As the national-conservative Law and Justice party took power in Poland two weeks ago, there was a fair amount of attention from London. Though the previous administration did much to make Poland a crucial power in EU decision making, (after all Poland and the UK are like-minded in their free trade outlook, and independent currencies), it was not because of this that it attracted attention. The political change in Poland matters to the UK – like all other European developments at the moment – because of the forthcoming referendum on whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU.
David Cameron is due to write to EU leaders this coming week to set out a firm list of demands for the renegotiation process, which will precede this referendum. Prior to the Polish elections, in August and September this year, ECFR’s renegotiation Scorecard assessed the Polish position on the demands that we expect the UK government to make. At that point we deemed the Polish government to be supportive toward or convincible on around 70 percent of the UK’s anticipated demands – the exceptions being those concerned with migration and welfare (which are concerned with tightening the conditions for EU migrants in the UK to receive benefits and state support).
A more Eurosceptic government in Poland could be an even closer ally for Cameron – and one which may well be even more sympathetic than others around Europe, not only to the specific aspects of his agenda for renegotiation, but also to Britain’s line that that the EU is worth it as long as it serves national needs, but not for the greater international good. In particular, the fears about economic and cultural cost that the 2015 influx of refugees into Europe has created in Poland, and on which the incoming Law and Justice party have played during the elections, mean that the new government will understand the feelings that the UK conservatives are trying to assuage in their efforts to restrict overall immigration and its impact in the UK.
But unfortunately for Cameron, just because the new Polish government may understand where he is coming from doesn’t mean that they will be able to accept what he is likely to suggest in terms of restricting access to benefits for EU migrants in the UK. Poland is currently a country of emigrant, not immigrant workers, and the UK is a top destination for Polish people. The number of Poles living and working in the UK is over 700,000. Foregoing their interests in the UK renegotiation process would be a major political sacrifice for the new government.
Broadening out the focus, the change in the Polish government could actually be bad news for the UK renegotiation agenda because other member states (notably Germany and France) will be concerned about ripple effects. There was always a risk that if the UK negotiated a special status in Europe, then others would want to follow suit. The more overtly Eurosceptic governments there are around the negotiating table, the more risky the process of making concessions to the UK becomes for the European project as a whole.
So though on first glance, Number 10 gained some new friends around the European Council table last week, they are not likely to be particularly helpful friends at this point. Ultimately the rise to power of Poland’s Eurosceptic Law and Justice government throws into sharp relief how isolated the UK is on the renegotiation and referendum agenda. Even those who understand the UK’s position can do little to support them because of the corner that they have backed themselves into.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.