By Bogdan Sajovic
We talked with Mr Paweł Jabłoński, Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), bilateral cooperation, the pandemic and the future of the European Union, among other topics.
In the Polish government, you are, among other things, Government Plenipotentiary for the Three Seas Initiative. What does your work involve?
To put it short, it is the inter-agency coordination of national policy vis-a-vis the Three Seas Initiative. Besides Ministry of Foreign Affairs there are many other institutions involved – starting with the Chancellery of the President, BGK development bank, other ministers in the government, parliamentary committee, think tanks and NGOs. My role is to put them all to work together, as well as maintain contacts with my counterparts in other countries.
Can you list the most important achievements under this initiative so far?
I would name two. First – the awareness of the need for a stronger regional cooperation has raised significantly. Prior to 2015, many of CEE countries were mostly focused on a better integration with our western neighbours. And it is not a bad thing; this integration is also very important. But we must also work much closer together as members, partners and friends in Central Europe. It makes each and every one of us much stronger. And we already managed to move from political discussions to practical, operational steps. So far, we have selected nearly 80 priority infrastructure projects that we want to implement – many of them already are in an advanced stage.
Second big achievement is the creation and further enlargement of the 3SI investment fund. It is a tool that already boosts develompent of infrastructural projects in the region. I am very glad that Slovenia is the second largest contributor to the Fund – it is a great example for other members and attracts outside investors, too.
What are the main complications in the development of the Three Seas Initiative?
In the beginning there were some suspicions whether this project would be organized as some sort of alternative for the European Union, or even directed against the EU itself. Obviously, it was a complete nonsense, but we had to fight these false narratives. I think by now everyone realizes that stronger regional integration actually supports the goals of the European integration, as it increases cohesion and provides many economic opportunities. Actually, many of the Three Seas infrastructural projects will be financed out of the EU budget and the NextGenEU instrument – along with national budgets and private investment this will create a synergy for a stronger development in all of our countries.
Traveling from Poland to Slovenia, whether by car or train, still takes more time than it should. The connections to the Baltic states or Romania, Bulgaria and Greece look even worse. We need to improve that, using every possible tool – it is a necessity.
How would you assess Slovenia’s participation in this initiative so far?
Slovenia is one of the leaders of the 3SI from the very beginning, and especially after 2019 Ljubljana summit it is clear for everyone how big a role your country has to play. It was at that time when the idea for the Investment Fund gained its final shape, and later it was Slovenia that decided to join the Fund with the largest contribution after Poland – surpassing many larger economies. When we discuss with other members on the intensity of their engagement in the Initative, we very often point to Slovenia as an example to follow.
What is the attitude of other EU members, especially Germany and France, towards the Three Seas initiative?
The Initiative has gained a lot of traction lately, after 2019 Ljubljana and 2020 Tallin summits especially. Germany are already a strategic partner, other EU countries, including France are declaring interest in joint investment projects, especially in energy and digital infrastructure. Also other countries become more involved – for example Japan, that is looking to diversify its economic post-Brexit presence in Europe. We are looking very positively at this – after initial doubts as to what we are creating in Central Europe, it is becoming clear that our region as a whole can be very attractive investment place, in a big part thanks to the 3SI.
What is the attitude to this initiative from the great powers – the US, Russia, China?
United States have been very supportive from the very beginning. Actually, some of our opponents were labelling the Initiative as an American project. While it is not American but Central-European, we enjoy US partnership – it is very important to remember how big importance has the infrastructural development for security, too. Americans understand that very well, they also see cooperation with the 3SI as a big opportunity for their business sector – hence the strong support. It is worth adding that this support is bipartisan – after a very strong encouragement from President Trump, we enjoy now equal support from Biden administration, and also from U.S. Congress. In November, a resolution 672 backing 3SI, co-sponsored by democratic and republican lawmakers was adopted unanimously in the House of Representatives. It is a strong message of support for our efforts.
Russia and China are more difficult partners, but I want to be very clear – 3SI is not intended as a tool a g a i n s t anyone. We want to cooperate together in the region – and we are open for cooperation with reliable outside partners.
But I also want to be very clear about Poland’s position regarding policies of Mr. Putin. His actions against Ukraine, attempts at killing political oponents must be condemned. We cannot accept them and pretend that nothing happened. Otherwise these criminal actions will reach their intended effect.
Can you reveal us some future projects within the initiative?
Our main goal is to create stronger connections between the countries of our region – in transport, energy and digital infrastructure. We plan to build an extensive railroad and highway network, connecting Baltic states through Poland to the Adriatic and Black Sea. We are glad that Slovenia has put forward many of such projects, including Baltic-Adriatic TEN-T Core Network Corridor, key projects connecting the port of Koper with the region’s rail and road networks, new gas and energy connections linking Slovenia with Hungary and Italy (HUSIIT), with Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Austria (ROHU) and with Croatia (SINCRO.GRID).
In digital infrastructure we will focus on 5G and fiberoptic networks, but there is also one crucial aspect of it – cybersecurity. Our region knows first-hand how important it is to be resilient against cyberattacks – between the Three Seas we can create a cybersecurity hub that will be boosting development of software & hardware solutions to be applied globally.
Lastly, promoting energy security, through diversification of gas supplies to our region. It is still hugely important task, but at the same time, we need to think about introducing more of carbon-neutral sources of energy. Therefore, we propose to start actions aimed at generating new cross-border projects in the field of production, distribution and use of green hydrogen in our region
How would you assess bilateral cooperation between Slovenia and Poland?
I can’t recall any period in history when these relations would be better. I work closely with Prime Minister Morawiecki and I can tell you that he regards Prime Minister Jansa as one of the closest partners. Mr. Jansa very fruitful recent visit to Warsaw was yet another proof of that, I know that our Prime Minister was very satisified with the talks.
But not just politically – also economically and socially our countries get along very well. Before the pandemic, number of Polish tourists visiting Slovenia was increasing steeply and I am confinent that we will soon return to this trend. Actually, if the situation allows, I am planning myself to spend a part of this year’s holiday in Slovenia, too.
Is there any major bilateral project planned in the future between our two countries?
During my visit I have discussed many of such projects. I believe that we have a lot of potential, especially in logistics. Stronger cooperation between the Port of Koper and the ports on the Baltic Sea can be beneficial for both our countries, as well as cooperaion in railway sector. Also in airline sector; LOT Polish Airlines, our national carrier looks with big interest to Slovenian market and I believe that if the post-pandemic recovery will allow for it, soon there may be a market for more Lot flights from Ljubljana, and not just to Poland.
We highly appreciate cooperation in the field of transport along the TEN-T Baltic-Adriatic corridor. Our national freight operator PKP Cargo is present in Slovenia through its intermediary Primol-Rail.
Poland is also open to Slovenian investors. The regulatory framework regarding economic activity has been streamlined with an introduction of the Constitution for Business and the qualitative foreign direct investments support system ‘Polish Investment Zone’. We offer generous tax reliefs for quality investments, focusing on research and development and sustainable job creation.
Last year Poland and Slovenia participated in negotiations on the European Recovery Fund and the EU budget. Can you tell us more about this collaboration?
We value very strongly Slovenian involvement in this process, especially Prime Minister Jansa crucial voice of reason, his important letter indicating the need to compromise, and then his consistency during the negotiations. These were very tough, probably most difficult in EU’s history. Thanks to a solidary approach Slovenia, Poland and other countries of the »Friends of cohesion« group, we have succesfully managed to overcome so-called »frugal« ideas that would cut the budget, impede post-pandemic recovery and simply be harmful for the European integration.
2020 budget negotiations are the best proof that it is worth to integrate stronger in our region. Despite some differences that are natural between every two countries one could pick, we are united by so much more. In Central Europe we share similar values, and we all come from similar background, both in ancient and recent history. Having overturned the communist rule and succesfully created free-market economies, we have done exceptional things in the last three decades – but we still need more cohesion to catch up to the level of development of our western & northern neighbours. And it is good that we were able to undersand that and succesfully work together, for the benefit of our people.
What is the situation in Poland due to the pandemic? What are some of the biggest challenges Poland is facing during the pandemic?
Like most of the EU countries, we have faced huge challenges, both in public health and the economy. Right now we are much more optimistic – vaccination goes smoothly (despite lower than expected deliveries from the suppliers), by now we have reached 15 million of vaccinations and by the end of summer we should be able to vaccinate everyone.
Economically we decided to implement a biggest public support plan in history, to protect jobs and businesses. Over last 14 months we have spend about 50 billion euro in the »Anti-crisi shield« programme. In March 2020 experts estimated, that we may lose as much as 5-6 million jobs nationwide. Not only did that not happen, but we managed to keep the lowest unemployment in the EU. Obviously, pandemic affected many businesses and workers, but I am convinced that after return to normalcy we will also see a strong economic recovery.
What are Poland’s plans for recovery from the Chinese virus pandemic? Which areas will you focus on in particular?
We intend not only to rebuild what was lost, but also invest in new, innovative areas of economy, that will help us gain additional advantage. As horrible as the pandemic has been, it also presents opportunities to redevelop many sectors of business. We will invest in infrastructure, smart mobility, green energy sector, digital transformation. We want to modernize our economy and create jobs. On the other hand, we need to improve living standard of our society. To reach these goals, we will mobilize private and public investments, improve the standards of public health sector, invest in hi-tech solutions.
Our goals go along with the Three Seas priorities: we want to focus on stronger digitalization – already having one of the best digitalized public administration and medical services. Another big challenge is energy transformation. Last two years shown great increase in solar energy, we want to continue going on that road and also invest in other low-emission sources. Finally, cleaner and more efficient transport. My country is already a hub for electromobility, with one of the largest battery producers based in our country – and it’s only the beginning.
Globalists and the Brussels Eurocracy have been attacking Poland for several years, accusing yout country of violating European principles in the areas of the judiciary, the media and migration… What is your position on these allegations?
The reasons for these attacks are purely political. Liberal and left-wing politicians obviously do not like the fact that their allies lost power in Poland.
We have won the election in 2015, on a conservative but also reformist mandate. This mandate was renewed in 2019, not to mention presidential election last year and several other elections along the way. Polish people voted for a wide reform of the state, including the judicial system that has not been touched for 25 years. After the collapse of communism, judges previously appointed by communist govenrment – many of which participated in prosecuting members of democratic opposition – were suddenly supposed to be considered independent guardias of the rule of law. A magical transformation, one could say. Despite it obviously did not happen. While many judges were simply performing their duties, there has been a significant number of corrupt officials – and this has led to a corrupt system. We started to change that, and it is still very strongly protested. But we will not back down, because we need to create a healthy judicial system in the interest of our people, not the elites that support the status quo.
When it comes to migration, we believe that the principle of solidarity does not justify mandatory relocation – and it would actually ceeate further incentives for illegal migration and migrant smuggling. I am happy that Poland and Slovenia share this approach.
The same groups that have been attacking Poland for years have recently been attacking and putting pressure on Slovenia. Are Slovenia and Poland cooperating in rejecting these pressures?
We are very supportive of every country that intends to implement reforms in their national interest. That is the basis of united Europe – striving for integration, but with respect for national identity and sovereignity. Poland will always support Slovenia in these regards, and we are glad that Slovenia is supportive to us on many issues.
Both our governments have many things in common, but there is one crucial: values deeply rooted in our democratic system and care for our people. Polish-Slovenian cooperation is extremely valuable in this regard. After all, we are talking about principles, not about current political benefits, with the future of Poland and Slovenia in mind. Human dignity, the right to life, protection of families, freedom of speech, of expression and belief – all these are the axiological foundations of our European civilization. It is important that Poles and Slovenes alike want to defend them.
Finally, could you entrust us with your vision for the future of Europe?
I believe that the main succes of the European Integration – that of preventing war on the continent though economic cohesion – is still the beacon towards we all strive. Europe needs to focus on cooperation in trade, tearing down barriers that impede free competition. Single Market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements. It has fueled economic growth all across the continent. Our open market of 500 million rather well-off consumers is what some call our “passive leverage” in the economic competition with China, but also with the United States. We should make greater use of it. However, its potential is still not yet fully unlocked – especially in the services and digital sectors. Their importance in the global economy continues to grow (also due to the pandemic) and the EU still has significant progress to make in this area. The removal of barriers – including protectionist behavior within the EU – is in the interest of all Member States.
Unfortunately, there are many ideas in Brussels and other European capitals to focus on plitical integration rather than economic one – and to push our Union towards federalization or even an European superstate. Poland strongly rejects that, as we believe in national sovereignty and the importance of each and every state, being equal members of the Union. Right now we are starting a debate on the future of Europe. I believe that not just Poland and Slovenia, but also many other in the region need to hava a strong voice in this debate. European Union is shaped by all its members, and we are all equal – being in the EU for 17 years already we need to speak louder and clearer how we want it to look like.