Jerzy Buzek, a scientist in politics

It is periods that mark you for a lifetime. For Jerzy Buzek, the all-important period was the 13 months between the foundation of Solidarność, (Solidarity), on 31 August 1980, and his chairmanship of the first Solidarity national congress, which ended on 10 October 1981. Thirteen months that changed the history of Europe. Thirteen months of turmoil which resulted in Buzek, formerly director of the Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, becoming one of Poland’s most respected politicians, and now, an influential Member of the European Parliament.

Jerzy Buzek. Jerzy Buzek – ‘If the Constitution project has failed, it is because it had little appeal for citizens who need real projects that are likely to improve their lives.’

Buzek considers that his destiny was at a crossroads much earlier than this, as early as 1972, when he, a young researcher at the Gliwice Institute of Chemical Engineering, had just finished a year’s work experience in Cambridge. The Royal Society offered him a grant to stay on in the United Kingdom. To the surprise of his colleagues, he declined the offer. ‘I wanted to go back to Poland, as that is the only place where the socialist system could collapse. I didn’t want to miss that.’ A visionary? A patient visionary, as it happens. He spent the 1970s in the ‘dull dreariness’ of socialist Poland in Upper Silesia, the region where he was born, conducting research on the optimisation of energy in the coal industry and the chemistry of sulphur dioxide. There too he was a visionary: he cast aside the theoretical bases for the reduction of industrial pollutant emissions, at that time completely neglected by the socialist party.

The rise of Solidarność

Society was awakened by Pope Jean-Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. Discussions began, relationships were established, and a gust of freedom blew across the country. Although a Protestant – he is one of 80 000 Polish Lutherans, mostly found in Upper Silesia – Buzek took part in the huge mass attended by 2 million people in Krakow, an event which was as political as it was religious. The following summer, strikes broke out in Gdansk. Buzek followed them on television, but more importantly via parallel information channels. When Solidarność was legalised, he became head of the union within his institute, and invested heavily in its development. He travelled the length and breadth of the country, ran hundreds of meetings and worked on structuring this atypical organisation, which he defines today as ‘a network of civil society networks’. His energy, rigour and power of conviction worked wonders. When Solidarność, with its 10 million members, held its first national congress in the autumn of 1981, he was elected president of conference proceedings. Buzek refers to this moment as: ‘The most important thing in my life, from which everything else has subsequently resulted.’

On 13 December 1981, martial law was declared. Buzek knew he risked being arrested. The institute offered him an ideal cover. As far as the political police were concerned, he was a renowned scientist, devoted to his work. This is indeed precisely what he was, but he was also secretly participating in the management of Solidarność. ‘That was an extraordinary learning period, during which I really learned about politics.’ Professor Buzek by day, Karol – his pseudonym - by night. A hellish pace of life, made worse by a difficult personal ordeal: his daughter fell seriously ill and he had to go to Germany, with his wife, to care for her. She recovered, but the ordeal meant that he was sidelined from the disruptive events of the summer of 1989. At the beginning of the 1990s, Lech Walesa was President, and the USSR no longer existed. Buzek was in his laboratory investigating clean coal and greenhouse gases.

A Prime Minister en route to the Union

In 1996, when the former communists had gone back to their day-to-day lives, Buzek was contacted by one of his friends from Solidarność. The union was making a foray into politics, and a party, the AWS, had been formed for this purpose. He oversaw the development of the economic programme, agreed ‘as a favour’ to be a candidate in the Parliamentary elections without so much as a campaign… and went off on holiday to Spain. This is where he was when he received a telephone call: ‘Would you agree to becoming Prime Minister?’ The AWS, allied to around 30 parties, won the election, and his friends from Solidarność were counting on his moral authority to be the link between the various sensitivities of this centre-right coalition. Although unknown to the general public, he was well received, with his combination of human warmth and moral rigour proving to be enchanting. The four years – a record in Poland since the transition to democracy in 1989 – during which he occupied the position of Prime Minister brought him no pleasure. ‘Reforms were essential and they were needed quickly, right from the first few months.’ This included the administrative reorganisation of the country, which went from 49 to 16 voïvodies (regions); the restructuring of the coal sector, where the number of miners was halved; multiple privatisations, etc. Buzek was becoming increasingly dissatisfied, but continued to hold the position, convinced that this was the only strategy to prepare Poland for entry into the European Union – his great ambition.

Politics and energy

The year 2001 saw the electoral downfall of the AWS. After four years in the highest of all offices, Buzek could not really see himself returning to his institute. He spoke at conferences – ‘people were asking me to speak about international politics rather than energy, but actually the two are linked…’ He thought about energy security issues and created a foundation to encourage the development of Polish civil society. In 2004 he was elected to the European Parliament, where he was reunited with his counterparts from Solidarność’s heroic years: Bronisław Geremek, Jan Kułakowski and Jacek Saryusz-Wolski. ‘They were all members of my government and they had all been elected with the highest scores for their country. The Polish people had finally understood the sense in our action,’ he remarked, as if to bandage the wounds sustained in those four trying years spent leading the country. The current breakdown of the European project saddens him, but he doesn’t take it to heart. ‘If the Constitution project has failed, it is because it had little appeal for citizens who need real projects that are likely to improve their lives. Achieving peace in Europe, having the same monetary system, organising the free movement of people – those were the (Constitution’s) projects.’ And now? ‘A joint energy policy, which we can see is becoming more urgent as each day goes by with the Russian gas issue, or combating the effect of greenhouse gases, would in my view seem to be one such tangible and motivating objective, one which would give Europe a fresh start.’ Behind the face of the MEP, the professor, with 200 publications and three patents in the field of energy to his name, is still there.

Six key dates in the life of Jerzy Buzek

  • 1940 - born in Śmiłowice, then connected with the Third Reich
  • 1963 - graduated from the Faculty of Energy at Silesia’s University of Technology
  • 1981 - presided over Solidarność first national congress
  • 1996 - Prime Minister of Poland
  • 2004 - Member of the European Parliament
  • 2006 - voted by Parliament Magazine as ‘MEP of the year’ in the Research and Technology category

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A proponent of the Seventh Framework Programme

Within the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek was the Commission’s contact person for the co-development of the Seventh Framework Programme. On its first reading in June 2006, the Commission’s proposal, for which he was rapporteur, was swiftly adopted. However, MEPs openly admitted regrets over its lack of financial ambition: an anticipated € 50 billion for 2007-2013, or a 40 % per annum growth compared with the previous framework programme. ‘We would have liked double and we think we let the opportunity slip through our fingers.’ Although he may not have won his case on this point, Parliament brought some 700 amendments. The main ones included the definition of new thematic priorities, such as space and security; the putting in place of a framework for stem cell research, with the destruction of embryos solely for research being prohibited; the inclusion of chemistry; and the further enrichment of energy research through three priorities (energy efficiency, renewable energy, research on clean coal and carbon capture). The files on these last two are covered with the fingerprints of Buzek, the scientist. But for the file on the controversial issue of stem cells, it was his skill as a negotiator that made its mark.