Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Warsaw and Krakow next week may look like a journey in search of lost time, to rebuild relations after years apart. But its meaning goes far beyond mere diplomatic ties. Since the Caracal debacle in 2016, when Poland aborted a helicopter deal with Airbus, the two governments have hardly been on speaking terms. And, according to ECFR’s most recent Coalition Explorer, policymakers and foreign policy experts in France and Poland see little commonality of shared interests when it comes to issues relating to the European Union. Most importantly, Coalition Explorer research revealed high levels of disappointment in France about Poland as an EU member – and the same was true in the opposite direction.
This is unsurprising. Polish and French citizens’ visions for European integration have long diverged, largely because of their differing threat perceptions vis-à-vis important countries like Russia and the United States. But recent ECFR findings show differences to be particularly stark when looking in each country at the views of the supporters of the governing parties. When asked where they would want their government to spend its defence budget – investing in NATO defence capabilities, in EU defence capabilities, or neither – 56 percent of Law and Justice voters choose NATO, while 78 percent of La République en Marche! supporters opt for EU capabilities.
Strained relations between Paris and Warsaw have not only put distance between them, but have also become a major problem for other EU member states, especially Germany and those in central and eastern Europe. As the bloc approaches major decisions this year, such as agreeing the Multiannual Financial Framework and dealing with Britain’s exit from the EU, it will be hard to make much progress without being able to count on at least the passive involvement of the EU27’s fifth-largest member. In this respect, Warsaw’s refusal in December 2019 to sign up to the European Green Deal – a project particularly dear to the French president – was a warning sign.
Sooner rather than later, Paris and Warsaw need to re-establish proper channels of communication. This is all the more pressing for the EU given that the two capitals disagree on almost all of the key points of the EU’s current agenda – from climate, defence integration, and services liberalisation to transatlantic relations and future arrangements with the United Kingdom.
Well-intentioned diplomats on both sides have spent years craving the moment represented by Macron’s visit. They hold a genuine belief that things could return to normal. Indeed, it is largely thanks to them that bilateral relations improved somewhat last year, as evidenced by – among other things – a joint German-French-Polish communication in July on the modernisation of the EU’s competition policy. Last year also saw the French-Polish Year of Science.
This visit pushes this rapprochement to the next level, and should prove of real benefit to both parties. The French president is likely to try to explore common interests in the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations and seek ways to bring Poland into the European Green Deal. He may discuss possible new openings for French business in Poland. In turn, Warsaw may seek to appear as an indispensable power player for the EU, both externally and internally.
Whatever Macron says about democracy in Poland, Law and Justice will seize the chance to respond grandiloquently
But, given the internal political context in Poland, the meaning of this event could take on another form. It is happening at a very delicate moment when, on the one hand, tensions between Warsaw and Brussels on judicial matters are reaching a high point while, on the other, Poland’s presidential election race is about to kick off in earnest.
Macron has, so far, carefully built the image of a political leader who does not avoid direct confrontation and is willing to promote not just French interests but also broader European ones. Thus, he is widely expected to reproach Poland’s leaders – both publicly and behind closed doors – for their controversial judicial reforms, which include plans to make Polish judges dangerously dependent on the executive. Parliament has already backed the legislation, and President Andrzej Duda is likely to sign it into law the next few days, in the face of objections from the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
To be sure, Law and Justice and the president may well use Macron’s visit for their internal political purposes. Whatever he says about the rule of law and democracy in Poland, they will be given an opportunity to respond grandiloquently and present themselves as the only true defenders of the country’s sovereignty. One of the unintended consequences of the visit could thus, ironically, be to strengthen Duda in the early stages of the presidential campaign.
But this is a risk worth taking. As things stand, the European Commission’s infringement procedures and European Court of Justice’s rulings are clearly not enough to bring Law and Justice into line. A lesson that needs to be learned is that the job of defending the rule of law in member states cannot be fully outsourced to the European institutions. What is currently missing most is a strong voice from other capitals, many of which still sound evasive on the subject: either because, as in the case of Germany, they fear Poland becoming further alienated, or because they sympathise with Warsaw’s defence of national competencies.
However, when the Polish government openly defies ECJ rulings, as it is currently doing, this erodes the EU’s legal order – and, as such, it is member state governments’ business too. It should also matter to them that judges in an EU state are being subordinated to the government’s control, as it means that the rule of law is no longer guaranteed.
As president of France, and self-declared leader of the continent’s pro-European forces, Macron is well placed to challenge the Polish government on these issues. Next week’s visit is actually a test of whether he is ready to assume the latter role too, even if this were to mean fewer industrial contracts for the French. It is also a test of whether he is serious about upholding the European values that he considers intrinsic to the EU project.
Macron will be best placed to address the rule of law problems in Poland if he does so in a clear, open, and unequivocal way. This is not so much to give comfort to the country’s democratic opposition and their supporters, but rather to encourage other EU leaders to wake up and stand up to Law and Justice’s attempts at state capture. Ideally, he should coordinate with other EU capitals ahead of the visit. But, if Macron and others prefer silence to words, the message this will send at a crucial moment for both Poland and the EU will be an extremely dangerous one indeed.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.