Three decades after the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe is once again at a crossroads. In 1989 and the years that followed, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Germany was unified. The newly independent, once Communist states – including my home country of Poland – embarked on the road to democracy, free markets, and the rule of law. Poland was welcomed back into the European family, and we joined the ranks of Nato. But Europe now faces a threat to its hard-won unity.
The threat can be seen in the imminent departure of the United Kingdom, violent protests in France, and the rise of insurgent political parties across the continent rebelling against arbitrary power concentrated in the hands of bureaucrats in Brussels. These forces are fuelled by a litany of legitimate grievances, not least of which is the handling of the refugee crisis and voters’ sense that their voices are not being heard by their representatives.
Many of the problems that bedevil Europe today originate beyond our borders and range from migration to energy and national security. A solution to those problems calls for a renewed commitment to European unity alongside the trans-Atlantic alliance that has ensured the continent’s security for seven decades. But as Europe seeks a path forward, we must choose between two starkly different visions of our future.
The path that Europe finds itself on today forces the continent’s ancient nations to abandon their uniqueness and vital interests and submit to the heavy hand of unelected bureaucrats. It is a profoundly undemocratic path and many European voters no longer seem to accept it.
There is an alternative vision that will strengthen the bonds of our Union: a more inclusive Europe that respects the identities, aspirations, and traditions of all its members, large and small, east and west and celebrates our diversity while drawing strength from shared interests and the values that unite us.
It includes our commitment to Nato and the alliance with the United States that helped create a free, secure, and prosperous Europe from the ruins of the last world war. Poland strongly supports the European project and the ideals of freedom, equality, democracy, solidarity, and peaceful co-existence that inspired the creation of the Union.
The UK vote for Brexit is a symptom of our problem. It shows the consequences of the refusal to accommodate unique needs of a member state. Free people do not submit – they rebel even if the future is unknown. It is a tragedy that might have been avoided in a more responsive and democratic Europe that communicates, debates and listens to its member states. A rift or an acrimonious separation is in nobody’s interest – except Europe’s enemies. After all, countries do not move away but continue to live side by side; we will always be neighbours.
The EU was never meant to be a Union governed by diktat. Diktats do not cement cooperation, strengthen our unity, or solve problems. And we do have plenty to discuss among ourselves and with our friends and allies.
Security is certainly one conversation worth having, especially since it is an issue that is both essential and divisive. Once a captive nation trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Poland now has the fourth largest military force in Europe and we willingly share the burden of our common defence, knowing that national security is the foundation of our freedom. Growing Russian aggression just beyond our eastern border and nearly two million Ukrainian refugees fleeing conflict and seeking a new life in Poland remind us daily of the importance of defence spending, Nato’s cohesion, European unity and the effectiveness of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Energy is inextricably tied to security, making it part of the same conversation we in the EU need to have. It is because of security concerns that Poland strongly opposes Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia straight to Germany that would bypass East-Central Europe. The project is advancing Russia’s goal of dividing the EU, opening the continent’s eastern flank to energy blackmail, and threatening Nato’s access to sovereign fuel sources. With our unity and security at stake – and readily available alternatives in Northern Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East – the risk is hard to justify. The decision makers in Brussels should be protecting the collective security of the EU member states, not the interests of Russia and its petro-economy.
Europe is indeed at a crossroads. In a few days, voters across the continent will cast ballots for their national representatives in the EU Parliament. But they will also be charting a new course for the Union. Whatever it may be, let their individual voices be heard in Brussels.
Anna Maria Anders is Polish Senator and Secretary of State