This afternoon, I had a chance to speak briefly with former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski. A former minister of sport in Poland's Communist government during the 1980s, Kwasniewski was elected in 1995 as the country's second post-Communist president. He served until 2005.
Along with former Irish politician Pat Cox, Kwasniewski has recently traveled more than a dozen times to Ukraine to monitor the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on behalf of the European Parliament. In an address to the Atlantic Council yesterday, Kwasniweski urged the U.S. to take a more active role in encouraging democracy in Ukraine. He has called Tymoshenko's controversial prosecution "disastrous" for Ukrainian democracy but also believes further EU-Ukraine integration will be productive in encouraging the rule of law.
Noting that crucial talks on whether Ukraine will sign an association agreement with the EU are coming up in November of this year, Kwasniewski told me today, "It is necessary to decide if we want to support Ukraine and see it as part of our community of standards and values, or not. The time for this decision is quite limited."
Kwasniewski is an unapologetic euro-optimist, who despite the ongoing economic crisis, which Poland has weathered far better than its neighbors to the West, believes the country will eventually join the common currency.
"I am quite optimistic about the future of the European Union," he said. "I am sure that the EU will not only survive but will develop after the crisis. It should be our goal to be one of the main players along with the United States and China."
Kwasniewski favors "deepening of integration, strengthening of institutions and more common policies" within the European Union as well as a new push to expand to new countries, particularly to what he calls, the "two heavyweights," Ukraine and Turkey.
"The Ukraine question is complicated because of interior problems in Ukraine and because of competition between Russia and European Union," he says. "Turkey also creates questions about the real nature of the European Union and its natural borders." He also favors expanding the EU into the Balkans, though he says they have "huge homework to do" regarding legal reforms and clamping down on corruption.
He says he's not all that concerned about a crisis-era backlash to Polish immigrants in countries like Britain and France. "We have to accept a new chapter of European history that all European countries will be multicultural," he ways. "Without immigration there's no chance for development. With aging societies, it's necessary to be open." He also noted with some satisfaction that with more than 2 million immigrants in the country, "Polish is almost the second official language of Ireland"
As a left-leaning Polish politician, I was curious to hear Kwasniewski's take on U.S.-Polish relations under the Obama administration. Following the Obama administration's repositioning of the U.S. missile defense system in Poland - on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, no less - and last year's "Polish death camps" faux pas, much has been made of supposed tensions between the Obama administration and Polish leaders. (Kwasniewski's predecessor and rival Lech Walesa essentially campaigned for Mitt Romney.)
Kwasniewski dismissed these events as "misunderstandings," but sees a bigger problem looming:
"The problem is not very serious in the relationships between Poland and the United States -- Poland is one of the most pro-American societies in Europe -- the much more important question is the American-European relationship. Here I have more fears. I understand American priorities are changing, and that the Pacific is a much more important ocean for U.S. than the Atlantic. Americans are very interested in China, but it's necessary to remember that Europe is still the most valuable and predictable ally of the United States. In my opnion, the engagement of the United States and EU is too weak. I expect more actions from the United States to strengthen these ties in the second term."
Kwasniewski recently helped form a new center-left party aiming to create a list of candidates for the 2014 European Parliament elections. He was somewhat vague when I asked if he had thoughts of returning to elected office himself:
I will support a new list of people to the European parliament and we'll see what reaction we'll have in Europe. It's very difficult to find a place for former presidents. If you are a former president it's difficult to describe what would be interesting and prestigious enough. What will happen in 2014 is difficult to predict. A former president is not a prophet, especially about his own country.
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for 2nd Annual Concordia Summit)