Ewa Boniecka: French-Polish cooperation is being renewed after a period where relations had been less warm than they traditionally are. How can the relationship be strengthened?
Pierre Buhler: First of all, I want to emphasize that while there was a lukewarm period in our bilateral relations, we never stopped cooperating. We had very good relations during the 1990s, which slowed down a little in the early 2000s, when there was a difference in the attitude towards the conflict in Iraq. Poland went to war there, along with the United States, but we decided that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: history has shown who was right.
French Ambassador to Poland Pierre Buhler
Courtesy of the French embassy in Poland
There were a number of episodes which probably did not help boost our relations, but I want to stress that they never ceased. Our cooperation at the working level has been solid. We supported the Polish presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2011, and earlier we cooperated with the Polish prime minister at the time, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, in his efforts to obtain ?67 billion from the EU budget for Poland.
Now, while we agree there is an opening of a new chapter in our relations, the situation is as follows: We have a very strong and warm rapport between our presidents as well as between our prime ministers. There are a lot of ministerial visits and the rapport is extremely good between our ministers of defense, for example. The foreign affairs ministers of both countries were invited to participate in ambassadorial meetings: the French minister took part in such a meeting of Polish ambassadors in Warsaw in 2012, and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski participated in the meeting of French ambassadors in Paris in August this year.
I want to explore all the existing opportunities for building a framework of our relations. I think that we must institutionalize these relations with a number of regular meetings, consultations and contacts on a working level. To this end, we have proposed a program which provides a description of what fields we have to work in together and which structures are needed to move forward. We have established such structures with Germany which operate at all levels, and they provide substance and continuity in our cooperation which is extremely fruitful for French-German relations. There was a lack of such structures in Polish- French relations, so now we have to move forward with them. At present, we are supposed to have inter-governmental consultations every year, while in reality the last such consultation happened in 2009, so it’s a gap we have to fill.
We have to have continuity to build a solid relationship and to make it immune from the ups and downs of politics and the switching of priorities. We think that we have enough long-lasting common interests to have institutionalized relations.
France and Poland are now developing close cooperation in the fields of defense and security, can you elaborate on this?
Let me say that our cooperation in defense has a very old tradition, going back to the Napoleonic era. Our military cooperation stopped when we became separated by the Iron Curtain. As soon as Poland regained its freedom, we undertook very active cooperation in defense matters.
Today we have very diverse cooperation: in Afghanistan, in the EU mission to Mali, we are conducting strategic dialog which has been boosted by the present warm atmosphere in our relations. In November we will cooperate in NATO’s military “Steadfast Jazz” exercise, conducted for the first time in Poland and some other eastern members of NATO, in which France will be the biggest participant, providing 1,200 soldiers.
Both countries are reliable allies in the framework of collective NATO defense and we look forward to cooperating with Poland to move the European defense and security agenda forward at the EU summit in December.
Poland has adopted a long-running program of modernizing its armed forces. What could France’s role be in this process?
Let me elaborate on some broader aspects of French-Polish cooperation. Our minister of defense has decided to move Poland from the French sub-department for armaments, which deals with customers of France, to another department where we are conducting military cooperation with Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and the US. This also shows an upgrade in the level of our military cooperation with Poland. Now that Poland is our partner, not a customer, it will be participating in sharing military technology, research programs and the exchange of military practices. It is a very decisive change in our approach and valuable for boosting Poland’s role in shaping the defense policy of the European Union.
There are also developments in the technical aspects of military cooperation. A number of European and French companies are interested in cooperating in the field of producing helicopters. There was an offer made by the European EADS consortium, with an agreement signed to open industrial plants for helicopter production in ¸ód¶ and D´blin. This means that Poland will join the core of the European defense industry in the domains of production, research, and the export of that equipment.
The French state-owned company DCNS has also offered the Polish Navy shipyard in Gdynia cooperation in the production of “Scorpene” submarine ships. It has also offered to share the sophisticated technology and to develop long-lasting production for export. Such a contract would create 1,000 highly skilled jobs within a decade and boost the production of naval equipment in Poland. I have named here only a few aspects of military cooperation between Poland and France, but it shows its importance in our relations.
There is a lot of room for improvement in our bilateral economic relations. Why are Polish-French trade relations so modest?
Our economic relations are modest, but significant nonetheless. The value of our mutual trade amounts to €15 billion, while France is selling less to Poland than Poland to France. This has partially been the result of the economic crisis, which has affected consumption, and French exports have also suffered. Another explanation is that Poland has changed its legal conditions for selling pharmaceuticals in its domestic market and France, which holds a very strong position in pharmaceutical production and export, bore the brunt of it.
Maybe some of our goods are not well-suited to the Polish market, but I agree that our mutual trade is too small, so it is our duty to change it. But you should not forget that France is the third-biggest foreign investor in Poland and the value of French outstanding direct investments amount to ?20 billion, with 800 French companies operating in Poland, providing 150,000 jobs.
Is the French market difficult for Polish businesses to enter?
We welcome Polish businesspeople, investors, service companies and workers in France. What we expect is that those companies and workers submit to French law.
We are protective towards workers, we have minimum-wage regulations and well-developed social benefits. But that creates heated competition on our market, so maybe it is not easy to find a place in it.
France and Poland have stressed the need to encourage economic growth in the European Union. How do you see our countries’ cooperation in fighting the economic slowdown?
Nobody is closer in the EU than France and Poland when it comes to moving forward the agenda of economic growth. Our governments decided to act together on this and the outcome was the EU budget and financial framework approved in February, as well as the following agreement of providing €73 billion for growth incentives.
In the same spirit, we were able to secure payments related to agricultural policy. France and Poland have a similar approach to strike a balance between growth promotion and budget consolidation.
While the euro zone is integrating, a two-speed European Union has become fact. How do you view the further development of this situation?
The stress on economic growth is one of the ways to fight the present recession in the EU. Budget consolidation is another method, while we are also working on the process of fixing the monetary union with a number of tools such as the banking union. What concerns the members of the euro zone has a huge influence on non-euro zone members, so France and Poland point to the need to take due consideration of non-euro zone members as far as the whole development of the EU is concerned.
Both countries favor deeper integration of the EU. In what way can France and Poland cooperate in pushing the idea of deeper integration?
Both countries certainly favor larger and deeper integration of the European Union. But what does that mean? For France it means building economic and political union. But some European societies are somewhat lukewarm towards building a deeper European Union; they have very strong feelings towards their national states.
There are always parties and individuals who use the politics of fear to gain support, but what our two governments say and do is that they are for further integration. The euro zone is one aspect of this, which is already proceeding with integration, while another one is defense and security. We think that the European Union has to take care of its own security as we see that our American friends are looking towards other regions and rightly so – there is no need to complain about that. But they have asked the Europeans to take on more responsibilities for themselves. This means further integration in the fields of security and defense, the development of tools to act in crisis situations, and the anticipation of dangerous situations.
These tools are being established and the December EU summit will address these issues and ways of promoting further integration. There are other matters we have to tackle together, for example climate change.
But the European Union still does not speak with one voice on foreign policy.
It is our common aim to speak in unison on foreign and security policy and we are all committed to that ideal and pursue such a view. You are right that it is not a reality these days, but you should look at it from a historical perspective.
Foreign policy is perhaps the last field that has been subject to integration. It is a process, and the European External Action Service – EEAS – has been in place for only two years. It cannot be expected to become a strong mechanism overnight. In a crisis situation there is often no time to consult all member states. Governments react under the pressure of current events, and furthermore they play to domestic constituencies.
This is a democratic game, so I doubt whether we will be able to build a common foreign policy very soon. National interests are diverse, and countries have various bilateral relations with other countries. If you look at EU membership, there are two nuclear powers, not every EU member belongs to NATO, some are formally neutral.
When you realize the sensitivity of some members over the idea of sovereignty, that some societies are pacifist, others are more eager to take on international responsibility, it is a miracle that we all make up one community. We should not judge the European Union by its many expressions of diversity, but primarily see the unique value in the fact that we were able to build such a community and that we have achieved so much over the years, bringing together 28 countries with such different backgrounds. It is a truly historic process.
On a personal note, you have spent a lot of time in Poland and have even written a book on the history of the country. What are your impressions of Poland now?
I was here as a young second secretary in our embassy during the 1980s and when I see what has happened in Poland I am very optimistic. It has been an overwhelming evolution since those years and I am deeply moved by how the Polish people’s dynamism and wisdom has provided a path for the liberation of the country and this part of Europe. So I am very proud now to serve as the ambassador of my country to a free and democratic Poland.
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