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Left with a Weak Hand?

Poland’s disoriented EU policy

March 27, 2018 | by PIOTR BURAS

Polish Sejm - the lower chamber of the Parliament. Photo by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland via flickr.com, CC BY-ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Poland’s political landscape has been in flux since 2015, reflecting a mindset shift by a disillusioned population. Its declining democratic credentials have sparked a growing distance with the rest of the European Union. And there is scant sign that bridges will be built any time soon.

While outside observers fret about Poland’s centralisation of power, many Poles remain hopeful that the government will deliver social benefits. As illustrated by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), democratic values have slipped since the Law and Order party came into power in 2015, but the economy remains solid. There is widespread satisfaction that the government has enacted long overdue reforms, for example to family or labor market policies.

In essence, the political shift underway boils down to a backlash. It is a firm rejection of the model of Polish transformation adopted after 1989. The neoliberal era’s failure to secure welfare and efficiency has shaken public confidence in state institutions. As a result, many simply shrug their shoulders when judiciary or state media fall prey to the new rulers.

An Era of Mutual Mistrust

Unsurprisingly, this new political direction has shaken up Poland’s relations with the rest of the world. The country’s international standing has taken a hit - a fact underscored by the the EU Commission’s December 2017 move to start its Article 7 procedure, designed for member countries that have committed fundamental rights violations. But the mistrust is mutual. Domestic anti-liberalism goes hand in hand with an appetite for de-Europeanization. Few now believe that Polish interests will be best served by emulating Western standards, deepening EU integration and seeking alignment with key European partners (especially Germany). After all, both liberalization and Europeanization were key to the Polish transformation of the 90s, so it isn’t surprising that they come under attack as part of the backlash.

Overall, there has been a sea change in attitudes. In the past, Poland was seen (also by the Poles) as weak and inferior, while the West stood for modernization and strength. But the West’s image has suffered amid the multiple crises of the past decade. The EU is no longer viewed as a synonym of stability and Western Europe’s appeal has vanished. In this context, many are drawn to claims by the Law and Justice party that Poland – with its strong national identity, robust economy and ethnic homogeneity – is better equipped to stand up to modern challenges than some waning West European powers.

Warsaw’s EU Skepticism

This widespread suspicion towards the EU, however, does not mean there is appetite for a “Polexit". In fact, Poland wants to remain part of the EU but is unhappy with current moves towards integration. In fact there are a number of EU trends which irk Warsaw; the rising protectionism in Western Europe which endangers the single market; the fact that securing cooperation on migration is an EU priority; the post-Brexit risk that the fight for the bloc’s resources will become tougher; the talk about the EU’s “strategic autonomy” in defense, which may clash with transatlantic links. Warsaw’s discomfort with all of these developments explains why it has adopted de-facto Euroskeptic positions on integration, rather than backing Paris and Berlin’s bid to boost cooperation.

In January 2016 Poland declared the United Kingdom was its key partner in Europe – a marked departure from prioritizing relations with Germany. But the move was logical: the negotiations with the UK, which happened before the British referendum, suggested there was scope for EU change along the lines of British-Polish proposals for more market and less political integration. But the Brexit referendum revealed the Polish approach as a miscalculation: its new partner walked away, leaving Warsaw alone with its ambition to reform the bloc.

But where can Poland go from here? The new phase of modernization aims to improve Poland’s position in the value chain, freeing it from its role as the sub-contractor to the German economy. But as suggested by Prime Minister Morawiecki, such a modernization necessitates strong ties with Western partners.

Meanwhile, not being part of the EU-decision making process is not an option. Unlike key ally Hungary, Poland has specific and diverse interests in many sectors of EU policy (including energy and security), meaning it needs remain part of the conversation. This is the background to the newly opened debate about euro-zone accession, advanced mainly by independent experts and the political opposition.

Left with a Weak Hand?

And Poland lacks serious alternatives. Neither regional cooperation within the so called Three Seas Initiative spanning the Visegard countries and the Balkans (which some in Warsaw hope can rebalance German hegemony) nor any strategic relationship with China are viable replacements for a strong EU orientation. For the first, there is no real appetite among the partners, and Warsaw has too many reservations for the latter. It is also hard to see how more renationalization - in keeping with the Law and Justice party’s concept of “Europe of sovereign states” – could help Poland advance its interests in the future.

That means Poland’s ties with EU continue to be overshadowed by the rule-of-law problems and its lack of support for migration. This souring relationship is unlikely to improve anytime soon, unless the Warsaw government changes tack, which is an unlikely prospect.

This projects a gloomy picture in this decisive year for EU reform and as geopolitical uncertainty is on the ascent. And we should not forget that this is the year of the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, an era which taught us that being alone has always ended in disaster for the country.

Piotr Buras heads the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a journalist, author and expert in German and European politics and has worked as a columnist and Berlin correspondent for “Gazeta Wyborcza”, the biggest Polish daily.

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