09 February 2016

Give PiS a Chance: Poland's European Choices

Less than three months after assuming office, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party government is resetting its position inside the EU. But while Warsaw seeks to loosen its bonds with Brussels and even emulate the British model, it risks slipping to the sidelines in EU decision making if it alienates key members such as Germany.

The visit of British Prime Minister Cameron to Warsaw on February 5th prompted the government to assert that the UK was Poland’s most important EU partner. Prime Minister Beata Szydło pledged support for Cameron in his negotiations with the EU on a new deal to keep Britain inside the Union, one that would recover some powers from Brussels and protect the UK against greater euro zone integration.


Cameron wants EU leaders to approve a deal at a landmark EU Summit on February 18-19 and Poland’s support is important. If the agreements are rejected, a looming national referendum this summer could result in an unprecedented British exit that could shake the Union to its foundations.


Paradoxically, Warsaw is caught in a bind: it supports the UK model of looser ties with the EU but remains concerned over a key London demand – to place “emergency brakes” on EU migrants claiming full in-work benefits for up to four years. This proposal would significantly affect Polish migrants who form the largest EU national group in the UK, estimated at over 1.3 million. To ensure Polish support at the Summit, Cameron offered Warsaw military assistance and described relations between the two countries as a new “strategic partnership” focused on securing NATO’s eastern flank.


The PiS government is “Brusso-sceptic” but it is not anti-EU, unlike many of the populist, nationalist, and protectionist formations in several West European states, including the majority of MPs in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party. Szydło herself made it clear during the meeting with Cameron that it is important for the UK to remain in the EU, particularly given the number of Poles living and working in Britain.


Warsaw is looking at the UK as a potential role model for its own relations within the EU, but it needs to be careful. Britain can better afford to remain loosely linked with the Union because of its economic and military weight and its “special” partnership with Washington. Although Poland has made remarkable progress toward becoming a major economic and political player in the Union, situated in the heart of Central Europe it remains vulnerable to EU disunity and Russia’s resurgence.


The Szydło government aims to wean itself away from the close relationship with Germany developed by the previous Civic Platform government. Unfortunately, such an approach may be based more on historical hangovers than rational calculation of Polish national interests. In fact, any deterioration in German-Polish relations after two decades of reconciliation would damage both Warsaw and Berlin.


Chancellor Angela Merkel needs key partners in the EU at a time of mounting trans-national challenges, including the refugee debacle, a potential Brexit, and ongoing economic turmoil in southern Europe. In recent years, Poland has proved to be Germany’s staunchest European ally after France and it must use this position to its advantage. By maintaining close links it can more energetically encourage Berlin to deter Moscow’s subversion along Poland’s eastern borders. Otherwise, it will alienate a key partner that could weaken Warsaw’s role in EU decision-making and intensify criticisms of PiS’s domestic policies.


Poland has been censured by several EU officials for what is perceived as backsliding on democracy, although the jury is still out on whether PiS policies have actually violated the rule of law. Konrad Szymański, Poland’s Minister for European Affairs, has pointed out that a double standard operates in Brussels: France’s move to increase law enforcement powers at the cost of civil liberties in the wake of recent terrorist attacks is accepted as legal, but similar policies by governments in Poland and Hungary are denounced as undemocratic.


The imposition of Union sanctions on Poland following the EU Commission’s “rule of law procedure” would prove counter-productive by simply boosting anti-EU sentiments. The recent visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda to Brussels reduced tensions, following a meeting with EU Council President Donald Tusk, the former Polish Prime Minister. Warsaw is unlikely to suffer any serious consequences in the immediate future, especially as the government in Berlin is trying to downplay criticism of Warsaw.


The PiS government can play a key role in Central Europe by focusing attention on the persistent and growing threats from the Kremlin, by helping to ensure the independence of Russia’s immediate neighbors, and by reviving the Visegrád group as a factor of security in Central Europe. But Warsaw will be unable to succeed in these endeavors without a productive relationship with Germany and an agenda that can convince the rest of the Union that it is defending European interests and European values.