By Paweł Wiejski

The waning importance of Poland’s foreign ministry, and the uncoordinated division of responsibility over foreign policy between different departments, is undermining the country’s international position and leaving foreign diplomats unsure who speaks for Warsaw. A newly proposed reform may see politicisation and mismanagement get worse.

“Who do I call if I want to reach Europe?” – this apocryphal quote, often attributed to the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, epitomises the struggle of the European Union to present a unified voice in foreign policy. Now the situation in Poland is not that different.

Asked whom he would call if he wanted to reach Poland, Witold Jurasz, a former diplomat and journalist, pauses and replies: “I have no idea.”

“It wouldn’t be half bad if I could at least tell you that it’s Jarosław Kaczyński,” he says, referring to the head of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, who, despite officially only holding the title of deputy prime minister, is the dominant figure in the government “But he cares about everything except for foreign policy.”

The marginalisation of the foreign ministry

There are growing voices in Warsaw’s foreign diplomatic circles that the institution which is designated to coordinate foreign policy is not doing its job.

“What we see is a continuing loss of influence [of the foreign minister],” one foreign diplomat, who asked to remain unnamed, tells Notes from Poland. “I’m really surprised by the extremely weak appearance of the current foreign minister,” he added, suggesting that Zbigniew Rau is to blame for many of the ministry’s shortcomings.

“The foreign ministry is irrelevant. It has become completely marginal,” Jurasz tells us.

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Yet before the incumbent’s term, the unravelling of the foreign ministry had already been afoot for years.

In November 2019, departments dealing with EU policy were placed under the supervision of the prime minister’s office. The ministry thereby lost Konrad Szymański, deputy minister for European affairs, an experienced technocrat with a very good reputation in Brussels and “excellent” working relationship with some of the diplomats that Notes from Poland spoke with.

In January this year,  President Andrzej Duda’s office further stoked concerns over the erosion of the foreign ministry’s competences. Krzysztof Szczerski, formerly Duda’s chief of staff, was tasked with creating an international policy office to support the president. The new body will take shape over the next couple of months and will mostly deal with transatlantic relations and the Three Seas initiative.

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Complicating matters further, just days after the president’s announcement, the ruling party unveiled its own international office meant to manage relations with conservative groups in other countries. Radosław Fogiel, deputy spokesperson for the party and the office’s new manager, told Interia that the body was not meant as a counterweight to the president’s initiative and that it will not compete with the foreign ministry for control over foreign policy.

Too many moving parts

Division of foreign policy competences between institutions has precedents in other countries. Many EU member states have a stand-alone European affairs ministry. Often presidents will also have a strong role in international relations, sometimes leading to conflicts between them and the government, especially when the president comes from a different political camp to the parliamentary majority.

In the Czech Republic, for example, President Miloš Zeman has been maintaining close ties with the Kremlin since he took office in 2013, undermining the anti-Russian initiatives made by successive governments.

But Poland’s problem is not just in the number of institutions involved in foreign policy, but in their lack of coordination. Jurasz underlines that, elsewhere in the world, diplomacy is a vertical structure, whereas in Poland the institutions are completely separate. “None of the countries with achievements in foreign policy has a similar system,” he tells us. “It’s a sick structure that simply cannot work.”

Jurasz recalls an example of a lack of coordination ending in a diplomatic disaster. In September last year, Morawiecki invited Belarussian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to a regional summit in Lublin. The invitation was then revoked because the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, did not agree to meet her.

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According to Jurasz, Morawiecki did not inform the foreign ministry of his plans and so other countries were not consulted before issuing the invitation.

“When I asked one of the deputy ministers of foreign affairs about Tsikhanouskaya’s invitation, he replied that he had no clue about it because they are not dealing with this,” says Jurasz, noting that Poland’s reputation vis-à-vis Belarus – where it has sought to play a leading role in the EU’s response to last year’s election – suffered as a result.

Politics get in the way

Despite the administrative whirlwind, all the diplomats we spoke to agree that navigating foreign policy ranks was made possible thanks to the reliability of lower- and mid-level employees. The leadership of the ministry, however, did not receive similar praise.

“When we want to speak to a director general or deputy minister, we don’t get anything out of the discussion,” says one diplomat. “Their talk is purely ideological and not related to any facts or any actions that Polish diplomacy is going to take.”

Another noted that, during the heated negotiations over the EU budget in December 2020, which Poland threatened to veto, some deputy ministers – specifically Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk and Paweł Jabłoński (who declined to comment for this article) – acted as “a political chorus” but to their knowledge “had no influence on the actual negotiations”.

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A week after leaving office in August last year, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita daily, former foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz observed that neither his successor, Rau, nor his deputies in the ministry have any experience in conducting diplomacy.

Czaputowicz himself, however, had faced criticism for overseeing a diminishment in the ministry’s influence. His predecessor, Witold Waszczykowski, told Notes from Poland last year that “issues of security have been taken over by the president’s circles, while European relations are now in the purview of the prime minister’s office”.

Regarding claims that deputy ministers lack diplomatic experience, Jurasz notes that “all these people were nominated at the request of…Czaputowicz” himself. He adds that the politicisation of diplomatic appointments goes back to Radosław Sikorski, who headed the ministry during the previous Civic Platform governments of 2007-2014.

The ministry moves to self-define

After years of politicians eating away at the competences of the ministry, on 15 January Rau announced his own comprehensive reform of the diplomatic service. The bill was adopted only a few days later by the Sejm, with no public consultations. When it enters into force, which could happen in March at the earliest, it will drastically change how the foreign ministry is organised.

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The main element of the reform introduces a new system of appointments for ambassadors. Requirements for the position will be lowered – candidates will no longer be required to speak two foreign languages, pass diplomatic exams or even have higher education (previously they were required to have at least a master’s degree).

According to proponents of the reform, the function of an ambassador is political, so the process of nomination should be separate from the rest of the diplomatic service, which in the view of the government is tainted by its communist heritage.

In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, Zbigniew Rau said that ambassadors will be selected from outside of the diplomatic service. However, there is no such provision in the proposed bill explicitly stating this. According to Jurasz, Rau may have revealed the true intention behind the reform.

“That would mean that career diplomats cannot become ambassadors. This is crazy. There is no country on Earth where it is the case,” he says.

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All diplomats interviewed by Notes from Poland also voiced their concern over the proposed changes. “I find it worrying that you will have diplomacy handled by people who do not speak foreign languages and don’t have a degree. It’s not only about writing notes, it’s a career-long development, you need to have competences to grow,” says one of them.

In most countries, ambassadorial positions are seldom political. “It has a lot to do with the embassy itself and the working level of diplomacy you deal with. You cannot differentiate between the working level in the embassy, and the position of the ambassador. This will not work, with a few exceptions, maybe the US, Moscow, or Beijing,” says another diplomat.

A third diplomat was most direct. “With the new law on the diplomatic service, diplomats will be political appointees”, he says . “We internally refer to them as political commissars,” he added, in reference to Poland’s communist past that the proposed reform so wants to break with.

Moving ambassadorial nominations away from the internal career ladder of the foreign service is yet another element in a long process of subjugating diplomacy to internal politics. Increasing control over every part of Poland’s diplomatic machinery and making room for loyal members of the ruling party were the real goals behind all previous initiatives to “decommunise” the ministry.

As a result, a career in Poland’s diplomatic ranks is becoming less attractive. In the long term, it will make Polish foreign policy more erratic, with fewer experienced diplomats to conduct day-to-day work and constant changes in personnel and approach alongside shifts in domestic politics. In the end, when someone dials for Poland, there may be nobody to pick up the phone.

Main image credit: Sebastian Indra/MSZ (under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Paweł Wiejski is a freelance journalist and analyst, specialising in European affairs and climate policy. He previously worked as a European affairs analyst for Polityka Insight.

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