PRAGUE – In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, says the European Union will not apologize for the "civilizational attraction" of its Eastern Partnership project, a Polish-Swedish initiative that Russia claims is a front for an attempt to secure the bloc a "sphere of influence."
Sikorski spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas on the sidelines of a summit in Prague of 27 EU leaders and the representatives of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which launched the Eastern Partnership.
RFE/RL: Almost without exception, various EU officials and many of your colleagues have vehemently rejected suggestions that the EU is looking for a "sphere of influence" in the East. What does the EU have against influence?
Radoslaw Sikorski: I think people object to the 19th-century sound of the idea of a sphere of influence. But we don't apologize for the European Union being civilizationally attractive to its neighbors. And if they want to make their internal laws [and] procedures more compatible with ours, that's something we rejoice in and that's something that will certainly pull them towards us.
RFE/RL: Do you not think that there is a certain danger that Russia, seeing this as a competition for influence, could draw the EU into a different logic -- one of confrontation -- over the long term?
Sikorski: Let's be realistic. Visa liberalization is not really the kind of thing people had in mind in the 19th century when they spoke of spheres of influence. These are just facilitating mechanisms for the people of these countries. Equally, most of our countries are in the World Trade Organization, and deepening free trade is also beneficial for all, and is not something you can have much of a competition over. And then projects to do with civil society, to do with scholarships and assistance in meeting various standards -- I really don't see how any reasonable person can see anything threatening in any of this.
RFE/RL: Do you think Russia is a force for stability in Eastern Europe?
Sikorski: Russia is certainly a force, and she seems to have made her own choice for the time being. But various countries that used to be in the former Soviet Union seem to gravitate more to European standards and European ideals, which is hardly surprising.
Poland, for example, is the home of Solidarity; we fought for our freedom long and hard and we believe that democracy works, that a true market economy based on competition rather than the political control of assets is more efficient, and that the sacrifices involved in getting your procedures, your laws, your institutions right are worth it even in the long run.
But, of course, Russia is on a somewhat different directory.
RFE/RL: Given that there is this polarity between the Russian attitude and the EU attitude toward the Eastern Partnership, whether the EU likes it or not, do you think there exists a long-term "third way" for these countries or will they at some point have to make a choice?
Sikorski: We used to have a saying in Poland: "The 'third way' leads to the Third World." Look, we are putting great words on something that really is at this stage very modest. Visa liberalization, free trade, a bit of help in training officials in EU law and such things -- I don't think they have any potential to cause controversy, and I certainly don't think they will force anybody to choose, because these countries will want to trade both with the EU and Russia, just as Poland does.
I was just in Moscow [on May 6] and I was amazed and pleased to discover from my notes that Poland had $30 billion [worth] of trade with Russia last year, and that Russia is actually our second-biggest trading partner, even though we've been members of NATO for 10 years and the EU for five years. So I really don't see that there is a contradiction.
RFE/RL: Returning to the six Eastern partner countries -- as you said, the goals of the Eastern Partnership are relatively modest and, as such, do not represent a radical departure from the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). How do you explain the fact that in the six years which have passed since the ENP was conceived, the EU now has six neighbors that are either unstable, undemocratic, or both?
Sikorski: I agree with you that the [Eastern] Partnership should have been devised earlier, and we would like to see it even more ambitious, and we are going to work on that. We will contribute, for example, our national [Polish] resources for these programs. But, at last, we have it. At last, we have a sense of ownership. We think we should have an EU coordinator for the Eastern Partnership. At last, we can get going.
RFE/RL: And where would you like to take it, in which direction?
Sikorski: It's always been said that the EU is a center of a concentric ring of friendly states and that concentric ring should spread to the east, as well as the south.
RFE/RL: Would that include EU membership?
Sikorski: Look, the Treaty of Rome [the EU’s founding document], applies. And it says that any European country that meets the standards can join. The Eastern Partnership doesn't guarantee it, but it can in practice help these countries to meet the criteria.
RFE/RL: And finally, this outreach obviously necessitates dealing with regimes such as Belarus's. In Moldova, things are not exactly better. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, the democratic record is patchy at best. Is there not a danger of a tradeoff between values and interests for the EU?
Sikorski: That's politics for you. To the south of the European Union, not all those countries are democratic either. The purpose of the partnership is to show them the benefits of democracy and to help them transform themselves if they so wish.