Poland has been rocked by a political scandal involving the covert surveillance of senior government ministers, state officials - including the governor of Poland's Central Bank Marek Belka - and business figures, and recordings of their conversations were leaked to Polish magazine Wprost.
The whole business is distinctly shady - who did the recording and for what purpose (some have suggested Russian involvement) - and could yet lead to early elections. It has also revealed how Polish politics operates behind closed doors and shed light on what senior figures really think about a range of issues, including UK-Polish relations in the context of the EU.
We have highlighted before that this is a crucial bilateral relationship, the health of which will have a significant impact on the success or otherwise of Cameron's EU reform agenda. Unfortunately, this relationship has become particularly strained in recent times, particularly over the related questions of free movement and access to benefits. Here are the key sections of a conversation between Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski at some point this spring (we try to keep this blog family-friendly so apologies for the bad language).
Rostowski: “[Cameron] thinks he’ll go renegotiate and come back, no Polish government could agree to it. Except in return for a mountain of gold.”
Sikorski: “Its either a very badly thought through move, or, not for the first time a kind of incompetence in European affairs. Remember? He f***** up the fiscal pact. He f***** it up. Simple as that. He is not interested, he does not get it, he believes in the stupid propaganda, he stupidly tries to play the system... his whole strategy of feeding [his critics] scraps in order to satisfy them is just as I predicted, turning against him; he should have said, f*** off, tried to convince people and isolate [the sceptics]. But he ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him.”
Rostowski: “For the Polish government to agree, someone will have to give us some mountain of gold. The Brits won’t give it to us, and the Germans, in order to keep the Brits on board, won’t give it to us either in all likelihood. So the answer will be: f*** off... [the impact of a Brexit] will generally be bad for us, because we would like for Great Britain to stay. I think it’ll be the case that [Cameron] will lose the elections. Great Britain will leave. Once they do, they’ll keep open borders. Not for [gypsy] beggars…"
Sikorski: “Just like Norway... Enough of this!” They've f***** up Eastern Europe and a few other things. [Mimics a Brit] If Europe doesn't reform, it’ll end badly! Let them worry about their economy. If they don’t re-organise themselves, they’ll have as bad an economy as Germany. What is that? What, how is that so monstrous?”
In a separate conversation with Jacek Krawiec, head of Poland's largest oil and gas conglomerate Orlen, Pawel Gras, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's then media spokesperson referred to a phone conversation between Tusk and Cameron in the wake of Cameron's comments about Polish migrants claiming benefits in the UK.
Krawiec: “What the f*** are they on about with these benefits? [Cameron] seems like a really sensible bloke... when I met him in London he talked a lot of sense”.
Gras: “Thoughtless, probably suggested by [some spin doctor] probably came from some focus group, he didn't think through the consequences, the whole thing was stupid, Donald called him at once to discuss it, he had such a go at him, I mean f*** it’s a shame we didn't record it, he had a such a proper f****** go at him.”
So what does this tell us (other than politicians use words in private they'd never use publicly)? Well leaving aside the criticism of Cameron's EU policy - which has been made before - here are a few points we've picked up on:
- It is notable that Rosowski assesses the prospects of Brexit as highly likely, and how resigned both he and Sikorski are to that outcome even while admitting that it would be bad for Poland.
- As such, it is outright bizarre that they are so flippant and dismissive about Cameron's reform agenda - which - for all its flaws from a Polish perspective - remains the best chance for keeping the UK in the EU from a wider perspective.
- Both Rostowski and Sikorski are adamant that even in the event of a Brexit, the UK will not be able to block free movement - if it wants to maintain access to the single market - a key demand of many better off outers (Switzerland is currently facing this dilemma).
- As the Krawiec comments demonstrate, when addressing issues of substance, Cameron can count on a good hearing from Polish business leaders, a crucial constituency, but he risks alienating Poles by ill-judged claims about 'benefit tourism'.
In conclusion, international diplomacy remains rooted in pragmatism and it is unlikely this incident will result in long term damage between London and Warsaw. It is also worth mentioning that these conversations could well have taken place before the escalation in the Ukrainian crisis which has helped to firm up Polish-British relations (with the UK taking a tougher position on sanctions than other EU member states and sending RAF fighter planes to the region).
However, it is clear that issues like EU migrants' access to benefits - something UK public opinion will simply not allow Cameron - or indeed any other UK Prime Minister - to ignore. It is crucial therefore that both governments put aside the hyperbole and think about how tricky issues can be resolved in such a way that benefits both countries.