The United Kingdom has never been in love with the European Union, and long ago notoriously opted out from various EU policies—single currency, justice and home affairs, common border management—to name a few. However, it was the much bigger than anticipated wave of migration from Central and Eastern Europe—especially Poland—that seemed to have broken the camel’s back and convinced Brits it was time to say goodbye to the EU.
Naturally the anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the UK and much of the Western world cannot be blamed only on immigration from Poland. Since the 1990s, some five million migrants have arrived in the UK; Poles represent 700,000 to 800,000 of them, or only 15 percent of the total. Still it was the unprecedented wave of this migration—all taking place within the 10 years since Poland joined the EU—and the fact that EU migrants quickly received a range of social benefits, healthcare and free education that has boosted anti-EU sentiments in the UK and contributed to the current conundrum.
The irony here is that no other European government would be as sympathetic to UK demands for EU reform and repatriation of powers as is the current government in Warsaw. Poland’s ruling center-right Law and Justice party chose to ally itself with British conservatives in the European Parliament and Poland’s new foreign policy picked the UK as its primary partner in the EU.
Leaving aside the issue of Polish emigration, there is no doubt Law and Justice has had common ground with the European outlook of British conservatives. They share a desire to return sovereignty to national capitals, they both criticize EU institutions, they both harbor strong anti-German sentiments—even though Law and Justice is more anti-German—and both have called for a looser single market within the EU.
With the UK on board, there once was a reasonable chance for the Tory/Law and Justice position on Europe to find some sympathy in other EU capitals. Given Brexit, however, what now seems to await Law and Justice is further marginalization in the European Parliament —and for Poland, a considerable decline in its status within the EU.
As the initial reactions to Brexit in Berlin, Brussels and Paris show, what is likely to happen now is not the return of powers to European capitals, but a push towards a closer integration of the Eurozone. An initial proposal will emerge within the group of six founding member states—Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—and it will be probably directed to other Eurozone members (though some rules discouraging Greek participation appear likely). The rest of the EU will have to settle for secondary status. The balance between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU has been fragile for a long time, and has held together largely thanks to the UK. With the UK gone, there is less to stop the Eurozone from charging ahead.
Poland will not join the Eurozone any time soon—and certainly not under the current administration. Instead, Law and Justice will continue to pick issues with a whole variety of EU policies while growing more and more Eurosceptic. Other countries in the region—the Czech Republic, Slovakia and even Hungary—are unlikely to follow Poland’s example at the expense of their relations with the EU inner core and Germany in particular. If Poland does not fundamentally change its approach in this new post-Brexit context, it faces a slow, continuing marginalization within the EU.