Poland?s latest challenge

The new Polish PM wants to bring Poland back to the heart of Europe and make the country a genuine player in European foreign policy. But the task is enormous.

The parliamentary elections on 21 October 2007 produced a new governing coalition between the Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party, prompting a sigh of relief in Warsaw’s foreign policy establishment. The new government, headed by Donald Tusk, is set on changing the country’s foreign policy profile and wants to erase memories associated with the self-centred style of their predecessors.

The Kaczyński twins wholeheartedly believed that Poland needed to use every opportunity to assert its national interests, and eagerly used their veto power on a range of issues, including the new EU-Russia partnership agreement, the January 2006 tax package, the directive on the transfer of prisoners, and the European Day Against the Death Penalty. Donald Tusk’s new team will follow a different logic, working more through discussion and persuasion rather than obstruction. The incoming government enjoys strong public support and has the necessary self-confidence to change Poland’s position and perception within the EU.

Poland has been through a rough ride in the past two years with the twin brothers, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in two key positions. They focused on the past rather than the future and aimed to strengthen state institutions by weakening mechanisms of public accountability. They pursued an agenda that never quite fitted the rapidly modernizing country, and notoriously believed in conspiracy theories. It was not a surprise, therefore, that the Polish society used the opportunity of the early elections in October to vote their Law and Justice Party out of office. Voter turnout was one of the highest registered in Poland since 1989, displaying an impressive level of public engagement. Following the remarkably smooth formation of the new coalition government, the twin brothers’ stint in power seems to many like a bad dream they just want to forget. However, in reality, the Kaczynskis’ legacy might linger on for much longer than most assume.

The journey of the Civic Platform as a political party is very reminiscent of the long and windy road that Poland has travelled since the end of the Cold War in 1989. The party’s leader, Donald Tusk, is a post-ideological liberal who has absorbed strong traits of conservatism to become electable. He has worked hard to build a modern, forward-looking party structure, and never shied away from exerting leadership at the expense of prominent party figures. A familiar face in Polish politics, he has been a party politician and a parliamentary leader for years, but had never fought his way to the top. In 2005, he lost a presidential bid to Lech Kaczyński due to an apparent lack of passion for the job.

It might come as a further surprise to many in European political circles that prior to his election, Tusk did not show any interest in doing the political rounds in Brussels. He failed to show up at conferences and meetings organised by the European People’s Party, to which the Civic Platform belongs in the European Parliament. Neither did he try to position himself as a connoisseur of world politics through publications and speeches. That may not necessarily be a disadvantage, if it means that Tusk will bring fresh and innovative ideas to the diplomatic table.

The guiding principles of Poland’s new foreign policy are already clear. The government knows that putting national interests first would signal continuity with the previous government. They are also aware of the fact that a clear policy change would require new allies and tangible policy objectives. Tusk has a unique opportunity to design a foreign policy that matches a new era in Polish history – one that is no longer burdened with the aspirational agenda of the pre-2004 period. With Poland having joint the Council of Europe, OECD, NATO and the European Union (and scheduled to become member of the Schengen zone in December 2007), Tusk can now safely reflect on his own model of foreign and European policy.

The Tusk government has a genuine opportunity to formulate an altogether different framework for Poland’s international engagement. At present, everything suggests that the government will adopt a pragmatic stance in foreign policy. However, a mixed picture is emerging about what they can realistically achieve, especially in light of President Kaczyński’s ambition to continue shaping the foreign policy agenda. Success will also depend on the personal ambition and competence of the newly appointed team of senior decision-makers and advisors.

Read the full policy brief “Poland’s second return to Europe?” published on 20 December, 2007.

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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