WARSAW Britain's decision to leave the European Union is an opportunity to reform the bloc, giving more say to national governments and less to Brussels institutions, Poland's eurosceptic leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said.
The head of Poland's ruling party told Reuters that Warsaw would push for a new EU treaty, a more influential role for central Europe within the bloc and continued strong ties with Washington.
Kaczynski, 67, holds no government post, but he is seen as Poland's most powerful figure and was identified by Reuters as one of the 10 faces for Europe to watch in 2017 amid a rise in populism, euroscepticism and the uncertainties of a Trump administration in the United States.
While disappointed at the departure of Britain, which Kaczynski sees as a natural ally for Poland as a country that shares his hawkish stance on Russia and desire for close relations with the United States, Brexit is also an opportunity, he said in an interview.
"Britain is leaving the EU, but ... this situation is also an opening," he said, dismissing the notion that an EU without Britain should continue the path of greater integration and centralisation of powers
"The issue ... outside of Germany ... isn't seen as clear-cut," he said. "I think almost everyone says Brexit requires a new treaty, a far-reaching change of the treaty."
"We need reforms which clearly define that the EU is an association of national states and that national states are the foundation. Plus, we need far-reaching deregulation," he said.
"In private, some (EU representatives) say we are right, but they are asking if we have (others') support."
Few EU politicians question the need to reform the EU amid concerns that the bloc may now be breaking apart because its 500 million citizens no longer see it as a guarantor of peace and prosperity. But the direction of change remains divisive.
Poland's relations with Brussels have soured since the PiS won power last year.
Kaczynski, the twin brother of the late president Lech Kaczynski who was killed in a plane crash in 2010, has a running feud with former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, president of the EU’s European Council, whom he blamed for failing to keep Britain in the EU.
In addition, the European Commission has opened an inquiry into the rule of law in Poland where the PiS government has been accused of curbing democratic rights.
Kaczynski said he wanted the voice of Poland and its central European peers - Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, known as the Visegrad Four (V4) - to gain more sway in Brussels.
"We are working hard on the V4," he said. "Institutionalising the V4, which already holds regular prime ministers' meetings would be an element of bolstering Poland's status (in the European Union)."
The four countries share their opposition to EU migration policy, but Kaczynski's eurosceptic stance, while resonant with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is less popular in Prague and Bratislava.
On the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Kaczynski said it was difficult to guess what his foreign policy will be.
"I don't think there is a politician in the world who can say something definitive about Trump," he said.
Many Europeans fear Trump may dilute the historic U.S. military commitment to protect them from Moscow, but Kaczynski said he expected the president-elect to negotiate with Russia "from the position of strength".
"All signs suggest that we will try to negotiate but ... from the position of strength, not as a weaker (interlocutor) or even ... one who is retreating."
Kaczynski said he was less concerned than some of his European peers over Trump's decision to appoint Rex Tillerson, the CEO of oil giant Exxon, who has close ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, as secretary of state.
"We know Tillerson had close contacts with Russia. The question is whether a change of his role ... will change his approach," Kaczynski said.
"From the point of view of a negotiator - and Trump is a negotiator - nominating someone who doesn't have a negative approach towards Russia from the start ... is not a bad approach."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)