‘The corpse seems pretty lively’: European Union after Brexit

Why We Wrote This

Over coffee, veteran Polish official Radek Sikorski – now a key European Parliament member – presents a hopeful view of the EU’s future. Ironically, he’s also an old friend of Boris Johnson's. 

Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters
Former Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and EU Parliament member Radoslaw Sikorski wait for the exit poll results at the Civic Platform headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Oct. 13, 2019.

Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski arrived in Washington late last week at a pivotal moment for Europe: right as British election results were rolling in. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on his way to a big win. 

Brexit is now a certainty. The United Kingdom will soon leave the European Union. 

But to Mr. Sikorski, a prominent member of the European Parliament and former foreign and defense minister of Poland, that new reality isn’t all bad news. 

“Next month, we’ll say goodbye to Mr. Farage and his merry team of Euro-phobes,” Mr. Sikorski says of Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K.’s Brexit Party. “They will no longer harangue us on how undemocratic we are every time they lose a vote.” 

Over coffee with reporters Friday in the Monitor’s Washington bureau, Mr. Sikorski held court on Europe’s future and on what he thinks Americans should know. The Oxford-educated Pole has a special connection to the United States. His wife, Anne Applebaum, is American and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist for The Washington Post. Their two sons are undergrads at prestigious U.S. universities. 

Now, as chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for U.S. relations, Mr. Sikorski aims to strengthen ties between European legislators and Congress.

“I see my mission as, first, telling Americans that Europe has a parliament, too, and that it is increasingly important,” he says.

Personal relationships are also relevant. Ironically, he’s an old university mate of the very man who is leading the U.K. out of the EU – Prime Minister Johnson. 

“I was in the same faction with Boris at the Oxford Union [debating society], and we got him elected as president,” Mr. Sikorski says.  

The two also belonged to the private Bullingdon Club, known for members’ rowdy behavior. When a reporter pressed for details, he demurred. 

“Look, there are national secrets and there are club secrets,” he said. 

As for Mr. Johnson’s politics today, Mr. Sikorski says that the British prime minister is “not an English nationalist, but I think he can take some credit for Brexit, too.” 

Mr. Sikorski wasn’t surprised by his old friend’s sweeping victory Dec. 12. 

“He had a brilliant election slogan and a really poor competitor,” Mr. Sikorski says. “I'm glad that the combination of Marxism and antisemitism doesn't seem to command the majority in Britain, which is a rare piece of good news.” 

Back to the matter at hand: the growing importance, in his view, of the European Parliament. Last week, Europe’s new president unveiled a “European Green Deal,” which will go to the parliament for consideration. The initiative aims to make the EU’s member countries “carbon neutral” by 2050 – more ambitious than the Paris climate accord. 

“There is now a real politics in the European Parliament, with different coalitions on different issues,” Mr. Sikorski says.  

The European Parliament also approves the EU’s budget – about a trillion euros over seven years, “real money,” he says. And for the first time, the EU will have a defense budget, which will go for research, operations, and procurement of new types of equipment, like drones.

“We should be able to secure ourselves against criminal activity stemming from Libya,” Mr. Sikorski says. But “there will not be a European army.” 

The European Parliament also has the power to ratify treaties, “which is very important because trade treaties these days are not really about tariffs,” he says. “They are about regulations, and regulations go deep into the internal affairs of our partners and ourselves.”

Following are more excerpts from our discussion, lightly edited: 

On the EU’s future:

"The EU has never been as popular and has never commanded such widespread loyalty as now. As a result of Brexit, people see the mess and that that's not an example to follow." 

"The Brexiteers were saying that Britain will be cutting itself off from a corpse. Well, the corpse seems pretty lively and actually seems to have negotiated rather better." 

"Certainly in Poland, in Italy, and in France, the populists have actually changed their official stances and are no longer for leaving the EU. They now tend to say the EU needs reform. We all agree to that." 

On President Donald Trump and NATO: 

"President Trump is right that some members of NATO have not been fulfilling the NATO-recommended level of 2 percent of GDP. I sort of even accept his style, because when Obama and Bush said it politely, it didn't work. Defense budgets have started to grow – not as fast as they should, but he's been successful to some extent."

"You know, the defense of the eastern flank vis-à-vis Russia is not something that Europe can do for itself. There's a small risk of a kinetic war out there. We know what scenarios the Russians exercise, and they are menacing. That's something that we can't deal with without NATO and without the United States."

On China versus the U.S.: 

"That will be the Titanic competition of the 21st century. And we hope that the Americans don't mismanage it, because the consequences would be very grave."

On Mr. Trump and the U.S.’s role in the world:

"He should read 'The Thucydides Trap' by Graham Allison. It says that managing one's own relative decline is the hardest thing in the universe, and usually leads to war."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.