Divided Poland faces foreign policy crossroads

The refugee crisis has brought to a head simmering divisions within Polish society – with potentially far reaching consequences.

6700 asylum applications were submitted in Poland in the first eight months of 2015, mostly by Chechens, Ukrainians and Georgians. However, only 471 of them (including 153 Syrians and 37 Iraqis) were granted refugee status. A predicted wave of immigration from Ukraine in the course of the war in the East of the country has, for now, not taken place. Compared to Hungary, Germany or Austria, Poland’s exposure to the refugee crisis is negligible. And yet, the crisis has hit the Polish society and politics to an extraordinary degree. It threatens to deepen the divisions across the society and poses a huge and unexpected challenge for both Poland’s position in Europe and the country’s foreign policy.

Poland remains a deeply divided and atomised society with very low levels of trust amongst its citizens. According to a study by sociologist Michal Bilewicz 23 percent of Poles do not know any person representing different political views. Bilewicz speaks of two opposing “tribal moral communities” in the Polish society who hardly communicate with one another. According to him, these communities are based upon different moral foundations: the first is related to “care” which stresses the need to protect other people, even when this involves questioning existing traditions or sovereignty, while the second is based upon the “loyalty” which gives precedence to strengthening of the national community and stresses its superiority.

Dealing with the refugee crisis will most likely strengthen, rather than diminish, division

Needless to say, the refugee crisis is a challenge which strikes in the middle of these divisions, it addresses sentiments and instincts that resonate for both groups and put them into confrontation with each other. Bridging the gap between these two conflicting communities remains a crucial national task; their conflict regularly reveals itself in the debates which dominate the Polish public sphere, like in vitro fertilisation or the tragedy of the Polish airplane in Smolensk. Dealing with the refugee crisis will most likely strengthen, rather than diminish, division.

And this division may well be deepening in other areas too. There is much talk in Poland about a shift towards conservatism, especially amongst the younger generation, a thesis validated to some extent by polls showing a rise of self-definition as “right-wing” among the Polish citizens. There is also a rising feeling of insecurity, lack of hope for the future, alienation and distrust in the political class in the youngest generation which led to unexpected results in May’s presidential election: the success of the second-rank Law and Justice politician Andrzej Duda as well as to the sensational 20 percent for a political newcomer, the rockstar Pawl Kukiz whose populist anti-establishment and nationalist views were supported by 40 percent of the youngest voters. Taken together, all these factors do not constitute a favourable environment for a confrontation with the “others”, be they real or imaginary.

The refugee debate triggers multi-layered anxieties about identity. Is immigration good or wrong? What does it mean to be Polish? What kind of society do we want to live in – open, free, liberal or opposing “otherness” as a threat to “togetherness”? Clearly, these choices are not black and white. But these all are questions present in the background of the current debate, in a society which has never before had to answer them. There is a striking absence of serious public discussion about integration policy, alongside statements by leading politicians suggesting (and hoping) that refugees and other immigrants would only temporarily take advantage of Poland’s hospitality and disappear again in a not distant future. Some Germans argue that the integration of hundreds thousands of immigrants will be a national challenge of a magnitude comparable with the country’s unification. In Poland challenge will be to open the thinking for different concepts of nation, society and community.

The refugee debate triggers multi-layered anxieties about identity. Is immigration good or wrong? What does it mean to be Polish? What kind of society do we want to live in?

And the refugee crisis comes as Polish European policy reaches a crossroads. Since 2007 Poland aspired to be part of the European mainstream but now migration is just one of the policy areas in which Poland has moved away from the centre of EU politics. Warsaw is no longer the architect of the EU Ostpolitik, it is on the collision course with Berlin and Paris on climate issues, it will not join the Eurozone any time soon, it struggles to be part of the EU defence industry consolidation process and it has (because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict) specific and not widely shared security concerns. Poland’s alignment with the Visegrad countries on migration comes at a time when the opposition Law and Justice party is floating the idea of downgrading cooperation with Germany and France in favour of a Central-Eastern-Southern European coalition. The refugee crisis and disagreement with Germany on quotas and handling of the crisis seems to push Poland further down this path.

Finally, the refugee crisis challenges some fundamental assumptions about Poland’s foreign and security policy. The official line presented by the government (but equally by the opposition) puts emphasis on tackling the root causes of the newest waves of migration in the first place (geopolitical disarray in Middle East and North Africa), and not their symptoms (which would be addressed, among others, by the mandatory relocation system which Warsaw rejects).

But there is little ground to believe that a well thought-through strategy stands behind these declarations. In fact, taking them seriously would require to re-visit a few no-brainers of the Polish foreign policy and run against trends and instincts which have characterised it in recent years. After having participated in expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Poland tends to opt out from any military adventures abroad. Named after the former president, the “Komorowski doctrine” says that Warsaw should focus on territorial defence – a sentiment shared by the opposition and massively enhanced by the Russia –Ukraine war. The latter conflict resulted also in a shift back to Atlanticism and a deepening mistrust of European allies like Germany or France in the Polish security policy. Poland witnessed also an economisation of foreign policy, especially towards non-European partners like Iran.

There is no doubt that an active Polish contribution – if there is going to be any – to tackling the root causes of migration will put some of these trends and assumptions into question. The refugee crisis shows that Poland’s security interests are not limited to the East. But does Poland genuinely support the military operation against ISIS or believe in diplomacy as the right tool to stop the civil war in Syria? If the latter is the case, what about Russia’s and Iran’s role? Not to talk (with Russia) or to talk only trade (with Iran) might not be a feasible option any longer if Warsaw was to co-shape the European response to the geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East. Also, the future of CSDP, a policy which Poland has traditionally championed, might lay in Africa (as Nick Witney suggests) where the EU would need to become a more substantial security provider – not at least to prevent illegal migration at its roots. The US will not help. Is Warsaw ready for that?

The refugee crisis started to change Poland even before the first migrants have entered the country. These dilemmas occur in a politically loaded environment, with parliamentary elections taking place on 25 October most likely to bring about a turn to the right. Law and Justice, the national-conservative opposition leading in the polls openly warns against islamization and security threats if Poland were to host even a few thousands of refugees.   With the declaration of the Polish MFA – a political U-turn after weeks of hesitations – that it would be able to take up even more refugees than suggested by the Commission in its recent proposal, the question becomes the central and most divisive issue in the electoral campaign.  It remains to be seen how the future government handles the commitments which are likely to be made by Prime Minister Kopacz at the European Council on Wednesday. Undoubtedly, this will have a considerable impact on Poland’s position and policy in the EU.

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


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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