Friday, December 8, 2023

Poland is going its own way

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The leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, continues to attack Germany, the main focus of his ire in Europe. Kaczynski claimed that Germany is striving for hegemony in the European Union, saying the Germans are making moves that would give it the power over Europe that it failed to gain in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Kaczynski further fanned the flames of discontent towards Berlin by claiming that his neighbor to the west was, in fact, plunging Poland and all of the rest of Europe into a major unspecified crisis. The government of Poland is counting on a combination of anti-German resentment and pent-up Euroskepticism to renew their mandate with voters in next year’s elections.

Part of the Law and Justice party’s platform includes new demands for restitution settlements for victims of the Nazi occupation during World War II. These have almost exclusively been directed at Germany to the tune of €1.3 billion. Some of the most critical rhetoric coming from Kaczynski’s party has been directed at Donald Tusk, the former European Council President, who is of partial German descent.

Most recently, the two governments have been at odds over the deployment of the highly effectice American-made MIM-104 Patriot defense system. Poland wants to hand over the surface-to-air batteries to Ukraine, who would then deploy the systems in and and around the latter’s cultural capital Lviv. This would provide large parts of Poland and Ukraine a security umbrella that would protect both from ballistic missile attacks launched by Russia.

Once word spread that the Polish government intended to hand over the Patriots to Ukraine, Germany, which was ready to give Poland the MIM-104s, retracted its offer, which infuriated large swathes of the public in both Poland and Ukraine.

Poland has long been at odds with Germany and the EU

The contentious relationship between Warsaw and Berlin is just the latest in a number of cases where Poland has opted for taking its own path from that of its Western European partners in the EU. This has caused Brussels, which has shown to have little tolerance for Eastern European sentiments when it comes to EU policy, has moved against Poland and has threatened to cut Warsaw’s European Union subsidies amidst allegations that Kaczynski’s party has overly politicized Poland’s judiciary.

Much to the EU’s chagrin, Poland has become the focal point of the West’s support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion and the ongoing brutal war that Moscow has waged in the country over the last 10 months. The Polish government has welcomed and housed more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees since the war began, and has served as a base of major operations for logistics, with regard to the supply and re-supply, of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, from NATO countries. As a result, Warsaw’s foreign policy cooperation with Germany and France, which had been robust in the immediate years after Poland joined the EU in 2004, has lost most of its significance.

From impoverished Eastern Bloc member to rising European power

With nearly 40 million inhabitants, Poland is the EU’s fifth-largest country. The country also possesses one of Europe’s largest and best-trained militaries, as well as a robust economy that has continued to grow over the last decade-plus; a fact that cannot be stated for the vast majority of Western Europe. The war in Ukraine has shown that it can wield, and even guide, a decisive influence on European policy.

The speculation amongst many in Brussels is that Poland would have to abandon its Euroskeptic course to gain further influence over Europe’s domestic and foreign policy positions. To do so, as the conventional wisdom goes, would include forming cooperation with other EU countries, using the Benelux and Nordic countries as models. So far, however, an alliance of ex-Communist East European countries has yet to come to fruition. 

The Visegrad Group – made up of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – has worked well at times, but the formation of an official bloc of the four ex-Warsaw Pact nations is still some years off, particularly since Hungary and Poland have taken vastly different positions on the war in Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has opposed any punitive measures against his ally, Vladimir Putin. 

At a recent conference of the “Three Seas Initiative” in Warsaw, speakers from Central and Eastern Europe gathered to discuss the loose cooperation that came into being in 2016. 

At the time of its founding, confusion reigned with regard to the scope and ultimate goal of the so-called “union”, which includes countries that have Baltic, Black and Adriatic seacoasts. The prevailing view at the time saw the project as being an alliance of countries that stood against both Germany and Russia and the concentration of power and influence that both yielded by the beginning of the last decade. 

Poland, amongst others, did stress at the most recent conference that some form of cooperation is needed in the EU. Large-scale energy and transport projects are to be carried out by those. A joint fund is to be fed by public and private investors. At present, however, public and private funds have been created to help pay for the projects. The reserves are meager, currently at about only €2 billion, with a large part provided by the US. This raises questions as to whether the European Union’s own budget will be able to provide enough funding to pay what remains.

The leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

East-West divide widens in Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron noted in 2021 that “a fundamental divide in the EU” has developed over the last 20 years. That sentiment has echoed across Europe as Western European politicians, the founders and old guard of the EU, have come to the conclusion that it was an illusion in the West to think that democracy and rule of law would immediately take hold in what had been Communist Eastern Bloc for nearly 50 years.

“The cultures and civil societies of Eastern Europe are totally absent from the Western European narrative of Franco-German reconciliation and the Treaty of Rome,” said Basil Kerski, head of the Solidarnosc Center in Gdansk.

Kaczynski and other East European leaders often note that Western Europe has launched a campaign of cultural aggression led by EU regulators from Brussels, who in Kaczinski’s view, resemble politically appointed Communist Party bureaucrats from the Soviet Union.

Regardless of the two sides’ opinions of the other, Poland has benefitted from its EU membership, which has contributed to the country’s staggering economic growth and modernization since the end of Communism more than 30 years ago.

Poland is, however, putting Brussels on notice that its success does not feel forever deferential to its Western European partners, and is taking steps to carve out its own path in Europe’s future. This is likely to lead to greater friction between the two sides.

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