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Interview: Leszek Miller

Michal Jaranowski / bkMay 1, 2013

Leszek Miller, Polish prime minister when the nation joined the EU on May 1, 2004, tells DW that then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was a key supporter - though the two were divided on supporting the Iraq War.

Polen Leszek Miller, Vorsitzende der Alianz der Demokratischen Linke (in Polen), 02.04. 2013; Copyright: Michal Jaranowski
Polen Leszek MillerImage: Michal Jaranowski

DW: Mr. Prime Minister, do political friendships end with the farewell from political life? People often talked about your friendship with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. How is your relationship today?

Leszek Miller: Contacts are usually maintained, only the dynamic weakens of course. I met Schröder quite often in the three or four years since the change of government. Now we only meet occasionally, but only because he has now definitively left politics behind him. I'm still in the thick of it, on the other hand. I've invited him to Poland to a few meetings and conferences. Once he received an invitation to speak at the University of Wroclaw. Schröder spoke about the situation the European Union and the need for reform. It was, as always, very interesting.

Is he still wounded by the open "letter of eight EU countries," in which they put themselves on the side of the US in the conflict with Iraq?

No. I think the rumors about that are a little exaggerated. I phoned Schröder a day after the letter was signed. He was of course not particularly amused by it, but he didn't make a big issue of it. The letter was a diplomatic reaction to the German-French closing of ranks. That pair wanted to determine the direction and character of the transatlantic relations. It happened before the military mission began. Later, we met several times either at his house or mine. It was only our views on the issue of Iraq that divided us. But that didn't negatively affect our relationship at all.

Do you take the view that the predecessor of Angela Merkel has gotten bad press in Poland?

Gerhard Schröder is an outstanding politician who did great things for German-Polish relations. Without Schröder's engagement - but also the engagement of another Social Democrat, Günther Verheugen - during our EU entry negotiations, without Schröder's pressure on the government of other EU countries, our route into the community would have been very different. Our path to Europe went through Germany - in every sense! And Schröder and Verheugen smoothed the path for us. Schröder had a strong political position in Europe at the time. A few months before the end of his tenure I invited him to the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. He came and laid a wreath, then he gave a moving speech.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L) is welcomed by Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller during their meeting in Warsaw on 05 November 2002. Schroeder is on a working visit to Poland. dpa
Schröder and Miller were key allies in the European UnionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That did indeed break new ground - almost a unilateral declaration of international law. He said the German refugees had no right to any kind of compensation, including from Poland. It was the first time that a German chancellor had expressly said that after the war.

Yes. And who then campaigned for compensation for the forced laborers? Even the highly respected and honored Chancellor Helmut Kohl didn't do that. Only his successor. His role is still underestimated, and he is only painted as the Gazprom chancellor. We only argued over the military intervention in Iraq. Schröder and Chirac, with Putin were all very much against it.

When you look back now, what do you think? Were you right?

I am sure that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein than with him.

People are dying every day. Millions of people are leaving the country.

Yes, that's true. People are dying every day, but people also died during Hussein's reign, and he didn't hesitate to use chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds. I can still remember my visit to Poland on November 11 to celebrate our independence day. I was standing opposite the soldiers, not only Polish ones. Next to me stood the governor. An Iraqi. He told me that one day the Iraqi people would be able to celebrate independence day on November 11, like the Poles. And he thanked the Polish soldiers that he and his family could finally search for the remains of their dead loved ones in the mass graves in the desert. I will always remember that. War is of course not a good thing.

President Kwasniewski and I thought a long time about Poland's participation in Iraq. We thought this mission was necessary. Not only because of a Security Council resolution. We wanted to take a side. We could choose between the German-French-Russian coalition, which at its core was anti-American, or we could stand side by side with Britain, Spain, Denmark and the US. When I presented that to parliament, everyone voted in favor, even the political opposition. Then at some point we sat together with Schröder with a glass of wine and I asked him why Germany had reacted like that. He just said, "You know, we Germans have marched too much, we shouldn't do it anymore."

And what happened with the Nord Stream pipeline?

When I visited the Kremlin, I heard from Putin that the Russians wanted to use the shortest route for a gas pipeline to Germany. And they decided in favor, because Poland had already refused an earlier proposal for a connection through Poland past Ukraine. Our then government refused - as a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine. And so the idea of a Baltic Sea pipeline arose. I pointed out to Putin that the project was a poor and uneconomic one. But it found support in the West, in Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain. And they found financial sources.

During the terms of Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz and the deputy Foreign Minister Ryszard Sznepf, there was express interest in the Russian proposal…

And Sznepf was immediately sacked. He was completely right. But there was nothing to do. The Nord Stream board's negative position had become entrenched. It all ended terribly for us. The Baltic pipeline was built, and we're not connected to it. I don't understand this homemade tragedy.

The former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller (2001-2004), now party and parliamentary faction chairman of the Social Democrats in Poland, was in office when Poland became a member of the EU on May 1, 2004.