Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki on the COVID comeback, the Three Seas Initiative, and where the US is falling short

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Event transcript

H.E. Mateusz Morawiecki
Prime minister of the Republic of Poland

Ian Brzezinski
Senior fellow, the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Hello and welcome, everyone. I’m Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thank you all for joining us today at the EU-US Future Forum.

Many thanks to our colleagues, the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, for partnering with the Atlantic Council on this major three-day conference, and to all the teams who’ve worked tirelessly to put this impressive event together.

I’m honored to host this session. It’s titled “In Dialogue: A Conversation with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki.” Mr. Prime Minister, welcome. It’s an honor to have you with us today. I want to thank you for your leadership and tireless energy on behalf of the US-Polish relationship and the transatlantic community. In today’s session, we’re eager to discuss with you transatlantic multilateral cooperation, the opportunities and challenges before this community of nations, and of course the role of Poland.

Before we begin, I want to encourage our audience to engage us on social media using the hashtag #EUFF2021. That’s hashtag #EUFF2021.

Mr. Prime Minister, allow us to begin by addressing perhaps the most immediate challenge before the transatlantic community: The human and economic toll caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic has tested the transatlantic community’s ability to respond together to a devastating and at times divisive challenge. It has tested our economies. It has tested our unity. How do you, as prime minister of Poland, assess the US-European response to the medical and health consequences of this pandemic?

PRIME MINISTER MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: Thank you, Ian. Thanks for having me and thank you for being able to take part in this very interesting conference.

Ladies and gentlemen, last year, last 12 months or so, were the most difficult over the previous at least three decades for transatlantic relationship, for Europe, for the United States, and exactly this was because of COVID-19. Given our democracy and democratic systems and will for freedom and the way of life, it was not so easy to respond, to reply to this—to this dreadful, terrible disease pandemic. And this is why also our economies were hit very, very badly over the past 12 months.

We were actually able, on the level of the European Council, where I sit, and with the United States, to actually keep our regulations and the level of trade and the dialogue around taxation on an appropriate level. There was—there were attempts to go into the trade war, for instance, but we were able to fend off those threats. And this was—this was on the positive side.

On the more—on the less positive, it was the reply of our health-care systems, and I mean our—like in the—almost the whole of the European Union and in the United States. It was not prepared appropriately for the pandemic, as—such terrible pandemic as COVID-19.

And with this thought, in Europe we have prepared a resilience and recovery plan: 750 billion euros, close to $1 trillion, on top of $1.3 trillion budget for next several years, EU budget for recovery purposes, for investment purposes, infrastructure, and so on. So this is still not yet activated, given the procedures. And there is this difference between Europe and the United States that in the US, given it’s one state, the decision-making process is easier. It takes a little bit longer here in Europe, but we were able to over the past couple of months to agree on the most important priorities exactly in the context of COVID-19, health-care systems, and how to improve them in the context of a pandemic, the question which Ian asked me at the beginning.

Just yesterday, the Polish parliament has passed the bill—or, the lower chamber of the parliament, I should have said—of the bill of recovery and resilience funds. And at the beginning of the second half—second half-year, we will start strong investment projects in many different areas, including health care of course, but also significant amount of money is earmarked for the green deal projects, digitization projects, infrastructure, hard infrastructure development, including this which is going to build a new dimension or relatively new dimension—Three Seas dimension: the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Black Sea. This is with the view to activate the north-south connectivity in Europe.

Post-Second World War, Poland and a dozen of Central European countries were left on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and we were very much underdeveloped from the point of view of infrastructure and business opportunities in this part of Europe. But last decade or so, or last two decades, we are catching up very, very quickly.

Just to give you an example, over the last couple of years Poland has surpassed Greece and Portugal from GDP per capita in purchasing power parity criterion. And there are many other ratios, including the unemployment ratio.

I can give you another example. Just fifteen years ago—one-five—Poland was the country with one of the highest unemployment levels in Europe—in the whole of Europe. Today, we have the lowest unemployment level in the whole of—in the—in the European Union, which is an indicator of what road we went through over the past couple of years.

In summary, the whole Europe is aware of our weakness given the turbulence around the pandemic. But beginning the third quarter of this year, we will very strongly start investing in—investment increasing productivity, in particular, and this is—this is why I—where I believe that the transatlantic cooperation should be very—could be very helpful and vital in the joint and harmonized recovery of the Western Hemisphere.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: You spoke about the EU’s response. You spoke a bit about your strategy to help Poland dig itself out of this economic trench that the coronavirus pandemic has created. How satisfied are you with transatlantic economic collaboration in addressing the economic dimensions of this pandemic, cooperation between the United States and the European Union, between the United States and, you know, the states of Europe?

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: I’m not as happy as I’d like to be because it’s—we have the same system of values. We have almost the same interests vis-à-vis huge challenges looming on the horizon like Russia, like international terrorism, like China, another pandemic behind the corner potentially or at least the fourth wave threatening all of us. These are global challenges—challenges around climate change, challenges around inequalities—and we should tackle those jointly.

Having said that, let me emphasize one point which might be interesting for you. I believe Poland and Poles are the most pro-American and pro-European citizens at the same time. There might be more pro-American Americans. There might be even more pro-European EU citizens than Polish people. But Polish people have at the same time huge admiration and love to the United States and the European Union at the same time. This means that we could be a very important keystone integrating component of our transatlantic construction.

And with this in mind, back to your question, Ian, am I satisfied? I believe that this new dimension which we have created together with other countries of Central Europe called Three Seas is still underestimated by our friends in the United States. Yes, there was this promise by Mr. Pompeo, I think it was in Munich, and the former President Trump have said this is important and they promised to chip in some money, one billion dollars. It’s neither here nor there. One billion dollars for Poland is not big amount of money anymore and it’s tiny amount of money for the United States.

Anyway, yet, this part of the world, this part of Europe, is the eastern flank of NATO, is the eastern flank of the united Europe. And this is why we are defending our—the world of our values and we are taking the heat of unpleasant hybrid attacks from Russia on Ukraine, on Poland. On Ukraine, by the way, it’s, of course, a physical attack, assault on—in the Donbas area and occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. But we are also experiencing the very bad developments recently in Belarus, and this is where we also see the United States quite absent.

And I believe that this is—that the Three Seas platform and the friendly approach which we have in Poland towards the United States and the European Union—“friendly” is too soft a word—it means underutilizing the opportunity of enhanced cooperation and building a strong presence of the US in this part of the world. Yes, there is this presence of some of the—of the American troops and some American business, but we have other countries from Europe which are much bigger investors and which are present here to a—to a larger degree than the United States.

The United States is our—is our fourth-biggest trading partner from outside of the EU. So including EU, I don’t know, it would be number ten or number twelve, far behind our smaller—much, much smaller neighbors. So I regret that this dimension of our cooperation is not utilized to a level to which it should be, and I would strongly encourage my old American friends and businesspeople to come to Poland for both reasons. One is, of course, for business reasons, to make money, but another one is to enhance the ties – the bonds between the European Union and the United States. Critically important for the future.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Prime Minister, let me pull a thread on the Three Seas Initiative. For our viewers who don’t know what that is, that is a significant effort, led by the Poles in cooperation with other Central European countries, to accelerate the development of cross-border energy, transport, and digital infrastructure. It’s all about completing Europe.

Mr. Prime Minister, you know, the United States and the European Union have both considered infrastructure development as a key element of their respective economic recovery strategies. You’ve highlighted Three Seas as part of your strategy. Could you explain with our—to our audience why you think the Three Seas strategy will succeed, why it will be effective in attracting private capital to develop this infrastructure in the region? What makes Poland, what makes Central Europe appealing and attractive to foreign direct investment?

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: Depending on how you would define Central Europe, it’s between 150 to 200 million population. And the pace of change, economic growth, healthy development of our financial system, and a good, stable social environment is all together a very, very attractive business platform and strategic platform to jump onto for many businesses.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to Sundar Pichai from Google. They are going to invest $2.5 billion in special cloud technology here in Poland. A week ago, I spoke to Michael Dell, and they are considering some further investment here in Poland as well. And the reason why it might be over the next decade or two extremely interesting for American entrepreneurs, this part of the world, is that we are the gate for the European Union, 500 million—or, together with the UK, 500 million-plus population, one of the richest regions in the world. And in particular, this lung—as it was, John Paul II mentioned about Central Europe and Western Europe, the second lung of Europe—this lung is developing at two times or three times pace of Western Europe, so it’s good to capture this growth.

It is also in the process of building north-south infrastructure in the area of energy, digital, roads, railways, and all other infrastructure projects. So many companies—experienced companies could take advantage of this, of those developments which we—for which we have money and which we plan for next couple of decades.

I’m focusing on the social dimension, healthy economic environment, good business environment, but also there is this additional transatlantic and strategic relationship I’m sure many of you are interested in as well.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

I’m a big fan of the Three Seas Initiative. I think it’s a real expression of Central European self-confidence, and a real effort and self-initiative by Central Europeans to bring geoeconomic value to the transatlantic community.

But, Mr. Prime Minister, the pandemic is not the only challenge before our community of democracies. Russia recently escalated fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has amassed a significant offensive force in occupied Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern frontier, and it’s sealed off the Sea of Azov. Are you satisfied with NATO’s and the European Union’s response to these offensive military actions by Russia? Do you think that the West’s response to this crisis has caused Putin to adjust his ambitions regarding Ukraine, or should we be expecting more provocative actions in the future from Moscow?

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: Unfortunately, I think that we should expect more provocative actions because our response was not decisive enough. Only the last couple of days our Czech friends, our Czech southern neighbors, discovered that there were the same Russian spies behind a big terrorist attack on Czech soil, who were active on the British soil poisoning Skripal in Salisbury attack a couple of years ago. There is the case of Mr. Navalny. There are constant fights in the eastern part of Ukraine. And then there is the creeping occupation of Belarus and lots of hybrid attacks, which—some of them even are experienced in the United States, but you can imagine how many more are experienced in this part of the world given the proximity to Russia and their enormous power.

Yet, Russia is—might be, you know, fended off and threatened also only by our decisive response. And what it means, it means the presence of NATO troops in eastern flank of NATO. That’s one. But also, a very decisive diplomatic reply from Brussels, from Washington, and others—and from the capitals of the European Union. The sanctions which we are extending every six months are working, to some extent, but they should be enhanced because this is where the real interests—this is how the real interests of Russia can be—can be addressed, so to say.

There’s one, however, symbolic and not—not only symbolic, but it is symbolic at this juncture. Not only symbolic, but very much strategic and business-related political act, which is—is being—it’s in progress, and this is Nord Stream 2. This is a gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany which is—which goes completely across all the interests of NATO and the European Union. We were trying to persuade our German—or, dissuade our German neighbors this project, and were—we were calling for closing this project. But the real power is now in the hands of the United States. It is still possible to stop this very bad political project which will give additional blackmail instruments in the hands of Vladimir Putin—blackmail instruments vis-à-vis Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, and even Austria and the others. So this is this shortsighted view of our German neighbors and which—and the will of Russia which make this project progressing still. But it’s not yet finished. It’s by far not yet finished. And over the next couple of months, we still have chances to stop it and to send a very strong signal of solidarity and transatlantic will to the rest of the world.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Mr. Prime Minister, we’re almost to the end of our time, so allow me just to throw out one last broad question to you. You know, Russia, of course, is a challenge, but the United – but the United States and Europe now have to contend not only with an increasingly volatile Russia, but also a China that is increasingly assertive. This will be a big issue at the upcoming NATO summit in June. What responsibilities, in your view, should Europe have in the West’s strategy to address an increasingly assertive China? And do you see a role for Poland?

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: Well, I was very vocal on many meetings of the European Council, which is the regular gathering of heads of states and governments in the European Union, about 5G, about jeopardies coming from Far East, from China in particular. Of course, we want to cooperate with China, as the United States do and the other countries want to do this, but we don’t—we want to avoid overdependency of—on China—on Chinese technology. And we are very aware of the risks coming from this direction.

This is why we built the Three Seas Initiative, which is completely in harmony with the European Union, with the objectives of transatlantic security conference, and at the same time it’s strengthening our identity and strengthening our economic power vis-à-vis China. China is trying to enter exactly the same zone through the—through other initiatives. One of them is 17+1. China is buying the harbors like Piraeus next to Athens in Greece and in other places all over Europe because they are using the enormous power of state to enter into this part of Europe, which is less developed.

This is exactly why the investments from the United States at this juncture is so much needed, also to stop not only the Russian aggression, but also more silent but equally challenging Chinese policy vis-à-vis- this part of the world.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for sharing your views on the coronavirus pandemic, the challenges posed to the transatlantic community by Russia and China, and for underscoring Poland’s important role in this community of democracies.

MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: Ian, thank you very much. And thank you, all the board of the Atlantic Council, and all people who are trying to get closer the United States to the European Union. You’re doing a great job, and this is what Europe and the United States and the free world needs just now.

IAN BRZEZINSKI: Thank you, sir.


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Image: Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrives on the second day of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, on October 2, 2020. Photo by Olivier Hoslet/Pool via Reuters.