Changing course? Foreign policy in Poland after the elections

Law and Justice's strongly sovereignist, and occasional nationalistic, leanings may lead the party from the centrist foreign policy course that it has pledged

The parliamentary elections of October 2015 will go down in Poland's modern history as the most important since the first non-communist government was installed in Warsaw in 1989. For the first time, the winning party Law and Justice has formed majority government, controls the parliament, and enjoys a president from the party.

Despite reiterated declarations of Law and Justice’s foreign policy wonks that ‘no revolution’ should be expected, the party’s electoral success has caused, on occasions unsubstantiated, concern at home and abroad. Taken at face value, many statements of key Law and Justice’s personalities, including party president Jarosław Kaczynski, resemble these of Eurosceptics in other member states. Recent proclamations of  ‘a deep reshuffle‘  in foreign policy and and numerous announcements of upcoming ‘defences of national interests’ against the ’abusive power of European mainstream’ have perplexed many in Europe. When coupled with emphatic comments on the role of history (politics of memory) and dignity (politics of pride) in the external political agenda they are often seen as echoing Victor Orban’s idiosyncratic inclinations.

It is hardly surprising then, given the economic and political significance of Poland, that the way Law and Justice conducts its foreign policy will be carefully watched and may test nerves in many capitals. A new, more assertive foreign policy agenda coming out of Warsaw may bring consequences not only for Poland and Central Europe but for the entire European Union.

On Europe

International media and commentators have dubbed Law and Justice a “Eurosceptic” party, somewhat undeservedly since so many parties in Europe are far more hostile, towards the EU than Law and Justice. If anything, the party is a conservative one that pursues sovereignist doctrine reminiscent of that of Margaret Thatcher.

Law and Justice likes the EU a la carte: Poland needs to be an indispensable part of the EU when money is available from the its coffers or when Russia invades Ukraine. However, when the refugee crisis happens Poland should refrain from getting involved with a small exception of humanitarian aid.  Law and Justice eagerly accepts solidarity while remains reluctant to be a 'solidarity giver’.

The party is not fond of Poland's membership in the Eurozone either on sovereigntist grounds. Less concerned about ‘convergence criteria’ or competitive pressures what truly scares Law and Justice is giving up sovereign monetary policy to the EU’s grandees, the ECB.

Poland’s relations with the rest of the EU under Law and Justice will largely depend on their relationship with Germany. Berlin is both an indispensable leader of the EU and Poland’s key economic and political partner, yet Law and Justice has been inclined to amplify any divergence of interests between the two with unhelpful, historically-rooted, anti-German rhetoric.

Law and Justice, with its almost xenophobic discourse on Muslims, may lead the central European revolt against Merkel’s proposed approach on refugees. A review of the EU financial framework in 2020, proposed permanent NATO bases in Poland, the second string of Nord Stream pipeline, the imposition of new taxation on mainly foreign owned banking sector in Poland, as well as the EU’s climate policy all may become significant irritants between Warsaw and Berlin in 2016 and 2017.

The linchpin state of the region?

Law and Justice’s foreign policy is premised on the idea that “Central Europe” should be the key reference point for Polish foreign policy and should be able to create its “own stream” within the EU. What follows from this is that Poland ought to do what it can to facilitate regional cooperation and, in the best-case scenario, become the region’s de-facto leader.

Regional cooperation on the north-south axis, particularly on infrastructure, within the EU is highly desirable. But Law and Justice overrates the importance of the region for Poland and takes insufficient account of the huge internal difference between these countries. While Law and Justice’s leadership maintains thatthe Visegrad group would have had more consistent position on Russia if Poland had been more active, a closer look at the policies pursued by Robert Fico, Victor Orban and Milos Zeman makes these claims seem naïve or wishful thinking. In the worst-case scenario the lowest common denominator for all four countries makes Visegrad a purely negative platform directed against Germany. 

Poland’s position in the region will dependent largely on the future of Ukraine and a deterioration of relations between Warsaw and Kiev cannot be discounted. During its recent summer convention in July 2015, Law and Justice made its support for Ukraine conditional on an unequivocal acceptance by Ukrainians of the Polish interpretation of disputed, historical conflicts between the two countries, throwing red meat to its strongly nationalistic, core electorate.  Given the nation-building process that is taking place right now in Ukraine, further Polish pressure in this area will likely spark a tenacious resistance in Kyiv.

Law and Justice similarly holds similar views on cooperation with Lithuania. Kaczyński has accused Lithuania of discriminating against Lithauania's Polish minority and concluded that “the country does not deserve EU membership”. He rather conveniently failed to consider that the leadership of the Polish minority tend to be rather pro-Russian by default. For many years Kaczyński has criticised the EU and previous Polish governments for a soft and naïve approach to Russia. Ironically, the biggest beneficiary of growing tensions between Poland and its neighbours would be Russia, a master of divide and conquer tactics.

More Transatlantic Middle East

The strongest and most positive quality of Law and Justice’s foreign policy agenda is its focus on hard security with a strong emphasis on beefing up and accelerating modernisation of the Polish armed forces. The party will also relentlessly push for as close as possible cooperation between the EU and the US as well as a strategic Polish-American alliance. Indeed, the securitisation of Polish foreign policy is badly needed, given the assertiveness of an openly militaristic Russia. The strengthening of the Polish-American bilateral cooperation can be expected under the Law and Justice government.

At the same time, there are serious pitfalls that may undermine the party’s desire for Poland becoming a strategic ally of the US. Russia is today simultaneously focussing on both Ukraine and the Middle East whereas Law and Justice has been focused on only Poland’s eastern neighbourhood. 

As things stand, the US can hardly count on significant Polish military engagement in the Middle East. Poles have a very negative attitude towards military overseas deployments. Law and Justice understands and closely follows this social ‘mood’ and has therefore supported the “no-engagement” policy of previous governments. The anti-Islamic tone that has been consistently struck by Law and Justice also reduces the likelihood that Poland will offer the US a helping hand in the Middle East on political, intelligence or humanitarian endeavours.

With its inward-looking focus and a predilection for “not in my backyard” policies Poland may well face significant obstacles to becoming the “mid-sized” power Law and Justice aspire for it to be.

Adam Balcer is Senior Fellow at demos EUROPA Centre for European Strategy, Krzysztof Blusz is President of demos EUROPA Centre for European Strategy.

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

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