With the UK’s exit, Poland now emerges as the EU’s fifth biggest economy and the fifth largest country in size. But this only partly accounts for its importance at Brussel’s high table. In strategic terms, Poland provides the main buffer with Russia on its northern border via the Russian – Kaliningrad enclave. To the East, it shares a border with Ukraine in the South-East and with Belarus – an authoritarian regime economically dependent on Russia.
Unlike other Visegrad (and some Balkan states) partners, Poland explicitly does not court closer ties with Russia. On the contrary, it is a fierce critic of its annexation of Crimea, and its aggression (through surrogates) in Eastern Ukraine, not to mention the Russian mischief in the Baltics. In terms of its foreign policy approach and military stratagem, Poland supports NATO’s forward positioning of troops, albeit symbolic, on its territory and shows encouraging signs of enlarging its own land forces as indicated by Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s defence minister.
In July 2016, Warsaw played host to the NATO summit which inter alia led to the stationing of US-NATO forces on Polish territory. The UK is currently installing the vanguard of an 800-troop deployment under the NATO banner in Estonia to discourage Russian border incursions. In short, Poland is helping serve the interests of both US and UK (post-Brexit) European foreign policy and by default that of the EU.
What has Gone Wrong?
1. The Tussle between Donald Tusk and Kaczynski
The re-election of Donald Tusk has been vehemently opposed by the Polish government which now threatens retaliation by blocking or exercising its veto on EU important legislation. Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish MEP, was their last minute official nomination. But he was swiftly rejected by the EU Council members on the grounds of having no high ministerial experience. Support for Donald Tusk’s re-election (as EU Council President) was based on his track record. Since his election in December 2014, he has been praised for his handling of high-level negotiations on Greece’s debt crisis, the mass migration crisis, Brexit and the EU’s ongoing conflicts with Russia.
At home, Tusk stood for the post-communist liberal order leading the Civic Platform (PO) party. This was in contrast to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), a largely Eurosceptic and nationalist party based on the upholding of Catholic conservative values. Their rivalry dates back to Tusk’s victory in the 2007 election over the Law and Justice party.
But Kaczynski’s particular commendation comes with – albeit unfairly – holding Tusk ‘morally responsible’ for his brother’s death (with 97 other Polish dignitaries and political figures) on an ill-fated mission in a plane crash to honour Polish officers murdered at Katyn by Stalin’s henchmen. Evidence of pilot error and thick fog, not to mention the airworthiness of the ageing 20-year-old Tupolev T154 air force jet, has not been acknowledged by the Kaczynski administration as the sole cause of the accident.
2. The Rule of Law and the Independence of the Supreme Court
Warsaw has been criticised by Brussels for its far-reaching reforms that gave political control over the country’s public media. The legislation was signed off by the President Andrzej Duda in 2016 to provide guarantees that state media be “ impartial, objective and credible”. The EU Commission’s fundamental concerns relate to the rule- of – law procedure. These included fears that the Polish government was in breach for its dismissal of five Constitutional Court judges – appointed by the previous administration – and it is prohibiting the Court from publishing judgements critical of executive control.
By chipping away at the power and the independence of the Constitutional Court, the Warsaw government is accused of endangering democracy. These underlying tensions remain – exacerbated by demands from Brussels to take its quota of Syrian refugees which the Polish government refuses. But Brexit has emboldened the government to pursue demands for diminution of certain EU central powers with the possibility of treaty changes but emphatically not in support of any attempt to introduce a multi-speed Europe.
Populism and Eurosceptism
Poland has a populist government working to return the country to its pre-communist roots based on Catholicism and the family. Its reforming measures are branded as an increasingly danger to democratic values. Its critics, like the former prime minister Leszek Balcerowicz, believe this could threaten the success of the buoyant economy, a prominent success story in Eastern Europe – in contrast to the shortcomings of some eurozone economies.
Eurosceptic it may be, but the Polish electorate remains overwhelmingly pro-European. Furthermore, the country is the biggest beneficiary of EU Structural Funds such as for regional development. The net budget allocation is close to €106bn setting it on the path of rapid growth by supporting major infrastructure projects, especially in transportation, energy efficiency and nationwide internet facilities.
This is more than any other member state per head of population. As with other EU members, the Polish authorities will closely eye how Brussels handles its forthcoming Brexit negotiations with the UK and the outcomes of both the presidential elections in France in (April and May) and Germany (September).