After a long hiatus, the heads of state of Poland and France will finally meet February 3-4 during French President Emmanuel Macron’s first visit to Warsaw. The two countries’ last high-level summit occurred in 2015, when President Andrzej Duda of Poland enjoyed a cordial visit to Paris with then-President François Hollande. During that meeting, both men expressed solidarity in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the long delay since that encounter reflects how the bilateral relationship has soured since Macron came to power in 2017, including Macron’s dissatisfaction with the governance of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), his support of EU sanctions on Warsaw, and more recently, his encouragement of French climate protesters to demonstrate in Poland.
The timing and context of this visit could not be more important. It occurs during a period of rising challenges to Europe and the international system – Russia’s aggression, China’s ascent, Brexit, instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and uncertainty about the transatlantic relationship. For Duda, the visit occurs several days after the 75-year Holocaust commemorations in Israel, which he declined to attend after not being invited to speak alongside leaders from Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Russia shaped the conditions for Duda’s withdrawal by waging a malign influence campaign that falsely accused Poland of culpability in the Second World War and the Holocaust. For Macron, the visit occurs just three days after Poland signed a multibillion-dollar deal for 32 United States F-35 multirole fighters, while France still remains bitter about Poland’s abrupt cancellation of a multibillion-euro Caracal helicopter deal in 2015. For both Macron and Duda, the visit also occurs during a period of heightened tensions at home, over labor reforms in France and judicial system reforms in Poland.
There is no doubt that Macron will advocate for his vision of the future of Europe – one that is deeply integrated, reluctant to expand EU and NATO membership for now, carbon-neutral, bolstered by additional security and defense structures beyond NATO and the EU, and prepared to act without the United States. Macron’s previous comments about a “brain-dead” NATO, the unreliability of the United States, and European strategic autonomy underline these bold positions, as does his public claim of the need to “reset” EU-Russian relations. Poland and other Central-East European countries may support some of these positions but will find others entirely unacceptable. In particular, Warsaw opposes anything which would promote the decoupling of the United States from Europe and any reset with Russia in the current security context.
Macron’s agenda should be no surprise to Duda. As Macron recently said about his vision for Europe: “To be wearing ourselves out over Brexit, to have Europe finding it so difficult to move forward, to have an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues; nobody would have believed this possible.” Macron also noted that Europe’s primary threat is terrorism. But for Poland, committed to the idea of a “360 degree” NATO, the primary threat is Russia, which aligns with NATO’s threat priorities. For France, it is less so. This difference is a major factor in Paris and Warsaw’s varying responses to current and future security challenges. Poland, the center of gravity of NATO’s Eastern Flank, demonstrates its commitment to the Alliance in burden-sharing, increasing its defense capabilities, and acting as a regional leader. It also counts on western allies for deterrence and defense. Here, threat perceptions of Russia matter more and have a major impact on strategic cooperation.
It is imperative in Warsaw that Macron and Duda begin a conversation to narrow differences in threat perceptions, particularly regarding Russia. Duda has an excellent opportunity to provide Macron a clear understanding of why Poland and Central-East Europe press NATO for enhanced security and defense on its Eastern Flank – including Poland’s call for permanent U.S. and NATO forces in the region. The two sides should also work towards a common understanding about challenges emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, and what the alarming rise of China means to all of Europe. President Duda can remind Macron of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s “3Ds” on Russia: “Deterrence, Defense, and Dialogue” (without being coaxed into Russia’s view of a new international order). Duda should also remind Macron of the dangers posed to EU unity engendered by projects like Nord Stream 2, for which French gas giant Engie is a key partner.
Other top issues likely on the table in Warsaw:
(1) The European Intervention Initiative (EI2) – Macron’s vision for EI2 is a coalition of willing European allies developing full-spectrum joint military capabilities able to manage high-end operations. Poland has a history of substantive contributions to European Union security and defense: joining the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), routinely leading EU-V4 Battlegroups, and deploying on other EU missions. But Poland, similar to the United States, is concerned about EI2’s role in NATO-EU cooperation – that it could duplicate capabilities, decouple the United States from European security, and discriminate against non-EU members. EI2 appears guilty in all three cases.
(2) Security and Defense – Poland’s priority on security and defense—and its focus on the transatlantic relationship and the United States as the ultimate guarantor of its security—is unquestioned. Poland maintains an admirable record supporting NATO, the EU, the United States, and French-led military operations. Here, Macron and Duda could discuss more Polish-French cooperation in Africa (a huge challenge for France is in the Sahel), and in NATO’s Eastern Flank deterrence posture. France could start by embedding officers in Poland’s General Command and in the National Defense Academy—where Germany has been for years and, where Major Charles de Gaulle was once an instructor.
(3) Carbon Neutrality – Poland has not joined the rest of the EU to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Poland instead targets 2070 because of its coal dependence, which is the highest in the EU. Here, there may be a chance for a French-inspired compromise, perhaps after Polish presidential elections in May.
(4) EU Non-Expansion – This is a non-starter for Poland, Germany, and most of the EU. When Macron led the effort to block EU accession talks for Macedonia and Albania, it sent a shock wave throughout the Union and EU aspirants. Duda can make the important case to increase stability and security in the Western Balkans – that is, by welcoming Albanian and Macedonian accession to the EU.
(5) Tax Policy – Poland’s Prime Minister has pitched to the EU an idea of working cohesively on “Tax Solidarity.” This is an intense effort to deal with wholesale European tax fraud throughout the VAT system – which would be an easy effort for Macron to support.
(6) Weimar Dialogue – Perhaps most significantly, President Duda could encourage a reboot of the Weimar Triangle dialogue. With Brexit a reality, now is the time for major European leaders France, Germany, and Poland to intensify cooperation for a stronger and more secure Europe. After all, it was France and Germany, working together in the Weimar, fostering European integration of Poland and Central-East Europe. Today, Poland can return the favor and encourage the Weimar group to further action.
The upcoming visit offers opportunities for these two important allies to strengthen their nations, and therefore Europe, during a time of great challenge to the international system. President Macron and President Duda should maximize this opportunity to reset relations – for the good of France, Poland, and the Euro-Atlantic community.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.