Charting a new course: How Poland can contribute to European defence

By engaging with the Strategic Compass, Poland can help ensure that the EU’s defence initiatives complement those of NATO and develop in line with Polish interests

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In the debate on European security, defence, and ‘strategic autonomy’, Poland focuses much of its attention on Germany and France. In experts’ circles and declarations by policymakers, the Polish discourse is dominated by references to the two states and, occasionally, some northern or Visegrád countries. However, Warsaw often seems to devote too much attention to its differences with Paris. In doing so, Warsaw loses sight of the fact that most member states share its recognition of NATO’s role as Europe’s key security provider – and of the coalitions that it could build with them on this basis.

Poland sometimes overemphasises the extent to which strategic autonomy competes with the United States and NATO to be the focal point of European security. Many other member states see these two dimensions as complementary. For example, Germany expresses an unequivocal commitment to NATO – as do EU countries that sometimes go under Poland’s radar, such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal. While these southern member states have different threat perceptions, they share with Poland a sense of NATO’s importance to their security.

Poland should not use France’s traditional approach to European defence as a yardstick for other southern EU countries. This is because the approach is the result of a foreign and defence policy dating back to the French withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command, in 1966. In its 2018 joint declaration with the EU, NATO stated that it welcomes the union’s defence initiatives as efforts that will help protect the union. Thus, NATO does not perceive these initiatives as being in conflict with its own objectives.

By overcoming its paralysing anxiety about strategic autonomy, Warsaw could make a more effective contribution to the EU security architecture – including by shaping the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in a manner that serves its interests. For instance, Warsaw could take a more proactive approach to joint procurement of defence capabilities, working alongside mid-sized European partners that share its views of the transatlantic relationship. In this way, Poland could establish more balanced defence-industrial relationships than would be possible if it partnered with larger states, such as the US, Germany, and France.

Poland is right to remind its EU partners that collective defence is firmly within NATO’s remit, and that they are still far from acquiring adequate capabilities to plan, deploy, and conduct autonomous military operations, especially those in high-intensity conflicts. This realism could feed into the reassessment of the EU’s approach to crisis management – one that takes greater account of the vast range of hybrid threats posed by the union’s rivals, which often blur the line between internal and external security. It is also important for Poland to push for better coordination between CSDP missions and other EU instruments – such as those financed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, or by the European Peace Facility.

Such an attitude would create mutually beneficial dynamics. The EU’s defence initiatives would have the full support of one of the most promising member state in the field. And Poland could not only influence the development of the CSDP but also start to regain some of the political capital it has lost on other issues, ranging from the rule of law to human rights.

If Poland uses it properly, the Strategic Compass will provide the country with a space in which to shift these confrontational dynamics, identify where its interests converge with those of other member states, and create synergistic relationships with them in line with Polish interests. This would not be an easy process: there is a considerable risk that Poland and other member states would be unable to overcome their differences, especially when it came to the threat perceptions at the core of the Strategic Compass. But there are several areas of defence cooperation in which Warsaw can make a real contribution. Concretely, Poland can work to ensure that the EU places enough emphasis on resilience and partnerships, the two areas of focus of the Strategic Compass that the country prioritises (the other two areas are crisis management and capabilities).

Poland should not use France’s traditional approach to European defence as a yardstick for other southern EU countries

On partnerships, Poland could work with like-minded member states across Europe to ensure that EU initiatives aligned with and complemented those of NATO.

On resilience, Warsaw could raise awareness about issues that deserve far more attention from member states, such as threats to critical infrastructure, cyber attacks, electoral meddling, and disinformation campaigns. This would require Polish leaders to explain how vulnerabilities in these areas increasingly undermine the security of the EU and countries in its neighbourhood, such as Ukraine and Moldova.

On capabilities development, Poland could use new initiatives such as Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund to build stronger industrial links with its EU partners – and to avoid being left behind when they proceed with defence integration. Given its limited defence-industrial capacity, Poland needs to look beyond European giants in the field such as Germany and France to build a more balanced industrial relationship with its European partners. Warsaw should ensure that the capabilities member states discuss are fully aligned with NATO’s priorities. Once again, it can achieve this through proactive and constructive engagement with such issues.

Crisis management will also be a challenging area for Poland, given that EU member states have no appetite for long, personnel-heavy, and financially demanding operations. This area will require the careful allocation of resources to various geographical areas, creating the right balance between the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods. Warsaw should promote the vision of a NATO-centred collective defence effort for Europe and a complementary EU crisis management and border control system for providing the legal, normative, economic, and social tools that NATO lacks.

At the same time, the EU needs to consider developing the capacity to launch military operations in its southern neighbourhood. Here, Poland could use its pragmatic concerns about such operations to help create a realistic plan for what the EU can achieve, without undermining the union’s attempts to take on a more active role in the area. Even if Warsaw does not want to be involved in operations in the EU’s southern neighbourhood, it can help close the gap between rhetoric and reality in the debate on them, starting with the Strategic Compass. In this, Warsaw will need to communicate a clear vision of its place in the EU security and defence architecture, to prevent other member states from viewing it as a spoiler of the union’s attempts to play a more active role on defence.

Karolina Muti is an ECFR-CSP junior pan-European fellow.

This text was drafted on the basis of discussions at two workshops involving French, Polish, and German participants organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations and the German Federal Ministry of Defence on 9 February and 12 February 2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR-CSP Junior Pan-European Fellow

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