On Wednesday morning I interviewed Michal Kaminski for Total Politics. He is the leader of the new European Reform Group in the European Parliament and has become a very controversial figure. I went into the interview with an open mind. I came out absolutely convinced that Kaminski doesn't have a homophlobic or anti Semitic bone in his body. We didn't just talk about those two issues though. We also talked about his life in Poland before the fall of Communism. I asked him about his father, who defected to Canada when he was a child and who he only saw once more before he died in the late 1990s. It was an emotional exchange, which saw him struggle to continue and tears appearing in his eyes - and mine. We in the West have little idea of what freedom fighters in the Eastern Bloc countries went through to achieve freedom.
Note: If any part of this interview is being quoted elsewhere please credit to to Total Politics magazine.
In the interview Michal Kaminski...
- Says he would never have been given NATO security clearance if there was any evidence of anti-Semitism in his past
- Accuses the New Stateman of shoddy journalism over its recent story attributing comments to Rabbi Shudrich, which he says he never made
- Says he is ashamed that Poles were involved in the Jedwabne massacre
- Claims he is proud that Poland was among the first countries to decriminalise homosexuality
- Says he would vote for civil partnership legislation in Poland but remains opposed to gay marriage
- Says he will accept an invitation to attend next year's Conservative Pride event
- Admits there are differences between the Law & Justice Party and the Conservatives over Lisbon.
- Says it is wrong to equate the European Commission with the Soviet Union
- Says he was wrong to praise General Pinochet
Iain Dale: What does it feel like to have become the new hate figure for the British left?
Michal Kaminski: I have put myself in a very strange situation! But I can tell you that if the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom is using his party conference speech to attack a 37 year old politician from Poland, it suggests to me that they are really desperate. Ordinary citizens have no reason to be afraid of my friends and the group, but it’s just a question of the brutal political game that is played here in Britain, especially with the very weak Labour Party. The fact is that my party in the European Parliament is stronger than the Labour Party. We have fifteen members in the EP; they have fourteen members. It shows how deep in crisis the Labour Party is right now and unfortunately, when you’re out of ideas and your record is very bad, for some politicians the only way to “improve” their situation is to brutally attack their opponents. But I think it will play against them, because people across Europe – not just in the UK – are interested in positive ideas, because they are facing real problems. They are losing their jobs, their businesses are in trouble and I think we have to address these issues at both a national and European level. We can discuss these issues with our leftwing opponents, but the dangerous thing is they do not want to discuss the issues. They want to attack people.
ID: When you were elected leader of the group had you any idea that this sort of thing would happen?
MK: No, not at all. I have been an active politician in Poland for the last twenty years and I run many campaigns myself, for myself. I was Mr Kaczynski’s presidential campaign chief. I twice faced election campaigns to the European Parliament. I was very active in Polish politics, so I was scrutinised by the Polish journalists and I was never accused of the kinds of things that have been levelled against me in Britain – never.
ID: Is that because Polish politics is very different?
MK: If we’re talking about anti-Semitism, in Poland we are quite sensitive about it. If you are regarded as an anti-Semite, it’s tough to survive in Poland, and I’m very happy about that. My country now has a very good record of fighting anti-Semitism and of being pro-Israeli, so if there were any doubts about my past I will give you the ultimate argument. When I became Secretary of State of Poland, I received a top NATO clearance, so it’s not about Polish politics now – it’s about a NATO clearance. I don’t think there can be any doubts about my political views and my past if I can receive a top NATO clearance.
ID: But what do you say to the allegations that were made in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago?
MK: What I’m facing here in the UK is not only a very disappointing standard of political debate, but very disappointing standards of journalism. Rabbi Schudrich made a statement about the allegations in this magazine. He sent them a statement and they ignored it. They didn’t print it. Rabbi Schudrich made it very clear that he didn’t want to make any political statements about me, but he wanted to make clear that he has nothing against me and does not regard me as an anti-Semite. Come on. Just recently, I came back from Israel where I was received at the top level of government. I had my statement posted on the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. The Israeli ambassador to Brussels accepted my invitation to visit our group next week; can you imagine that the Israeli state would receive me if they had any doubts about my attitude towards the Jewish people and the state of Israel?
ID: This all seems to stem from comments you made about the Jedwabne massacre in 1941, where you said that it was wrong for the Polish prime minister to apologise for the whole of the Polish nation for what happened. Do you understand why people might draw the conclusions that you have views that you say you don’t?
MK: They have to read the whole of the statements I made during this time. And actually there is a BBC report from Poland quoting me, a young member of the Polish parliament at the time, and the Polish prime minister at the time, Mr Buzek – who is now President of the European Parliament – he even said that he agreed with me. Because what I was saying from the beginning was that it was a terrible crime and I am ashamed that the Polish people were involved in this crime.
ID: If you’re ashamed of that, why can’t you agree that there should be an apology?
MK: Because my point is, I don’t want to put this single crime – however shameful – on the same level as the Nazi policy towards the Jews. You see the difference? We had our underground state, we were occupied by Germans, and what those bandits did at Jedwabne was totally against Polish law, Polish customs and Polish culture. What the Nazis did was according to the state policies of the Nazi government. Do you understand the difference? Because there is a difference. Let’s say that you can feel ashamed of British hooligans, but no one will require an apology from the whole British nation for the actions of a few hooligans.
ID: I’m not sure that’s true – I feel ashamed about British football hooligans when they go abroad and I do apologise for my country.
MK: But the difference is that it’s not about judging the crime. It was a position shared by many politicians in Poland: we condemned the crime but we didn’t want to be put on the same side as the Nazis.
ID: Even though what you’re saying has a certain logic to it, logic doesn’t really matter in these sorts of subjects! I think you need to understand the other point of view.
MK: From the very beginning, when I was confronted with this accusation, I said that I fully understand the feelings of the Jewish people, and that I understand that after such allegations, they can ask me the questions and scrutinise me, because anti-Semitism is really bad. But what makes me angry is that the people who are using this anti-Semitic argument are in the political debate not to fight anti-Semitism, but just as a tool to fight opponents. They are actually undermining the global fight against anti-Semitism, because if you are making false allegations, people will think, oh, this is just politics as usual, whereas actually, this is something really important for me and everyone on this planet. I will repeat: I was in Israel, and I was actually attacked by the Polish anti-Semites. I was an enemy of the far right in Poland. I made a statement about anti-Semitism in Poland as a member of the European Parliament, and I have been attacked for this statement by the Polish far right. But it’s a political game, unfortunately practiced by some journalists, which I regret. Rabbi Shudrich is actually coming to Brussels to see me soon, and when he gave an explanation, they didn’t publish it, which they would do if they were really interested in the subject.
ID: So why not sue the News Statesman for libel? They are basically saying that you are an anti-Semite and that is damaging to your reputation.
MK: But I don’t want to heat up this debate. I think for every decent reader or observer of this subject, the explanation I am making and the statements from other people, like the Jewish Board of Deputies, they have done research and have nothing against me.
ID: But they have now written to David Cameron expressing “concerns” whatever that means.
MK: The main reason why we are attacked is because we are a new political force in the European Parliament, which is a real tectonic change in Europe, and they are not interested in a real debate about the future of Europe. They just want to smash opponents.
ID: If you came to the conclusion that all if this was really so damaging to the group that you couldn’t continue, have you ever thought about standing down?
MK: No, because there is nothing in my past that I have to be ashamed of. If I stood down, it would be read as proof that the accusations were true, and they are not.
ID: Let’s move onto the other subject people have got very excited about – homosexuality. You presumably accept that remarks you made some years ago were offensive to gay people? You called them ‘fags’.
MK: I used a word that is un-transferable into English, which homosexual people feel is offensive. So I said that I would never use it again, but it was in common usage at the time – even by the leftist politicians in Poland. We just discovered that the leftwing leader of the Polish parliament during an inquiry meeting used the same word about homosexuals. Today, we know more about homosexuals, and because they felt offended I said I would never repeat such words, and I think we have to respect people who feel that the language we are using is somehow offensive, and respect their right to be treated with civility.
ID: But I think it goes deeper than that. I think saying ‘I won’t use a particular word or language’ – that doesn’t address the main issue, that people who use that language often do have homophobic thoughts.
MK: But I have homosexual friends. There is a cultural context in Poland; Poland is not such an open society as Britain, but if you went back three years when Mr Kaczynski was prime minister, he had a press conference and he was also asked this question, and he said in our Law and Justice government we have homosexual people, it’s just they are not coming out, and it’s this cultural context. I have nothing against them. It’s deep in my belief that in a free society, your personal life and sexuality is your own concern. The state shouldn’t interfere, and shouldn’t prosecute. I’m very proud of the fact that Poland was the first European country to decriminalise homosexual relationships – that was back in 1928. We were one of the first countries in Europe and I’m proud of it. Obviously there is homophobia around the world and I regret it. I respect homosexuals. I am not judging people on what they do in their own sexual lives. I can have homosexual friends and homosexual enemies, just as I can have straight friends and straight enemies.
ID: But I think there is a difference in that everyone can have gay friends, but the proof is what you do as a political leader to deal with discrimination, to deal with hate, and undoubtedly – I have to say particularly so in Poland as opposed to here – there is a lot of homophobia. I think as a political leader, people can ask you to take a lead on that subject and it’s all very well sitting here in Britain and saying these things in a very liberal society, but in Poland it’s very different.
MK: But I’m saying the same in Poland, Brussels, and everywhere in the world. My position is quite clear and I don’t want to politicise this question, because I don’t think it’s in the interest of the homosexual community to make this question part of the political game, because if you are a politician – left or right, conservative, liberal or socialist, it doesn’t matter – you have to accept that there are homosexuals who have exactly the same rights as other citizens.
ID: Well do they? Do you have any civil partnership legislation in Poland? Gay marriage? Would you support this?
MK: I am opposed to gay marriage because Poland is a different society and I believe in differences. In Poland today, it would be very difficult to get legislation through on civil partnerships. If you are talking about civil partnerships between people of whatever their sexual preferences, I personally have nothing against them. What I am opposed to is imputing the word marriage to this kind of relationship, because I would say that for historical and cultural reasons, marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. In my view, it’s not a question of sexual orientation but a freedom issue. If I want to make a social commitment with another citizen I should be allowed to do it.
ID: But in Poland you wouldn’t be allowed to do it. There is no civil partnership legislation.
MK: No there is not, but I would say that we are at a different stage.
ID: No I understand what you are saying and I agree with you on marriage – I’ve always thought that marriage is a word that symbolises something religious, and in this country you can’t contract civil partnerships in a church, you have to do it in a licensed premises. But if a bill came before the Polish or European Parliament to legalise civil partnerships, would you vote in favour of it?
MK: I hope that this wouldn’t come up at the European level.
ID: Ok, well let’s take the Polish parliament. If you were still a member of it and it came to vote, would you vote yes?
MK: I would consider voting yes, but it depends on the subject. I have said in Poland that I don’t think that the state should interfere in personal relationships.
ID: Well it’s not a case of interfering in sexual relationships; it’s a question of allowing gay people to show commitment and maintain stable relationships, which as conservatives, we all ought to approve of.
MK: Yes I have nothing against it.
ID: Ok, what about gay adoption?
MK: I am against gay adoption.
MK: Because it’s a sensitive issue, and a child is something that...
ID: But let’s look at this – I agree with you by the way, I think ideally a child should be raised by a man and a woman – but there are lots of kids nowadays who for whatever reason aren’t able to be raised by a man and a woman. And given the choice between putting a child in a children’s home for his or her entire childhood, or put in a stable home, regardless of whether the parents are of the same sex, surely it’s more important for the child to have a stable loving home?
MK: I’m sorry but I don’t think that my position is homophobic.
ID: I’m not saying it is – there are lots of people in this country who aren’t homophobic who don’t believe in gay adoption.
MK: That’s my position as well.
ID: Last night – I don’t know if you know about this – but the Conservatives held an event called “Pride” which is basically a gay party, which I co-hosted. I nearly called you to bring you along, but thought, actually, that would have been unfair on you and it would overshadowed the whole thing, so I didn’t do it.
MK: But I would have had no problem attending – quite the opposite. I would have been happy to address them.
ID: Alright, well next year let’s invite you along to this event.
MK: I would be more than happy.
ID: Let’s move on to European issues. When you first started having discussions with the British Conservatives about forming a group, why was it attractive to you and your party?
MK: We share the same views about the future of Europe. We share the same vision of a more democratic, flexible, business friendly European Union and I think also we share a commitment to keeping the EU as a union of independent states. We don’t want a European federal state. We Poles only gained our independence twenty years ago. I think we are happy with the EU and for us it’s a symbol of the changes in our country; but on the other hand we don’t want to replace one empire with another one. But I don’t like it when people compare the Soviet Union to the EU. There are no victims of European Union – there were millions of victims of the Soviet Union. You can’t compare a totalitarian state with the EU.
ID: Similar bureaucracy?
MK: Oh but come on, the EU bureaucracy is not sending anyone to jail or to Siberia or kill anyone.
ID: Have you read a book by Paul Van Buitenen, who’s the chief accountant in Brussels. When he blew the whistle on all the corrupt practices that go on the European Commission, he was followed by secret police.
MK: Ok, but it’s still not the same. I’m a champion of changing Europe, it’s just I don’t like to compare them. Jewish people, homosexual people – they were prosecuted in the Soviet Union and the scale of that crime is just too big to have this argument. But I think we are making a change in Europe. And the best proof of it as a speech given by Mr Schulz in the European Parliament, in which he accused Barroso of changing the old habit in the EU, where everything is agreed between the biggest groups – socialists and the EPP – and now he made a coalition with the conservatives and got a result, because of our revolts.
ID: Who is Mr Schulz?
MK: He is the chairman of the socialist group in the European Parliament. We believe in a free market economy. We believe in transatlantic cooperation. We believe in supporting the state of Israel. So we have much in common in terms of internal and international policy.
ID: What about the democratic side of the EU, because they basically blackmailed Ireland into supporting the Lisbon Treaty. You’ve been quoted as being fully in favour of the Lisbon Treaty.
MK: Not fully in favour.
ID: You think it should go through?
MK: I worked with the president who signed the treaty. I am not satisfied with Lisbon at all, but it was in my opinion a huge step forward, if you take into account that the Lisbon Treaty replaced the European Constitution.
ID: They’re basically identical though.
MK: No, it’s not identical.
ID: That’s what the British Conservative Party is saying; David Cameron is saying they are identical, that’s why he wants a referendum.
MK: There are differences in perspective. I fully appreciate the position of the British Conservatives – they have a right to make it. There is a perspective in Britain and a different perspective in Poland.
ID: Do you think it’s acceptable for the European Commission to act in the way that it has done with the Irish people? The Irish rejected it.
MK: I think it’s very unfair in terms of repeating only those referendums that are “failed” in the eyes of the European bureaucrats. It’s very unfair.
ID: But there are clear differences between the Conservative Party and your party’s stance, and are there other issues where you don’t agree?
MK: There are differences. We never said there could be one united pan-European party. It would be a bad sign because we believe in a Europe based on the national state, so we could never agree to a pan-European party with one agenda. Because we are different; Poland is different to the UK, and Czechs are different to the Poles even though we are close neighbours. We believe in differences. But there is very broad platform on which we agree.
ID: Let’s go back to your teenage years, growing up in a communist state. The British left like to say that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had not part in the end of the Cold War – the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union collapsed of its own free will. Give us your perspective on this.
MK: I decided that if we were going to have a free Poland I would be a conservative.
ID: But how did you even know anything about conservatism?
MK: From the BBC, from Radio Free Europe. You don’t understand what it was like to live in the country where you have to hide the radio under your bed, just because you want to have that information about the western world and not just communist propaganda. For us, the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was a shining example of the success of a free market economy, democracy and the rule of law. It was a time in which this leadership led to the collapse of communism. I said it in my first speech to the European Parliament: I want to thank Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan because of their leadership in this very difficult time.
ID: Your father defected, and it must have been quite difficult to come to terms with the fact that your father wasn’t part of your life.
MK: I went to meet him in Canada, in Toronto, 1988, when the system had softened. It was one of the most moving moments in my life when I met him there. He died ten years ago and I’m really sorry that he can’t see what I achieved in my life. [eyes well up]
ID: So Reagan and Thatcher had an impact on you and presumably a lot of other people at the time. Did you believe that Poland would be free?
MK: Yes I believed it. It was deep in my heart. It was very important to my family. And when we received our democracy, I was involved in it from the very beginning. But I never expected that I would end up as Chairman of the conservative group in the European Parliament! It’s unbelievable and I’m sorry that my father couldn’t see it; it’s really fantastic what we’ve achieved. With all the differences we are talking about, life in Poland now – if you come to Warsaw – it feels like a western state, it’s a western capital. However, it’s on the east of Europe. I am really proud of all the achievements my country has had over the past twenty years. I think I am making a parallel between Thatcher’s leadership back in the eighties and hopefully with the new British leadership that is coming. I hope it proves the second phase of changing Europe. We changed it peacefully in 1989, and it was a great achievement and now we have to change it because I think it’s great that we can live in a Europe without borders, in a Europe that is a zone of tolerance and democracy – I cannot say free market economy because we are still very far from it! But we have to go forward.
ID: Obviously British Conservatives will be very pleased that you regard Thatcher and Reagan as political heroes, but then there is again something that comes to blacken the cloud – you’re quoted when meeting General Pinochet as saying “this is the most important meeting of my whole life”, well what was that about?
MK: To reiterate: we lived in this country subject to communist propaganda. We had little access to the real information, so for many Poles – not just me – this defence of Pinochet was across centre-right political parties in Poland and other eastern European countries at that time. It was my mistake, I admit it. I think every politician has the right to some mistakes. I made this mistake by just reversing the communist propaganda. It was a mistake that decent people of the left made when they were living under rightwing dictatorships – the kind of mistake where you just reverse the black and white propaganda. Today I know much more about Pinochet and I will never call him a hero again. It’s a question of context.
ID: How much does your own religious faith underpin your conservatism?
MK: My conservatism isn’t based on my religious faith, but on my life experience, my own ideas – but religion is important to me. Religious strength can vary throughout your life – c’est la vie as the French say – but my political beliefs are my political beliefs.
ID: So if we meet at next year’s Conservative Party conference, what do you hope to have achieved by then?
MK: Great question!
ID: That we don’t have all these questions again!
MK: First of all, I hope I prove I am a decent conservative, as all the accusations against me were false. Secondly, for the next party conference I would like to have a larger party group than we have today – though it will be hard work to achieve this. I will say next year’s conference will be a conference of the ruling party of Great Britain.
ID: I think I’m right in saying they didn’t let you speak on the platform at this year’s conference.
MK: No, but I had a fringe meeting.
ID: Next year you would like maybe to speak on the platform?
MK: I’m not sure my English is good enough!
ID: Your English is good enough to do it. Well, thank you very much and I’m sorry I upset you with some of those questions.
MK: No, that’s politics. It’s tough, but we’ll survive.