Poland and Italy: Best of frenemies

Russia and migration remain issues that divide the Polish and Italian governments from each other. And such disharmony could yet stymie cooperation between right-wing populists after the European Parliament poll. 

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Poland and Italy marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino this month, commemorating the Polish soldiers who fought for the liberation of Italy in the second world war. The Polish and Italian presidents together attended a solemn ceremony, which this year was further enriched by the 100-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Poland and Italy have long been close allies and friends: ties of history, culture, politics, and business have shaped constructive and lasting relations. Italy was among the greatest European supporters of Polish entry into NATO and the European Union, and the two countries have regularly worked together to achieve common objectives, despite their relative geographic and cultural distance.

Today this this picture is different. Poland is ruled by a nationalist and highly conservative party, Law and Justice; meanwhile, the Italian government currently comprises two “shareholders”: the right-wing conservative League and the Five Star Movement, which still carries the tag of new political force despite first entering parliament in 2014. The two Italian parties are far apart in their assessment of international relations, allies, and political priorities. They have little in common on the European front. Currently, the deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini of the League and Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, are looking at which parties in Poland to join up with for post-European Parliament election groupings. But the issues of Russia, migration, and economics represent hard-fought battlegrounds between each country.

Poland is currently enjoying an economic boom, while Italy’s GDP is set to grow a mere 0.1 percent in 2019 

Poland and Italy disagree about whether sanctions should remain in place on Russia; Salvini has been vocal in his support of Moscow, although Di Maio prefers to avoid the subject by talking about Asia and China instead. As a proud Visegrad group member, Poland does not support Salvini’s appeal to redistribute migrants across Europe. And, with GDP growing at a rate of 4.2 percent, Poland is currently enjoying an economic boom. Italy’s GDP is set to grow a mere 0.1 percent in 2019 and just 0.7 percent in 2020.

Despite all this, Polish and Italian voters share some common concerns on Europe and the future of the European project. According to newly published ECFR report by Mark Leonard, Susi Dennison, and Adam Lury, 57 percent of both Italians and Poles believe that Europe could fall apart in the next 10-20 years. But what differentiates them is the view of a possible war between member states: 48 percent of Poles aged 25-34 think this a real possibility, while only 27 percent of young Italians share the same worry. Intriguingly, voters aged 55 and over in both countries are in closer agreement with each other than they are with their children’s generation: 19 percent in Italy and 23 percent in Poland fear war.

ECFR’s poll also reveals divergent views on threats to Europe. Italians believe the main threat is economic crisis and trade wars, as well as Islamic radicals and migration. Polish voters point first to Islamic radicalism and Russia, and then to the rise of nationalism and economic crisis and trade wars. In contrast, Italians place Russia bottom of their list. When asked if they fear immigration more than emigration, both countries’ citizens agree that emigration, especially of young people, is the main loss.

Not all these fears are unfounded: each year large numbers of young people quit both Italy and Poland to go and work in Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Poland’s fear of Russia is a longstanding one with deep roots in its communist past, and earlier. Meanwhile, the Polish government has added to the fear counter by mounting fierce campaigns against Muslim immigration.

This week’s European Parliament election will be a key stress test in both countries. For Poland, it will be a simulation game for the general election due in the winter. For Italy, the vote will shape domestic politics to come, including whether the coalition itself will hold together. The Five Star Movement may slip into third place behind the Democratic Party, which is coming together under the new secretary general Nicola Zingaretti. Each country is in a very delicate political moment. This troublemakers’ approach could still work and get them past the European electoral test; and a large Eurosceptic, nationalist contingent elected to Brussels could strengthen the governing parties further. But, for Poland and Italy, despite their commonalities the old friendship looks set to lie cool a little longer.

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


Deputy Head, Rome office
Policy Fellow

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