We want to repair the Union

Source: Republic of Poland in English

BILD am SONNTAG: Mr President, when you think of Germany, what is that comes to your mind first?

ANDRZEJ DUDA: Germany is our closest neighbour. A country with a very good economic standing, a high standard of living and a rich society. I am convinced that Germany will be able to face up to the problems that it is confronted with today.

Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland. This is how World War 2 began. Your grandfather’s brother fought against the Nazis in the ranks of the Home Army. He was tortured to death by the Gestapo. Was your family able to forgive the Germans?

We are Catholics, as people we do forgive each other. I can say on behalf of my family that there is no hatred towards the German nation in us. I don’t know any single person in my family who would feel they have to seek revenge.

Would you wish that Poland and Germany commemorate this anniversary together next year as a sign of reconciliation and friendship? 

We agreed with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that our countries will jointly commemorate the outbreak of World War 2, caused by the attack on Poland by Germany, allied with the Soviet Union. Preparations have been underway for several months. Initially, we have agreed that large-scale commemorative events will take place in the Polish city of Wieluń. It was on this city that the first German bombs fell, causing major casualties among civilian population.

Was the question of German reparations for Poland finally resolved?

In my opinion, the issue of reparations have not been resolved. In the Polish Parliament, in the Sejm, a group of experts has been entrusted to deal with this subject. Members of Parliament will debate this and decide what to do next.

And what is your personal opinion?

Our late President, Professor Lech Kaczyński, was in possession of expert opinions according to which the losses suffered by Poland during the war have never been compensated for. These expert opinions concerned mainly the losses sustained by the capital of Poland – Warsaw, which was razed to the ground. The findings of Parliament’s expert group to date also confirm that the losses we have suffered have not been redressed. It is, therefore, a question of truth and responsibility.

The AfD party, whose chairman, Mr Gauland, underestimates Nazi terror by calling it ‘bird’s blotch’, has its seats in the German Parliament.  Another AfD politician, Mr Höcke, demands a “U-turn in the culture of remembrance”.  What does this mean for Polish-German relations?

No honest, righteous German who takes history in earnest should be saying something like that. The responsibility of the Nazi Germany for the outbreak of war, for the Holocaust, for the deaths of almost six million Polish citizens is obvious. The fact that so far no German party has questioned Germany’s guilt has enabled a great process of reconciliation between Poland and Germany. The fact that we have such good relations today is due to our reflection about the past and about the warning that history gives us. 

Poland is the first country against which the EU has initiated infringement proceedings. The accusation is that the Polish government is seeking to curb the independence of the judiciary and removes from office the judges of the Constitutional Tribunal that it dislikes. The European Court of Justice has even decided that 27 judges must be reinstated immediately. Will your country accept this verdict? 

In the first place, none of the judges of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal has been removed from office. Secondly, strictly speaking, the Court of Justice of the European Union has not yet examined the substance of the case that you are asking about, namely the retirement of the judges of the Supreme Court. Personally, I absolutely do not believe that the currently binding provisions of law curb the rights of judges nor that they contravene legal norms. The retirement age of judges is 65. This is the normal retirement age in Poland. The Polish government carries out legal analyses of the decision taken by the Court of Justice of the EU. Afterwards, we will be able to discuss the next steps to be taken. As a state governed by the rule of law, we implement all decisions lawfully taken and remaining within the limits of the law.

The charge is that it is not about the age of the judges, but about their political views.

Of course, the objective criterion is age. However, I would like to say quite openly: we need a generational change in the judiciary. Some judges passed sentences back at the times of the communist repressions. As a result of the regulations we have introduced, judges who ruled during the martial law are to retire. It is high time it happened thirty years after the democratic changes in Poland.  

Poland receives EUR 7 billion a year from the European Union budget, which makes it the largest net recipient of EU funds. At the same time, Warsaw is one of the toughest critics of Brussels? How can one reconcile this?

The Poles are content with the membership of the European Union. The European community is for us a synonym for freedom and open borders. We, the Poles, value it very much. After all, for 50 years running, we found ourselves behind the Iron Curtain. However, there are some things that concern us. And here we are not alone in the European Union. That is why we want to repair the Union. All the more so given that such disturbing phenomena as Brexit have already taken place. If the British people were of the opinion that everything is fine with the EU, they would not be in favour of leaving the EU. At the moment, there are mounting disputes between the European Commission and a number of Member States, such as Italy, because the Commission has challenged Italy’s budget. Tensions in the Union are increasing, not decreasing.

Are you on the side of Italy?

As I said, more and more countries are having problems with the European Commission. In this context, it is particularly worrying that European citizens do not believe that the Commission is democratic or that the processes unfolding in it are transparent. Therefore, the European Union should be a community of nation states, in which democratic institutions of the Member States play a decisive role.

Do you really want less Europe, not more Europe?

I want more democracy in Europe. This means a greater role for democratic institutions at Member States’ level and at European level. The latter includes not only the European Parliament, but also the European Council, which is made up of democratically elected Heads of State or Government in their respective countries.

The dispute over refugee policy in the EU is still ongoing. Chancellor Angela Merkel is in favour of a quota distribution of refugees. Why does Poland resist this?

We reject the system of forced distribution of refugees, imposed by the EU. Poland fulfils its obligations as regards the protection of the EU external border. We also have our share in helping refugees. We are and have always been an open country. According to Eurostat, last year Poland issued the largest number of work and permanent residence permits in the whole Union.

Does this also apply to Muslims from Syria or Iraq? 

We do not reproach anyone on account of his of her origin, but this acceptance must not be done against the will of the people. In 2015, several dozen Syrian families were brought to Poland. They were given housing and work, children could attend schools. And what happened? All these families left for Germany. In order to avoid this, we would have to keep them under coercion and close the border with Germany. There can be no consent to this. Open borders are a symbol of freedom and the freedom to choose where to live and work.

This is certainly one of the reasons why 750,000 Poles live in Germany. They work primarily as caretakers, housekeepers, or on construction sites. Is it good or bad?

The Poles not only work in Germany, but also invest and create jobs. Recently I visited one of the enterprises run by a Polish investor in Germany. However, that being said I would like those who have left for Germany or the United Kingdom to return to us one day. 

In the case of Poles in the UK, this can happen quickly. The British people do not want EU citizens to be able to choose their place of work freely after Brexit, they just want to ensure the free movement of goods. What is your position on this?

Free trade and free movement of labour are inalienable fundamental freedoms and, from the Polish point of view, Europe’s greatest treasure. In the Brexit agreement both these rights must be guaranteed. We owe it to our citizens.

You continue to warn against the threat posed to Poland and other countries of the eastern part of the EU by Russia.  How dangerous is President Putin?

Let us draw conclusions from the facts. Over the last 10 years, Russia has twice changed its borders in Europe by force. It attacked Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. In both cases, the legal borders of both countries have not been restored to this day. Late President Lech Kaczyński anticipated the development of the situation. In 2008, in Tbilisi, containing the Russian invasion together with the leaders of Central and Eastern European countries, he said, and here I quote: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic States, and then perhaps it is time for my country, Poland”. Today, Moscow’s imperial ambitions are obvious to everyone.  That is why we must strengthen NATO’s eastern flank.

Is Germany doing enough to protect its eastern NATO partners?

The key in NATO is allied solidarity and responsibility and costs that are jointly shared. I welcome the good military cooperation with the Bundeswehr. The German armed forces together with us and the Danes took over the responsibility for the command of the NATO Corps in Szczecin. Together we also strengthen the north-eastern flank of the Alliance. But let us remember that security also means energy security. We also expect solidarity in this respect.

Your spouse is a German teacher. You often travelled together in Germany. What, in your opinion, are the typical German features?

I like Germany. Driving across your country you can see good order, buildings and courtyards are well maintained. We have a lot in common. Poles and Germans are good neighbours.