Image rites: Poland’s new role in Europe

Warsaw is in a uniquely strong position to launch an ambitious initiative for the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. To do this, it will need to use its new image in Europe to good effect.

A man holding a placard proclaiming Polish solidarity with Ukraine at a rally in London

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has transformed Poland’s international image. Questions about the rule of law in the country have given way to appreciative discussions about tanks and Ukrainian refugees. And wherever in Europe one goes – be it Paris, Berlin, or Brussels – people express admiration for Warsaw’s reaction to the war. Some do it out of conviction, others out of conscience, and still more out of convenience. But what matters is the contrast with the situation just a few months ago.

The looming end to the Polish government’s rule of law dispute with the European Commission casts relations between Warsaw and Brussels in a new light. If Warsaw succeeds in shedding this political burden, it could gain a stronger position in the European Union than at any time in the last decade. However, this new position could also turn out to be an illusion – if Warsaw merely reignites spats with Brussels and other EU capitals, hoping to appeal to its domestic audience.

Warsaw has found itself on the right side of history – and has made this felt in other EU capitals

According to Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev, “in the early stages of the war, countries in central and eastern Europe felt vindicated in their past hawkishness towards Russia, and have grown in confidence and power within the EU”. But the public opinion poll they reference shows that the picture is shifting. Now, many European citizens want ‘peace’ as soon as possible, even if this means that Ukraine needs to make concessions. Therefore, countries such as Poland – where most citizens instead prioritise ‘justice’ for Ukraine, even if this means more Ukrainians are killed and displaced – could find themselves marginalised.

Faced with rising energy costs, steep increases in the price of consumer goods, and the prospect of recession, European voters – especially those in countries far from Russia and Ukraine – could soon be even more inclined to favour peace over justice. And European leaders – who, until now, have often taken a surprisingly hard line on President Vladimir Putin – may start yielding to that opinion.

The risk for Poland is not simply that its influence on Europe’s Ukraine and Russia policy could wane. It is also that the disconnect between the perceptions of citizens in Poland and those in western and southern European states could revive historical resentments in Poland, degenerate into Euroscepticism, and lead to political self-isolation. Paradoxically, this could happen at the very moment at which Poland has a unique chance of escaping the EU doghouse.

There are already some worrying signs of such a turn of events. Among the ten countries polled by ECFR, Poland is the only one in which the prevailing view is that Germany and France are friendly to Putin. As the chart below shows, 50 per cent of Poles perceive Germany in that way. The average in other countries is just 18 per cent. Similarly, 40 per cent of the Polish public see France as friendly to Putin, compared to a mere 17 per cent elsewhere.

But this does not mean Poles are only critical of western Europe. They are even more suspicious of Hungary, with 61 per cent believing that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s country is friendly to Russia. This is a higher proportion than in any other country polled. On average, just 34 per cent of respondents in the other nine countries reproach Budapest for cosying up to Moscow.

How do you see Germany's relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Perhaps even more strikingly, on these issues, there are smaller differences of opinion between Poles across the political spectrum than between Poles and other Europeans. To be sure, supporters of Law and Justice (PiS), the nationalist party that rules Poland, are more likely than supporters of the liberal Civic Coalition (KO) or the Left (Lewica) to think that Berlin and Paris are too cosy with Moscow. But they are still more likely to see Germany or France as friendly to Putin than supporters of any other major party in the ten countries polled.

Interestingly, Orban is seen as friendly to Russia not just by a majority of Poland’s opposition voters but also by 62 per cent of Law and Justice supporters – for whom he once served as an inspiration. Therefore, while Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski may still have a tactical alliance with Orban on EU affairs, their relationship no longer goes any further than that. Law and Justice supporters have largely internalised their leaders’ disappointment with Hungary’s position on Ukraine. Their infatuation with Orban seems to be over.

Finally, Poland’s preference for justice over peace – which makes it a European outlier – is shared by Law and Justice and opposition voters alike. This differentiates the entirety of Poland, rather than just the Polish government, from western European countries.

How do you see Germany's relationship with Vladimir Putin?

But there is a fine line between being right and being self-righteous. And even being right is often not enough to make an impact.

Up to now, the Polish government has sailed gallantly on a rising tide of moral superiority towards its Western partners, in sharp contrast to the years of criticism it received for failing to meet European standards. Warsaw has found itself on the right side of history – and has made this felt in other EU capitals. Poland’s deputy foreign minister told the German chancellor that “talking to Putin is completely pointless”, while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki mocked French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone calls with Putin, saying that “nobody negotiated with Hitler”. For many reasons, criticism of the Franco-German response to the war is justified and necessary. And the voice of the Polish people and their government holds more sway than perhaps ever before. That is precisely why it is so important for Poland’s leaders to choose their arguments and tone carefully.

Yet Kaczynski and Morawiecki seem to miss, or at least underestimate, the profound shift in attitudes towards Russia and policies on the country that is under way in France, Italy, and Germany. Poland should ensure it is a constructive contributor to that development. Poland cannot create a coherent and effective Russia policy for the EU only in alliance with the Baltic countries or the Czech Republic – with all due respect to them.

Warsaw is in a uniquely strong position to launch a new EU initiative for eastern Europe – just as it was when it initiated the Eastern Partnership with Sweden in 2007. But, if the Polish government comes up with a concrete and ambitious plan, it will still need the support of influential allies in the EU. This will require not only moral justifications – but, above all, hard political work and the trust of Poland’s partners.

Polish leaders did not join their French, German, Italian, and Romanian counterparts on a recent visit to Kyiv. And they seem to spend more time criticising Germany’s and France’s attempts at solidarity with Ukraine than cooperating with Berlin and Paris to shape the EU’s eastern policy. The Law and Justice party may find these divisions useful in domestic politics. But they do little to protect Poland’s strategic interests.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Authors

Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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