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Chief negotiator for accession of Poland to the European Union  Jan Truszczynski: Our place from the beginning was in the Western family of nations, united on the basis of common values and principles

Almost the entire career of Jan Truszczynski  has been related to the European integration issues. Already his M.A. thesis - back in 1972 - analyzed the advantages and disadvantages of a single currency for the European Economic Community. Then Jan Truszczynski worked as a European integration desk officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Polish People's Republic, and after that as a counselor at the Embassy of PPR in Brussels. However, for obvious reasons, European integration was not a priority for communist Poland.  The situation changed after 1989, when Poland embarked on the democratic path. For more than twenty years thereafter, until his retirement in 2014, Mr. Truszczynski worked as an Ambassador of Poland to the EU, Counselor to the President of Poland on European integration issues and the Government Commissioner of Poland’s accession negotiations with the EU. When the long way to the EU membership had succeeded, Jan Truszczynski continued working at the European Commission - first as a Deputy Director General for Enlargement, and then as a Director General for Education and Culture. Currently, Jan Truszczynski is a short-term expert of the Association4U Project and upon our request shares his experience of Poland’s reforms with Ukrainians. 

It was a long way for Poland to join the EU – 10 years. Considering this, how has the attitude of Polish society been changing towards the idea of membership in the EU?

Shifting. Generally, the majority of views were positive throughout the process. But the number and share of those who had doubts or even were downright opposed to Poland’s membership in the EU, fearing the economic consequences, material consequences of negative nature for themselves, kept increasing throughout the process leading to Poland’s membership. In fact, we involved youth -  high-school graduates and university students to work as volunteers, and provide minimum  basic information on membership in the EU at the level of every municipality, every rural commune included. This was a sort of information campaign which resulted in 77 per cent votes in favor of membership in the EU at the Polish referendum, and just a small minority was against membership.

The main thing in the Polish referendum was making the referendum results constitutionally valid. For that you need at least 50 percent of these eligible to go voting. That is why the referendum lasted for 2 full days.

 

What were the most efficient tools for providing the EU issues to convince the society?

One of such things, created in Poland, was the so-called National Integration Council - a nationwide body, reflecting as broad crosscut of the society as possible: political forces, religious and cultural associations, regional associations, and universities. The National Integration Council had been the platform to debate and to agree on the broad lines of information for the society, preparing the society for the future in Poland as a member state of the EU. A sort of social framework was created for the process of informing the public. But moving to a more practical level, - what mattered was, for instance, the existence of dedicated financing for the use of public funds on projects or programs informing about the European integration, different aspects of life in the EU etc. The government was financing (in open contests) the best projects, developed and promoted by the civil society organizations and by the media (public and private – without any distinction). And this sort of information work I regard probably the best performing and the most effective. Government should not be doing the information itself. It will often be associated with propaganda, whether you want it or not. But if the information is provided by others, then it stands at least a chance being seen as neutral thing without political sales speech, political message behind.

I remember having seen  a study of the effectiveness of different forms of public communication in the run up to Poland’s accession. Somebody made an independent study, I think, it was the European Commission. In any case, I was identified in that study as one of the most credible members of the governmental establishment. Why? Two reasons: I was not a member of any political party; I was perceived as a technocrat and not a politician.

There is a golden rule – the medium is the message. If somebody who is not credible is trying to sell even the best, most neutral information, it will not be ‘bought’. The more you do using independent channels with the government taking the back seat at the end, funding it, but doing it in a transparent way through competitions, open contests, the better for the quality of the information and for the willingness for the people to actually absorb and accept such information.

 

What were the main target groups to promote European integration from the government side?

Well, you talk to everybody. There are no preferential target groups. It would be fair to admit, though, that in its program of informing the society that the Polish government adopted, in 1999, when we were negotiating the terms and conditions of our accession to the EU, some groups were identified. I can recall farmers, small and medium entrepreneurs, or self-employed persons. I recall young people as one big group, high school and university students were perceived as a target group. Of course, you can slice up the society into many smaller target groups. In some other countries, that were joining the EU in parallel to Poland or before, like Austria, for instance, or Norway, they were even attempting to talk separately to housewives, believing them to be a distinct social category. In Austria taxi drivers were a separate group which required particular attention for many reasons. One - the taxi drivers were generally opposed to membership, second - taxi drivers were people sharing very broadly their ideas and discussing politics with every customer in the taxi. That’s, of course, another thought, but as far as Poland is concerned, information for the society was comprehensive.  And when we talk about a special focus, then we talk about specific information of let’s say professional or technical nature, that certain groups needed, not just in order to convince them that the benefits of membership were bigger than the downside cost of membership, but in order to help them better prepare to use the new conditions on of the market to perform competitively and effectively.

 

And what were the main messages to different groups of society formed about?

When you talk to farmers, it makes little sense to discuss the history of European integration, the principles that unite the European nations. This  all matters, but if you want to make yourself credible, you must focus on the content you are selling, on information that is relevant to everyday life of the farmers, and try to demonstrate that new conditions in their environment in the market should be generally beneficial, provided that they adapt to the new situation. When we finished the accession negotiations and work was continuing, ahead of the Polish accession referendum, as the former Polish chief negotiator, I had 60-70 meetings of my own throughout the country, and I also accompanied the country’s President in the meetings with representatives of different social groups.  I could see that no matter how customer-oriented the information content was, people remained with their fears. No amount of technical proof could make them lose that anxiety and recognize that EU membership after all is not a bad thing. When people voted in favor of, they were often voting ‘Perhaps I would not live long enough to see the effects of the membership in my own pocket, but I will do it for my children, perhaps they will have a better future’. However, after in half a year of the membership, when farmers started noting the first positive effects of Poland joining the EU, people could see that agricultural market prices did not slump and the country was not swamped with cheap agricultural products from abroad, people started to perceive joining the EU as a right decision.

The same goes for small scale businesses. Wherever you went, you would hear the same story: we will be swallowed the big sharks from the West, we will vanish from the market, our products will no more be in demand. When they saw that nothing like that happened, on the contrary, financial cost of trading across boarders went down and it became easier to actually find, locate buyers abroad, whereas sellers from abroad did not take over the Polish market, people started also believing that membership was the right decision.

 So, worries will be gone only when people start seeing that things generally change for the better.

 

Indeed, Poland has got large subsidies from the EU.

It’s not subsidies. It’s the overall growth of the country. Structural funds do play a role, but it’s not structural funds that help the country onwards. What was particularly helpful was a healthy set of fiscal and monetary policy tools that prevented us and our economy from going down after 2008. Everybody else went down, Poland kept going up. That was along with sound economic policy overall. That was probably the most important thing. Clearly, net transfers from the EU budget do play a role and they do contribute to the overall rate of investments in Polish GDP. And truly if not for these transfers, the rate of investments would be too low. So they contribute to the overall progress of the country’s economy. Poland is a supplier and its economy is an integral part of the value chain in many industries across Europe. Poland has managed to exploit the competitive advantage of a relatively low cost country in proximity to the western market. Good preparedness of the administration, good preparedness of Polish businesses, all those factors do play a role and contribute to the critical mass of progress. The membership as such alone could never have brought Polish economy that far. So – a fortunate set of circumstances supported, and I stress it again, by reasonable, sound fiscal and monetary policy of the country.

 

What was the more important motivation for Polish people to vote for EU membership: the common identity with West European countries or “stomach“, i.e. expected wealthier life?

All of that and more. Back to where we belong culturally and historically – that was one thing. Poland’s place was where it should have been from the very beginning – in the western family of nations, united on the basis of shared values and principles.

 

But was it indeed important for people?

Of course, it is important. Poles always felt themselves a part of the European civilization, temporarily cut off from a free flow of European ideas and cultures during the period after World War II, when Poland had to become a satellite of the Soviet Union. Return to democracy was also seen as a return to Europe. But that’s one part of the story, and the other part of the story was that Poland needed to change its ways, to modernize, to adapt. Instead of reinventing the wheel, one could use models tested in practice elsewhere and adopt them. Import of such models was seen as necessary, and gaining membership in the European Community made this process easier and quicker. Joining the European market had obvious benefits for the country’s economy. The ratio of costs to benefits of joining the EU was much better than any other geopolitical or economic configuration for Poland: Poland outside the EU, but as part of the free trade area; Poland as a self-standing nation, linked by a simple set of intergovernmental arrangements to the European countries; Poland linked across the ocean to the North American Free Trade Agreement (there were some weird ideas among the Polish politicians to try integrating with America rather than Europe).

 

It can often be heard in Ukraine about Europe as some external towards Ukraine area: the events in "Europe", the relations between Ukraine and "Europe", the negotiations with the "Europeans", how we are approaching “Europe”, etc. In such language constructions Ukraine seems to appear like "non-Europe". Was there something like that in Poland?

This dichotomy - “us” and “them” - is ever present actually, not just in Poland.  This is also a disease and affliction of political elites of many other countries: Brussels told us to do this or that. We went to Brussels and we fought for our national interests. I don’t want to make distinction here between the rightists, conservative and allegedly liberal and social leftist’ attitudes and views in politics. It has become a common practice, almost a political sport. If negotiations in Brussels bring an advantage – it is our national advantage, our win, if it is loss or a problem – it’s Brussels’ fault.  We are white and they are black. And that is one of the reasons (minor, but visibly present) why the attraction, the overall image of European integration is suffering.

 

You have mentioned that Polish skeptical farmers became convinced after joining the EU, after they got first positive results of membership for their business and they saw they are benefiting from joining the EU. But it seems that concerning Bulgaria or Romania, which joined EU after Poland, the results do not seem to be as positive. With this regard it is outspoken that every next new member of EU gets less benefits than the previous member.

Which benefits? We would have to use very practical and precise definitions. If you want to talk about the so-called structural funds, I would say that if you take percentage measure against country GDP, the contribution of structural funds, should be higher in Romania and Bulgaria than in Poland, because Poland is slightly richer country than Bulgaria or Romania. The per capita exposure of structural funds in those countries should nominally be higher than in Poland.  It will be fair to say that since they joined in 2007 and the economic crisis started one year later, and Romania made big mistakes in their economic policy mix. Nobody, I think, will deny that this was the main reason for the hardship that Romania suffered after 2008. But when it comes to common agricultural policy, the direct income support per hectare may well be different and it is different country by country and there will be differences even between the new EU member states - it is well justified and does not come from the blue air. But what would matter perhaps to make another sort of comparison: how the real per capita income per a farm rose in Romania, Bulgaria, respectively in Poland in the same period of time. We measured it for Poland – I still remember that - between 2004 and 2013 the average income in real terms of a single farm went up by 190 per cent.

 I’m not going to say that everyone became afterwards bathing in euros, but the countryside and farming made a really qualitative leap for the better in terms of income and sales of agricultural products. To use another example, before Poland joined the EU, being agricultural country that we are, we had negative trade balance which I think was about 2 billion euro per year in the last years before accession. If you look at the years 2013-2014, the positive trade balances that Poland enjoys is in the range of 4 billion euros per annum. From a minus sign Polish agricultural sector converted into the plus sign, in a sustainable way. I’m not going to claim that each and every agricultural product is sold in a way that brings huge profits, but I’m claiming that Poland was able to exploit its natural advantage resulting from good soil conditions and climatic conditions, resulting from its specialization in vegetable and fruit production, resulting from the relatively low cost labor on the farms etc.

 

Have the negotiations on Poland’s accession played plaid any role in for achieving these results?

They have. When we started negotiations it was felt by our west European partners, that Polish farmers did not need any direct income support along the Western European model. Why? It was claimed, because the competitive advantage of Polish farming – low cost labor - would compensate for the lack of direct payments. This was economically a very fragile argument (as the economic calculation was based on false assumptions and therefore should be dismissed).  And eventually our partners recognized that if there should be accession, then with central European farmers, Lithuanians, Czech, Hungarians, their farmers should be covered with the same economic instruments as the western European farmers. In this way Poland received relevant direct income support.

 

It proves that you have to stay firm in the negotiations

You need to have good arguments and sustain them of course. Giving up a good argument is a bad recipe for the negotiations. If you have a solid story to promote, to defend, then continue doing that.

 

You have participated in many negotiation rounds, i.a. you have negotiated also as a plenipotentiary. Did you feel differences in negotiation styles of the Western Europeans and yours?

This kind of negotiations should not be confused with what is usually understood under this word. It’s not a customary process of trading concessions, like negotiations between two business partners. It’s different – you are joining the club and declare: I will observe the rules of the club. You are thought to perform as a member of the club, but you need to adapt and start living by the rules. And the club members are entitled to look and see whether this is actually the case. What is negotiation in this regard? It is basically offering a documentary proof, material proof at regular intervals, that what you declared you would be doing (adjusting, adapting, changing), you are actually doing, generally in line with the calendar that you declared. And you are delivering the results in terms of implementation, which they can see for themselves and test. And from that grows mutual trust, people start believing that perhaps you as a candidate country would really fit to perform in more or less the same way, live by the same rules. So it is an exercise in mutual gradual building of trust. If you have no arguments, no material proof to put at the table and demonstrate that you have covered another stretch of the road and you move forward instead of doing rounds in the same place, then you do not build any additional layer of trust and do not come closer to the end results of the negotiations.

Overall it means that there is a little negotiation and a lot of sharing of information, delivery of material proof that you are moving up and forward in implementation of the rules of the club.

There was no negotiation as such during the formal negotiation rounds. All the real negotiation took place on the phone, in the corridors, in technical sessions at different levels, in different fora in-between preparing the ground for formal position of the EU member states, on behalf which the European Commission negotiated.

 

Did you feel the mental difference between the so-called new Europe and the old Europe in conversations and negotiations?

Of course, it’s inevitable. After all you come from a country which may be well a part of the European civilization and belong to Christianity and Carolingian area from the very outset. And yet everybody knows that for more than 40 last years you were an authoritarian country – a satellite of the a Soviet Union. You didn’t have a market economy, and quite little knowledge how market economy gets regulated. So, all the market economies, all the democracies regarded you as a pupil rather than somebody on the same level with them. In my personal contacts with colleagues-interlocutors I never felt this kind of condescending treatment, giving me to understand that I somehow belong to a lower class of Europeans. But, in general, stereotypes tend to die very slowly and instead of dying they sometimes hibernate in people’s minds. If you give enough reasons for them to wake up and become alive again, then they will.

 

What stereotypes do West Europeans have towards Poles? 

It will be perhaps different country by country, but I would say that by and large even today Poles would be seen as culturally, a bit inferior to the west Europeans. Of course these things do keep changing all the time and for the better. There is a longitudinal study between Poland and Germany measuring every 5 years the attitudes of Germans vis-à-vis Poles and vice versa. And if you look at the trends over the past twenty years, you can see clearly changes for the better. Even with shifts, unwelcome shifts at the political level, like the one we now have in Poland.  If you should ask a German interlocutor 25 years ago, can he/she imagine a Pole as his superior, he/she would say no. If you look at the same set of outcomes 5 years ago, then you see that most Germans nowadays have nothing against accepting a Polish national as their boss, provided that he/she is competent enough of course. The nationality is not a decisive factor any longer.

Germans used to say “polnische Wirtschaft”, which stood in the national vocabulary for disorder, something of low quality. This notion does not disappear, it is dormant, but if used - in small minority of cases. Poland came to be associated with Europe, generally with positive image.

 

Back in 1994, when Poland submitted its application for the EU membership, what nowadays distinguishes the current situation in Ukraine from the situation in Poland 20 years ago, leaving aside war in our country?

I’ll tell you: Poland managed a deep economic reform in its first attempt. It was painful, there was a huge downside to it, inevitably, but the momentum of change and critical change mass was done in the first attempt. Ukraine remained half-way, doing too many half-hearted attempts to move forward with this or that direction of regulatory environment for the economy. Actually after 25 years we should not be talking any longer about the need for economic reform or whatever. As we keep talking about that – this is indicator information that Ukraine, and it as not the only country, did not do enough what was necessary to the same extent as Poland did. Poland managed to show that if you have a solid and comprehensive program and it is carried by mainstream political forces which resolutely push the reform cart forward, than you will achieve results. It’s no coincidence that the Polish politician who is regarded as the main author of the Polish initial economic reform - Balcerowicz - is now advising the Ukrainian authorities. Of course, no miracle can be expected, just  sound advice. Early success brings more appetite for continuation if you see that what you did brings results, then you are more resolved to continue instead of experimental steps back instead of moving forward. In this I see the main difference. When I first came to Ukraine just after my retirement from the EC, when I came to Kyiv as part of the Support Group for Ukraine, my impression was, that despite all the enthusiasm following after the victory of Euro Maidan, I saw a lot of doubt and certain lack of conviction that this time you will overcome the constraints and barriers that were hampering the progress before, and moving forward will be decisive. I believe that Ukrainians should have more faith in themselves – this is what this country really needs. We can talk about the need to limit the oligarchic influence on the politics and economy – very true. Need to support the growth and create better conditions for small and medium businesses – very true. Need for a land reform – meaning creating market for agricultural land; pension reform, healthcare reform, - all that is necessary, but it needs to be carried with more faith. We always keep saying Ukraine is a rich country, educated society, high level of culture. It is understood that Russian aggression significantly disrupts Ukraine’s efforts. But Ukraine has all the ingredients to become a well-performing large modern economy. So Ukrainians should have more faith in themselves!

 

Which Polish mistakes should Ukraine avoid?

I’m not sure I know how to answer this question. I don’t even want to speculate. It depends on who you talk to about Poland. In my country there are many people who believe that this or that should have been done differently, faster or later, especially in the 90-ies. We have people claiming that the countryside and the small towns have been left behind, unlike large municipalities, and did not benefit from the fruits of economic growth. We have people claiming that the former Polish kolkhozes did remain pockets of poverty and more should have been done to avoid this. Indeed, each of these situations merits a separate discussion with pro and contra arguments. It’s useless to generalize, and it would be useless to say, that here and there things should have been done totally differently. By and large, looking back I think the results that Poland obtained during the past 25 years are the best answer to that question. I personally see no particular area which should be regarded as a failure, with perhaps one exception. I think that despite all the efforts we are somehow unable to generate a push towards more innovation and faster innovation in the society and economy. Despite all the efforts undertaken in the past, Poland remains relatively underperforming society and relatively underperforming economy too. There is no good answer why. If you look at the necessary ingredients: financial, regulatory, educational, research, infrastructure etc., linkages to better developed economies, than basically all the elements necessary to actually take off and reformat into a much more inventive and innovation-minded economy, - everything is present. And yet, we stay a middle income country and we do not know how to move to a higher stage of development.

 

Do you believe that Ukraine joins the EU some day and if yes, in what time perspective?

We have no crystal ball. Considering the crisis that affected the EU integration process in the course of the past several years, who will guarantee that the European Union as we know it will be still there in 10 or 15 years? Some forms of close cooperation and hopefully, based on shared law principles and ideology of European society, shall still be present. But whether it will be the same organization with the same institutions and the same broad set of policies as is the case at present, - you don’t know, I don’t know, nobody knows. Of course we always tend to extrapolate the present into the future and assume that by and large things will stay like they are now. But as to Ukraine, I should say that it is a pretty long-haul effort for Ukraine to be actually recognized as a valid candidate for membership, and to start accession negotiations, and finish those successfully. At present, as we can see, saddled with all the problems that the EU has, the member states are in no mood to consider expanding the club, and admitting new countries as candidates. Ukraine has not made a sufficient progress in delivering of its own commitments under the Associations Agreement, not coming effectively closer to the single market of the EU to substantiate sufficiently the claim that now is the time to consider it as a candidate. The same is true for the overall preparedness of the country. If it starts happening in some years, the framework conditions will be fulfilled for considering a move to another, higher stage of relationship with the EU.

 

 Ivan Gayvanovych