Polish MEP Says Future Parliament Could Influence More Issues, e.g. Farming, Israel     Print
Monday, 12 May 2008

Parliament’s Marek Siwiec does Q&A with European Affairs

Marek Siwiec, 53, is a Polish politician who is a vice-president of the European Parliament, where he belongs to the European Socialists faction.

Between 1997 and 2004, he was the chief of the Polish National Security Office under President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a key international policy post in the presidency. Siwiec visited Washington in May with a delegation of the European Parliament and spoke with European Affairs during a brief Q&A session.

Q: How well does Washington understand trends in the European Union?

A: Like any superpower, the United States has a tendency of over-simplify foreign problems. It tends to ignore trends that emerge quietly, without dramatic developments that compel attention among U.S. policy-making elites. This applies to the EU, which is still not well understood in Washington.

Q: What do U.S. policy-makers grasp?

A: Americans understand the Schengen accord and our customs union because they are familiar with free travel and free trade. But they often don’t understand our approach to juridical issues or internal-security problems. The EU cannot really be understood by comparisons with any other system.

Q: Is this damaging?

A: U.S. policy-makers still tend to operate with the cold war era’s reflex of preferring to build bilateral policies with each individual European country. Take the visa-waiver question: the regime should be the same for all EU member states in the EU but it isn’t. Of course, it doesn’t help that we in the EU have not managed to develop a cohesive foreign policy of our own yet.

Q: Do you see any positive trend?

A: Transatlantic trade and direct investment are spectacularly large, so the EU and U.S. have a responsibility to work together on a broad range of global policies. I counted eight or nine European Commissioners who have given speeches in Washington in the last few months talking about cooperation on a whole list of subjects: justice, anti-trust, accounting standards, economy, environment, open skies and so on. Very slowly, the EU is gaining credibility in Washington.

Q: How is the Parliament evolving?

A: It is not yet the legislative body it is supposed to be, but it is changing. It started as little more than “democratic window-dressing.” Many parliamentarians were people who had not been very successful politically in their own countries. That’s changed: now there is two-way traffic between being an MEP and a foreign minister or vice-premier in a national government.

Q: Is this change affecting your role?

A: The parliament has a dramatically more energetic role, and it is actively looking for policy areas where it can make an effective difference. Right now, we’re involved in roughly 40 areas of EU policy, but once the Lisbon treaty takes effect, that number will more than double, to about 90.

Q: What about your impact?

A: We are getting more powers. Recently, we forced multinational phone companies to reduce roaming charges for their mobile-phone subscribers in Europe – a change that affected several hundred million people in their daily lives. There was no other institutional set-up ready to tackle this problem, so we did. Looking ahead, I expect to see the parliament doing more and more of this sort to thing, in being responsible to the voters who now put us into office by direct elections.

Q: What sort of issues do you have in mind?

A: Look for us to be increasingly active on questions that interest the European electorate: human rights, environment, consumer issues – a whole range of these questions. Take the example of the U.S. program to operate secret “rendition” flights through airfields in Europe. No government involved in this practice has acknowledged publicly what happened. We took it on with parliamentary methods. In trying to push into such an area protected with high-level laws and secrecy, we had only limited success. But something important happened. I am convinced that as a result of our efforts such things will not happen again in the future.

Q: What did the matter tell us about the parliament?

A: It showed we had enough courage to tackle such a sensitive issue, and it was an important sign of our special role. The European Commission gets its mandate from the EU’s Council of Ministers, which represents the governments of the member states. That set-up implies some limits on what those bodies are going to do. In contrast, the parliament can operate outside that mandate of governments because we are the voice of the people. It was a milestone when the parliament succeeded in putting enough pressure on the Commission to block the appointment of an Italian nominated to be a Commissioner and get him replaced. (Incidentally, the successor, Franco Frattini, has just gone back to Italy as a cabinet minister in the new government.)

Q: What is the biggest change you think the parliament should push?

A: The Parliament has enough status to help bring about constructive discussion about big changes in the Common Agricultural Policy. The time has come. Those subsidies usefully maintained our agriculture when crop prices were low. Now food prices have risen enough for farmers to stay in business, comfortably, on a free-market basis. We need to start making the point that the money spent on price supports should go on other forms of help to farmers. Right now. There is a big “civilization gap” between rural and urban areas in many of our countries – for example, in Poland. We have large populations living far away from access to culture, health care and many other benefits. So I would say, “dear farmer, let’s talk about spending the money not on your potatoes but on other things that can benefit you in other ways.”

Q: Looking outside the EU’s borders, what foreign issues are on the front burner in the parliament?

A: Like other EU institutions, we’re trying to assess some broad international geopolitical issues such as the Middle East problem. One of the reasons for my visit here to Washington is to address the American Jewish Congress on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s foundation. Right now, Washington is trying to establish a balance sheet for its eight years in office, and it’s a complicated question in the Middle East. But taken from the angle of Israel’s security, I think the outcome has been negative. Many new phenomena have emerged: Hama’s control in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah gains in Lebanon. This cannot be blamed entirely on Washington, I think, but things are moving in a bad direction and the lame-duck administration cannot do much. So the question is: Where was the mistake? What policy changes are needed? Can the EU change its future role? It is not the right time – and should not be the time – for Washington to try any spectacular action, so the EU should try to be present in a way that encourages positive trends in the region (precisely the trends that are not dominant right now). I think we can see that our approach to exporting democracy can backfire by bringing to power factions – like Hamas – that gain a mandate for their dangerous regime. Above all, the EU has to have ambitions to become not just a payer but a player.

Q: How can the EU ever have political leverage in an area where one side of the conflict, Israel, mistrusts you?

A: We have to get beyond a situation where our policy is being set by CNN and other television networks that constantly focus on showing violence and often violence shown as attacks on Palestinian civilians. We have to think more carefully about defining our long-term vision for this part of the world. We need to convince our societies to focus on the need for long-term stable peace in the region. I think a particularly helpful contribution is coming from the so-called “new Europe,” where countries, particularly Poland, are friendly toward Israel. It’s time for Europe to stop thinking of Israel just as a troublemaker and start to recognize Israel as a democracy that can be an attractive partner for us in many ways. For this, we need to move beyond a pattern that consists only of commemorating the holocaust and the rest of the past and move toward a vision of Israel and Europe in the 21st century. When Poland got back its freedom 20 years ago, we discovered some ugly truths about our past and Polish people’s relations with Jews. We faced these difficult facts and had tough discussions among ourselves coming to terms with them. We had the freedom to do it, and the truth we now come to hold has reinforced our authentic freedom. This new situation could give us a new attitude in the Middle East.

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* Answers have been edited for clarity.