WARSAW — “There can be no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine,” Polish activist and journalist Jerzy Giedroyc used to say. Though I fully agree, I must reject attempts to give this idea a broader meaning — in other words, that Polish national security depends on Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, or at least its sphere of influence.

I think this point of view is unrealistic and unhealthy for both Ukraine and Poland. As a matter of fact, it is representative more of imperial thinking than a serious approach to the sovereignty of our neighbor.

Poland did well supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and its democratic aspirations. Having a democratic, stable and well-governed neighbor across our eastern boarder would be wonderful. This is an aim worth pursuing.

Like Jerzy GiedroycJohn Paul II or Lech Walesa, I cross my fingers hoping that one day Ukrainian people will be able to live in that kind of country. On the other hand, I doubt that persuading them to follow in our steps by joining the EU is the right thing to do. Ukraine in the EU is a wonderful dream that my romantic nature enjoys. But my pragmatic side believes that it is better to dream more modestly and learn from history.

The European Union is an empire, a soft one but quite typical. Its core extends between Paris, Berlin and Brussels. It has peripheries and semi-peripheries where we belong. It has common tradition, history, culture and civilization that bond its individual parts together. 

Every empire's final destiny

Empires tend to gradually absorb their environments — of which Ukraine is a part — changing them into peripheries and semi-peripheries. Every empire stops its expansion at some point. For example, China could have swallowed Indo-China — a historic region in Southeast Asia, a former French colony covering the territories of today’s Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The U.S. has occupied New Mexico but did not go further to the south. Russia stopped at the borders of Mongolia and Afghanistan.

The Poland-Ukraine border is also the EU-Ukraine border (Silar)

On the way to expansion, every empire meets difficulties that are unmanageable, impossible, or simply not worth the effort. If it manages to cross its natural borders, it returns to them quickly. That is what has happened with Russia and Afghanistan, China and Vietnam, and the U.S. and Mexico.

There are three reasons why empires stop growing. First of all, an empire can face resistance from another empire, which it cannot or does not want to fight. Secondly, it may encounter cultural barriers. Thirdly, it can lose the will to expand because of problems it has with the governance of the old territories.

The recent events around the Ukrainian accession to the EU show all of the symptoms cited above. It may mean that the EU has reached its natural eastern borders and therefore the idea of the Ukrainian accession should be replaced by a more realistic one — of a convivial neighborhood, perhaps.

Questions about the way this friendly approach should be manifested will obviously arise, but the answers will come much easier if we stay down-to-earth and realistic about our respective capacities.