East side story: Poland’s new role in the European Union
Poland will need to expand the boundaries of its influence in order to transform its wartime political capital into real leadership in the EU
When US president Joe Biden jets into Warsaw next week, he will disembark at the new centre of the European Union. At least, that is how many observers in Poland would like to see it.
Self-esteem in Warsaw has been on the rise since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Poland had long been a pariah in the EU, associated mainly with the national-populist Law and Justice party, the Eurosceptic rants of its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and the ongoing breakdown of the rule of law since Law and Justice first won power in 2015. Before the invasion, Brussels, Berlin, and other western European capitals would lecture Warsaw on EU values from their moral high ground. But the war has proven Poland right: on Russia, on Nord Stream 2, on European security, and on the importance of the military. The tables have turned, and – for Poland’s leaders – it feels good.
However, as one seasoned Polish diplomat told me, to lead in Europe it is not enough to be right. You have to be effective. Poland has some way to go before it can become that effective leader and transform its wartime political capital into a real shift of power in the EU.
Poland’s military and political assistance for Kyiv has been remarkable. The country has welcomed millions of refugees fleeing the conflict. It has also donated around 300 tanks from its own army’s stocks – a number that is unparalleled in Europe. Moreover, Poland’s role as the hub for Ukraine’s military support means it is indispensable for US and European efforts to help Ukraine resist Russia’s aggression.
This response has helped Poland overhaul its image; it has also reminded the rest of Europe of the country’s great potential. Yet none of this was inevitable. Before 24 February, Polish-Ukrainian relations were strained, with competing nationalist historical narratives and regular disputes over military cemeteries and monuments stoking an atmosphere of mutual mistrust. Warsaw put all that aside to support its eastern neighbour at this time of need.
Poland’s steadfast determination to help Ukraine – and that of the Baltic states – is largely behind claims that an eastward shift in Europe’s centre of gravity is already under way. Geography plays its part too: Europe’s history is playing out in the east, which brings Warsaw into the centre of European politics. But being in the centre is not the same as shaping the EU agenda.
Warsaw has made a strong imprint on EU sanctions policy, candidate status for Ukraine, and military support for Kyiv. But Poland’s status in the EU remains peripheral. Croatia has joined the eurozone, and countries such as Bulgaria and Romania have embarked on a path towards the common currency. Poland, meanwhile, has shown no interest whatsoever in financial integration. The country has also struggled (to say the least) to embrace the European Green Deal, the EU’s flagship project to pave the way for a climate neutral future. Even on defence, Poland has cut itself off from potential European cooperation in procurement by investing billions of euros in off-the-shelf military equipment from the United States and South Korea. Finally, the rule of law crisis rumbles on – with the European Commission just this week making the “bombshell” move of taking Poland to court over its “legal Polexit”.
How Warsaw can lead
This does not mean ‘the shift to the east’ cannot happen. But Warsaw will need to expand the boundaries of its influence and avoid some further pitfalls if it is to become a real leader.
Firstly, Poland’s newly discovered self-confidence in foreign policy rests largely on its vindication regarding Russia. This moral superiority is a source of strength. Yet, Polish leaders should take care not to overplay their hand. Admiration in Europe for Warsaw’s accomplishments could easily turn into irritation if moral leadership becomes conflated with self-righteousness. This would be not a good starting point for attracting support and beginning to shape the bloc’s agenda.
Secondly, Poland’s leaders should resist the temptation to define leadership in confrontational rather than integrative terms. The country’s current government has long sought to build a counterweight to Germany and France in the EU that relies on Warsaw’s clout in central and eastern Europe. It has so far failed to do so – not least because it perhaps underestimated the importance of real power relations. More importantly, Poland’s partners in central and eastern Europe have shown little appetite to follow this kind of geopolitical thinking within the EU.
Even so, the Polish leadership is unlikely to let go of the idea. Huge disappointment with Germany’s response to the war, which extends far beyond nationalist circles, fuels visions in Poland of building a new axis with the Scandinavian and Baltic states. It could even aim to redraw the political map of a new, enlarged EU by forming a power centre with Lithuania and Ukraine (the “Lublin Triangle”). However, as a senior diplomat from a Nordic country told me, any initiatives that drew new dividing lines across Europe would be non-starters from their perspective.
This autumn’s general election in Poland brings with it hopes that a new government – possibly formed by pro-European and liberal forces – can live up to expectations of the country becoming a leading power in the EU. This government will need to build upon its predecessors’ achievements and shed some of their intransigencies. Ultimately, whatever Poland’s government looks like at the end of this year, it needs to remember that effective leadership is not a force of nature. It requires ideas, empathy, power, cooperation, and trust. Poland’s place at the EU’s centre of power is within reach. It is time for Warsaw to grasp this opportunity and fulfil the potential it has plainly reasserted over the past year.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.