Sikorski as Minerva’s owl?

Radosław Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, is rapidly gaining a reputation across Europe as a man who speaks his mind. Whether he’s telling the Germans that he worries about their inaction on the eurozone crisis, or the British that they suffer from ‘false consciousness’ about EU membership, he appears unafraid to say the things that others think.

This is to be applauded, both generally and specifically. Generally, we have come to associate politicians with flatterers, telling us what they think we want to hear, playing the percentages, rather than giving us a realistic judgement on what is possible and/or desirable. Specifically, after five years of a financial crisis characterised as much by half-hearted interventions as anything else, it is refreshing to have someone in a position of responsibility to tell it like it is.

The Oxford-educated Mr Sikorski would of course recognise the classical allusion of the title, the owl of knowledge that flies at dusk. Perhaps his lucidity can be read as a belated understanding of the situation that is reaching a conclusion, even if neither the situation nor the conclusion are entirely clear yet.

Or perhaps not. One of the seeming constants of the European integration process has been the general unhappiness that surrounds interventions by one country’s politicians in the affairs of another: no one likes being told what to do. The only exception that springs to mind is the current intervention by the EU in Bulgarian and Romanian politics, and even then that’s hardly uncontested. At best, such intervention is politely received and then ignored; at worst, it becomes ‘meddling’ or ‘manipulating.’

With that in mind, the minister has done well, probably because his style is not hectoring but disappointed and his analysis is fair and even-handed.

However, there still lingers a doubt in my mind. His speeches put me in mind of a pre-war doctor, telling his patient with a psychological condition to ‘pull yourself together, man.’ This might appeal to British common-sense and pragmatism, but it rather neglects the question of whether the patient has any agency. A modern doctor would be talking about structured intervention to help the patient understand their condition and to help themself out of it.

The whole point of ‘false consciousness’ is surely that it is delusional and broadly resilient. One man’s views will not change that, however astute those views might be. Instead, we need to think about how we can create the conditions for the necessary changes to take place, and then work towards making them happen.

Mr Sikorski talks a lot of sense, but it can only be a starting point: it is up to the rest of us to move things forward.