europe],” Sikorski said, recounting conversations with officials in Berlin. (According to publicly available figures, Germany has offered the most military and financial aid to Ukraine of any European country.) “But I’m told the reason is that unlike in Poland or in Britain, the issue is controversial, particularly with the electorate of [Scholz’s Social Democratic Party]. The government, I’m told, is torn between wanting to do the right thing, and not losing more votes.”
Sikorski, now a member of the European Parliament for the centre-right Civic Platform, is one of the fiercest critics of the PiS government. Both the Polish opposition and the EU accuse PiS of destroying the independence of the judiciary and packing courts with government supporters. Poland and the EU have for years been locked in a dispute over PiS’s alleged undermining of the rule of law. The European Commission has blocked the disbursal of over €34bn in grants and loans to the country from the bloc’s Covid-19 recovery fund, saying that they would only be released if the independence of the judiciary is restored.
A resolution could be near. The Polish Parliament is considering a bill that would limit government influence over the judiciary, which Didier Reynders, the European commissioner for justice, has said would be a “a promising step forward”.
“It is not without hope that some compromise could be reached,” Sikorski insisted. “Poland needs the rule of law and needs the low interest loans from the recovery fund, and we can have both, but the ruling party would have to give up its programme of controlling the judiciary by packing the courts. You can’t be in the EU with packed courts by the ruling party.”
Except you can. Poland and Hungary, another country where the ruling party has systematically undermined the rule of law and democratic institutions, are members of the EU and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Brussels has few means to prevent democratic backsliding once a country has joined the bloc.
Even the leverage afforded by the recovery fund may not be enough to fully restore the independence of the judiciary in Poland. The courts bill does not substantially restore the rule of law on its own, Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at the NGO Democracy Reporting International, said. “The bill won’t do anything about the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Council of the Judiciary, so it’s just a really small slice of the big rule of law problem Poland has.”
Sikorski is hopeful that PiS will lose power in the general election due to be held this year. “I don’t think they will dare to actually falsify the vote,” he said, though he pointed to measures the government is taking to help to avert loss. “Seventy per cent of Poles living abroad, including in Britain, voted for an opposition presidential candidate in 2019, so [the government] is now going to make it more difficult for Poles abroad to vote.” State media – which he characterises as “the BBC taken over by Breitbart [the hard-right American website]” – discredits opposition parties. “Democracy is not just honest counting of the votes on the day; democracy is a competitive ecosystem in which the government can lose.”
Opposition parties, including Sikorski’s Civic Platform, are in “intensive dialogue” about working together to defeat PiS. “There is almost certainly going to be a pact to have joint candidates to the upper house [of parliament]. The lower house is more difficult, but I’m hopeful that it will happen.”
Even so, the record of anti-strongman coalitions of that type defeating populist incumbents is mixed. In Israel one such alliance succeeded in unseating Benjamin Netanyahu in 2021 but collapsed after a year. Netanyahu won the subsequent election, returning to power in December. In Hungary Viktor Orban’s Fidesz easily beat an alliance of opposition parties in elections last April, destroying hopes that he would be driven from office.
If the coalition did succeed, change in the country could be profound. In government, the opposition would reverse Poland’s near-total abortion ban, Sikorski said, replacing it with legal termination up to 12 weeks, and reverse the measures to undermine the rule of law. On foreign policy “we would end this ridiculous conflict with European institutions and Poland’s two-front war with Russia and Germany at the same time”.
Sikorski is confident that the Polish opposition can defeat PiS if it unites and runs an effective campaign. If he is right, it would be a big a loss for illiberalism within the EU – and perhaps mean that Warsaw could begin gaining some of the influence Sikorski says it is due.