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EU Reform - Can We Learn From the Polish Transition?

14/07/2014 10:29 BST | Updated 12/09/2014 10:59 BST

On 4 June we celebrated in Poland 25 years of our regained freedom and successful democratic transition. This was a culmination of the period of extraordinary anniversaries for Poland. In March we marked the 15th anniversary of Poland's membership of NATO. In May, Poland and nine other countries celebrated the big bang - the 10th anniversary of our EU membership. After a decade Poles are still extremely enthusiastic about the EU - according to the CBOS poll, 89% are happy that we are part of this influential group of countries. It is one of the highest scores in Europe. There are many reasons for this enthusiasm: our GDP has grown by 49% since the accession, exports have tripled, foreign investment has almost quadrupled. No doubt we have made good use of being part of the Union. The EU provided us with the tools we needed to speed up our growth and strengthen our stability.

Nowadays, just as 10 years ago, we understand that tools provided by the EU are only aimed at giving us an opportunity, not a guarantee, of success. The cases of countries such as Poland and Germany prove that being at the heart of Europe and using common tools facilitated by the EU wisely can bring about a tangible, positive economic outcomes. That is why we are interested in keeping the EU working in the most efficient and beneficial way.

The EU does not enjoy the same level of popularity in many European countries as it does in Poland. We are well aware of it. Some disappointment shared by many European citizens, often not without a good reason, could lead in the longer term to negative consequences for the EU institutions and the European prosperity architecture. I believe that we should avoid it by addressing concerns that are being raised across Europe.

Poles have become accustomed to change. We are used to experiencing hardship, as well. We have been changing our country continuously for the last 25 years. Our prosperity today is a direct consequence of the reforms carried out by all Polish governments since 1989. We are not afraid of change and those reforms that we believe would be necessary for the good of the EU and, more importantly, for each and every Member State. Flexibility and adaptability are features that have contributed to our recent economic success as a nation, as well as success frequently enjoyed by our citizens, including those now studying, living and working in other EU countries. We know better than anybody that reforms can be painful. But, at the same time, no one realizes better than us, how positive they can be. Reforms imply willingness to take risks. And yet, the last 25 years of European history show that risks pay off when European countries cooperate with each other. The fall of the iron curtain would not have been possible without cooperation. Similarly, the 1999 NATO and 2004 EU enlargements involved risk and required good will and cooperation. The extraordinary thing about European integration is the fact that this is not a zero-sum game. Any risk can be mitigated through cooperation.

Almost all member states emphasise the importance of reforms within the EU. Different ideas are being floated, all of them under the common umbrella of a 'reformed union'. Several countries have even made specific proposals. It goes without saying that without proper attention to the process directing us towards the end result - a reformed Europe, we may never get there. Quality and consistency of this process will determine the outcomes we all seek.

There are encouraging lessons Poland has learned as a country from our 25 years of reforms and transformation. We are keen to share them with countries facing challenges similar to those we had to face more than two decades ago. Some of these experiences could be useful in the debate over the shape and the future of the EU institutions. We could call them the group of "5 Is": inclusiveness, integrity, impact, innovation and identity.

Firstly, inclusiveness. We cannot run negotiations without involving as many interested parties as possible. When reforming the European Union, all member states should be involved. Ownership of the process cannot be overestimated. At the same time, it would be naïve to expect that serious disputes can be avoided. They are almost inevitable but there is no need to pick winners or losers. Last year's talks over the EU budget for years 2014 - 2020 are the best example of this propensity. European countries will approach reforms with different motivations depending on their political, social and economic circumstances. But this should not exclude any of them from being part of the process.

Secondly, integrity. Integrity and coherence of the EU must be kept in mind during all discussions on EU reforms. Integrity is a two-way street. Member states' integrity and the integrity of the European institutions reinforce each other. Reforms and other proposals have to be coherent and unambiguous in terms of their aims. Reforms should not negatively affect the organism of the European Union itself.

Thirdly, impact. Short-term solutions may not necessarily have a lasting and positive impact. Caught in a pursuit of hasty results, we may lose our view of the forest, our grasp on the broader, strategic impact. What may be perceived as something positive from the perspective of one member state, may in fact be seen as detrimental by others, even its closest neighbours. There is a need for a more holistic approach to impact assessment, looking beyond short term rationale and narrow political interests. We need a right balance between foxes and hedgehogs.

Fourthly, innovation. Europe has the element of innovation written in its DNA. The EU was a precursor of various ideas, debates and agreements followed all over the world. We should not forget and should not be afraid to embrace our ability to use unconventional and ground-breaking solutions. We ought not be afraid to think outside of the box when working together for an improved and more competitive Europe. Innovation is also about the openness to new ideas and new solutions as proposed by member states. It is also a two way street, ideas can be both 'uploaded' and 'downloaded'.

And finally, identity. While reforming the EU, we should not forget about the underlying values of the European project. There are different threads of identity which run through the rich tapestry which is Europe, making it so extraordinary and unique. We should embrace them; not melt them in one pot. Our actions should not go against our shared values. We should aim to highlight this versatility not make it fade away in the background. Our actions should draw on our common values, not contradict them.

How will the second decade of the 21st Century be judged by historians in 10 years' time? Will it be seen as a signpost and a beginning of a new, more effective, more efficient and more citizen-friendly Union? Or as a beginning of an end of a project which was not able to move beyond the inward-looking arrangements between a group of countries?

There is an appetite for change shared not only by EU member states, but also by many people in EU institutions, who are able to identify challenges faced by Europe nowadays. Poland believes in strong EU institutions and deeper political integration, as well as aims, like the UK, at the completion of the single market. Some changes seem to be necessary to strengthen the efficiency of 'EUabling' used so successfully by all of the member states. Without efficient tools, it will be more difficult to enjoy a sense of belonging and values which we now share. It will be more problematic to talk about a common Europe, united in its differences.

Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission, famously stated that 'European integration is like a bicycle; you either move on or you fall off'. So let's talk, agree and act when the time is right. After all, we are all sharing the same bicycle. No one will benefit from falling off from it.

Disclaimer: any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author