On 17th and 18th February I was in Warsaw, Poland, to participate in the European Democrat Students conference about the future of Europe. Representatives were young people from all parts of the continent and key speakers included senior Polish politicians as well as several from other countries, notably Germany, Spain and, of course, the United Kingdom.
Brexit certainly featured on the agenda and helped to shape all discussions but the main questions being asked were about the rule of law, liberal democracy, foreign policy and security, and implications flowing from decisions by the Trump Administration. It is always refreshing to hear from young people about such issues, especially as they grapple with the rapidly changing political circumstances across the globe.
Warsaw, in many ways, is an appropriate place to have such a conference. It was the German invasion of the Poland which finally provoked the Second World War and this calamitous and appalling conflict was the principal catalyst to the formation of the European Union. Moreover, Poland was closely associated with the events which brought an end to the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
Being so close to a resurgent Russia, Poles are much more concerned about threats to their liberal democracy – in comparison to us, something a fledgling – and, more obviously, security and defence. It was, therefore, interesting and reassuring to note their guarded but still optimistic attitude to US Vice-President Mike Pence’s unambiguous statement committing the Trump Administration to supporting NATO and also the promising but, as yet, untested agreement between Russia and Ukrainian.
In contrast, representatives from countries further away from such diplomatic tensions were less concerned and, consequently, even ambivalent about such matters of their national defence expenditure. As pressures to increase defence capacity mount, this distinction is likely to be under the spotlight and potentially controversial.
I visited Poland frequently over a decade ago. Then there was copious amounts of hope linked to the stunning economic growth being achieved at the time but this weekend I sensed that the now noticeable ‘smog’ over Warsaw – caused by unbridled fossil fuel use – could be a useful metaphor for prevailing political situation facing the country today.