The United Kingdom has been at the centre of the Polish political debate for the last ten days, and not because of the Brexit negotiations, but for reasons stretching far beyond it. In his long awaited foreign policy speech before the Polish parliament on January 29, the Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski declared the UK to be Poland’s main “strategic ally”, marking a major shift in the country’s foreign policy in the last 25 years. Not only did the new national-conservative government drop Germany as its priority ally – despite the relationship having been the centerpiece of Poland’s European policy in the last decade – it also openly subscribed to the British vision of Europe. Poland has begun to oppose any deeper political or economic intergration, to criticise the “ever close union” clause and reject any sort of intereference on member state sovereignty by EU institutions (the background of this last point is the rule of law mechanism activated by the European Commission as a reaction to attempts to limit the independence of the Constitutional Court by the new government). The new strategic relationship with the UK is fuelled by a considerable dose of Euroscepticism, as well as by hopes in Warsaw that London would be willing to support the reinforcement of NATO's eastern flank, which is Poland's key foreign policy interest ahead of the July NATO summit in Warsaw. Two weeks ago the news delivered by the Defense Minister Macierewicz that UK would be ready to station a brigade of 1,000 soldiers on a permanent basis in Poland, made headlines in the Polish media. London corrected Warsaw, stating that the soldiers would take part in training exercises, not be part of a permanent presence. However, a substantial British contribution to NATO's eastern flank is still expected and seen as a vehicle for a closer cooperation between the two countries.
This is the background against which the Brexit debate should be discussed. Only last week Prime Minister David Cameron was in Warsaw to discuss the details of the UK deal proposed by Donald Tusk a few days earlier. Along with the new “strategic partnership” discourse, Cameron’s visit was interepreted by Polish government representatives as a sign that the crucial Brexit negotations were being conducted in Warsaw (highlighting the relevance of bilteral relations and the role of Poland). Before the visit, the UK package was perceived as “going in the right direction” with some points still in need of clarification. The proposals regarding competitiveness, protection of interests of eurozone “outs” (as Poland increasingly defines itself) and the “red card” procedure for the national parliament, found almost unconditional support by the government. The contentious issues included the restriction of child benefits and a “safeguard mechanism” for in-work benefits. However, in the case of in-work benefits, if the restriction were to apply only for future migrations, Poland would be much less affected than other countries – while the current stock of Polish workers in the UK is high (around 680,000), the rate of current Polish migration to the UK is much smaller than from Italy or Spain.
While the details of Cameron’s talks with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Law and Justice Party Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski are not known at the time of writing, the first comments by the Polish authorties were overly optimistic. Kaczynski said that he was “fully satisfied”, Poland having achieved “very, very much” and “fully secured the rights of Poles in the UK”. Szydlo also stressed Poland‘s cooperation with London in the security policy realm and its interest in keeping the UK in the EU. Given the shift of alliances, the relative weakening of Poland’s position in the EU and the moderate character of Tusk’s proposals, it is very unlikely that Poland would block a compromise at the European Council on 18-19 February. It will, however, try to make sure that the provision regarding in-work benefits is restricted just to the British case and should not form a general regulation that could also be implemented by other EU member states.
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