I say Europe, you say…? Interview with Rafał Trzaskowski
31 January 2023
I say Europe, you say?
Poland has been on the front lines of European efforts to assist Ukraine since the war began, with roughly 1.5 million refugees entering the country. How has this impacted Warsaw?
It has accelerated Warsaw’s transformation towards a multicultural city. Warsaw is now home to around 200K Ukrainians (pre-war migrants and war refugees), 20K Belarussians and thousands of other nationalities from Eastern Europe and Asia. It has grown and become more diversified within a couple months, a development that usually takes years to happen. But it also showed how strong and open-minded Varsovian civil society is.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Warsaw at the moment?
We have the same challenges as any other European city. We need to become more resilient as recent years have been bringing one crisis after another, from the COVID pandemic to war in Ukraine. We need to adapt to climate change, invest in zero-emission transportation and infrastructure, retrofitting, etc.… And we must maintain public services at the highest possible level. This is a new challenge, as the central government is cutting off our incomes through tax changes and the centralisation of Poland.
In many cities across Europe, we are seeing a shift from cars and the development of many pedestrianised areas and bicycle lanes. This is certainly the case in Brussels. How has this played out in Warsaw, and do you think we can expect it to continue across the EU?
This the direction in which Warsaw is heading. We have one of the best public transportation networks among European capitals. We invest in bicycle lanes and prioritise pedestrians. But it is a complex process, which generates a lot of discussions and tensions. Cars are still a symbol of societal status and every step we make to limit their inflow to the city centre meets opposition. It’s going to take time, but already today I see that the young generation and our senior citizens share a vision of a city with less car traffic, more walking spaces and clean air.
The war has brought renewed focus on the roles local governments play in effectively managing crises. However, most cities in Poland, including yours, are run by parties opposed to the government. Has that created any issues?
I say it openly: the central government was very reactive in dealing with the crisis. They opened up the border to Ukrainian refugees and left the rest to private persons, NGOs and local governments. A strategy was not there. Instead, we observed many chaotic moves which surprised us many times. But at the end of the day, we managed to build channels for dialogue and consultations. Both the government, the cities, and local societies all wanted to help refugees. And that was the most important thing.
Sanctions on Russia have raised many questions in Europe, with some questioning their effectiveness. However, a recent Martens Centre paper suggests they are indeed having their intended effect. What’s your take?
I think it takes time for sanctions to work. Russia first lost its credibility, then its foreign investors and lastly began losing the European oil and gas market. The economy is in bad shape as it never recovered from the waves of the COVID pandemic that also took their toll. Putin is getting more revenue to the budget as energy prices went up, but he cannot buy critical components in certain areas, e.g., the Russian aviation industry. Altogether, I think Russia is heading toward a profound socio-economic crisis as the costs of aggression are mounting. And Putin miscalculated the EU response: instead of more divisions, we see more cooperation among Europeans and Americans, and between the EU and Ukraine. We also see that Russian allies in Central Asia or in China are not eager to pay his political and economic bill.
Poland and its neighbours have been the most vocal and the most active in supporting Ukraine and its people. Do you think an increased presence of Central and Eastern European countries is to be expected in other areas of EU foreign policy in the future?
Let me say one thing: Poland is no longer a new member state. We view challenges ahead of Europe in more less the same way as the Belgians, Spaniards or Germans. It concerns the future of our society and economy. We want Europe to be the best place to live, to be secure and prosperous. This requires more than being an advocate of Ukraine. We want to be active in all the Euro-Atlantic dimensions from military to trade to digital; we have things to say about enlargement prospects for the Western Balkans and EU partnerships in Asia. But first, the opposition needs to win the elections in 2023, as the present government views the EU only as a purse with euros in it.
Have you noticed a shift in how people talk about the Ukraine war in Poland since a missile accidentally landed in the country’s East, killing two?
No, there was no shift. We see a sort of refugee fatigue, i.e., Poles are tired of providing assistance, and they need to struggle everyday with the rising cost of living, energy prices etc. The initial enthusiasm and social energy are gone of course. But all the opinion polls I’ve seen prove that a staunch majority of around 70% support Ukraine. The accident you mentioned has not changed that.
Of course, the conflict and the role Europe has played in assisting refugees highlighted the respect for humanity that underpins the European project. What acts of human kindness have stuck out to you during your time in Warsaw?
The thing that struck me most was the scale and commitment of ordinary citizens. People were inviting refugees to their private homes, organising themselves to provide food, medicines, funds. That was a real civil society in action that did not wait for orders but took responsibility for other human beings. That was really awesome. And it proved that solidarity and compassion is close to a majority of Poles, also those living in Warsaw.
You united the opposition in Poland and nearly won the Presidency in a very tight election. What can other EPP parties who are in opposition learn from you?
I don’t feel like I have the right to preach to anyone. This election took place in exceptional circumstances, in between the first waves of the pandemic, with authorities doing absolutely everything in their power to favour their candidate. For the opposition, uniting in the second round behind one candidate was the most natural thing to do. What I’m most happy about and proud of is the fact that so many people got involved in my campaign, ordinary people who spontaneously organised themselves in reaching out to as many voters as possible and trying to convince everyone around them that I was the right man for the job. I wouldn’t have been able to obtain such a result without this popular mobilisation. Therefore, I strongly believe it is important to mobilise people not only through political parties – as not everyone is interested – but through other channels too, like local governments’ movements or events like Campus Poland, that we organised for the second time last year.
Have the past 12 months made you more optimistic or more pessimistic about the future of the EU?
There is a saying that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. I know the EU from the inside. As an MEP and then Minister for European Affairs, I know the European project very well. And I can tell you that whenever the EU is said to be doomed to fail, like with the war in Iraq, the Euro-crisis, the migration crisis, whatever it may be, something close to a miracle happens. Confronted with big problems, the EU manages to consolidate, face its dilemmas and find the way out. This is how we work. And the last year was no exception to that.
This interview series also seeks to present the human side of European leaders to our audience; so, what do you like to do on a day off?
Read a book, spend time with my friends and family, ride a bike in the forest of Warsaw.
After winning the league two years in a row, Legia Warsawza got a nasty surprise last season. Things are on the up, but what do you think Legia Warsawza need to win Ekstraklasa?
It needs time and hard work. You are as good as your last game. It’s true in politics. And it’s true in football.
And finally, where should we take this interview next? Which EPP leader should we interview, and what should we talk about?
Definitely Friedrich Merz, discussing how the Russian aggression changed German politics.
I say Europe, you say…? is a series of candid interviews with centre-right movers and shakers of the European project. From legislative work to food preferences, from weekday causes to weekend hobbies, we show you the human face of EU politics and its main protagonists.