With the UK gone, Poland, under the Law and Justice (PiS) government, will lose its favourite ally within the EU. After all, the UK is a country that shares PiS‘ opposition towards further integration, wants to defend its national sovereignty and rejects the EU common currency.
When the UK leaves Poland will become the largest coutry of the economically non-euro bloc in the EU, making up for just 14 percent of EU’s economic output – somethng which will further weaken Warsaw’s bargaining position when it comes to relations between eurozone outs and ins. But the most immediate issue to be addressed in the upcoming exit negotiations with the UK will be the status of around 700,000 Polish citizens living and working in the UK. According to current regulations around half of them would lose their right to stay in the UK in the case of a Brexit. Large numbers of Polish migrants returning to Poland would aggravate the the domestic labour market and be a source of social and political tension. When the referendum results were announced Polish officials maintained that securing the rights of the Polish citizens would be the most important goal of the Polish government.
Given the political capital and hopes that have been invested into the Polish-British relationship in recent months, Poland will belong to the group of countries striving for a compromise-oriented approach to the exit negotiations as it seeks to “restore an as close as possible relationship with Great Britain“. It remains unclear whether this indicates an openness towards a “special deal“ with the UK (other than the obvious options of EEA or WTO membership, or an EFTA) but Warsaw would be unlikely to make the UK’s Brexit wounds any more painful, and seek to be flexible in the negotiations in all issues but migration.
Most importantly, however, Brexit serves as a confirmation of the Polish government’s assessment of the EU as a project in need for a substantial „adaptation”. Speaking after the referendum, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, stressed the necessity of a „reform of the EU which would be also an offer for the UK“.
According to him, such an reform – based upon treaty change – should involve a clarification of EU competences, strenghtening of the subsidiarity principle, as well as the „widening of the unanimity voting“. After the results were announced Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, asked „if the EU does not impose too much on the member states“. The Brexit decision is thus seen as a vote against the idea of a federalist Europe and the ever closer union, rather than an issue triggered by domestic policy developments in the UK – a narrative which supports the Polish government’s approach to the EU.
In the past weeks and months Warsaw promoted the above mentioned idea of a reformed EU following Cameron‘s February 2016 deal, serving, in the words of Minister Szymański, as a „pilot project“ of such a process that might define the „right direction and issues“. Cameron’s deal is no longer valid but its philosophy corresponds with mainstream thinking in Warsaw. A new political contract for Europe which Warsaw would wish to promote should be based upon the idea of flexibility, differentiation, and equal treatment of all EU member states regardless of their individual levels of integration. Each EU member state should be allowed to define its own integration path – it would be a „multi-polar union“ as opposed to a Kerneuropa or European federation.
It remains to be seen how much energy and political capital Warsaw will be ready to invest into translating these ideas into a political initiative. But however Brexit poses a strategic challenge for the Polish governemnt, it may also create a momentum for not more but less integration leading to an Europe á la carte favoured today by Warsaw.
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