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Welcome back. Europe’s centre of gravity is moving eastwards because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Poland is at the heart of this momentous change. But can Poland make the most of its opportunities, or will its prickly brand of populist nationalism and its quarrels with the EU hold it back? I’m at [email protected].
First, the results of last week’s poll. Asked if the fighting in Ukraine would stop by the end of this year, some 61 per cent of you said no, 23 per cent said yes and 16 per cent were undecided. Thanks for voting.
Since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, experienced commentators have made the point that the war has strengthened Poland’s standing in the family of western democracies.
Like its neighbours in central and eastern Europe, Poland feels its repeated prewar warnings about Russia’s malign intentions have been vindicated. By contrast, France, Germany and other western European states were complacent or misguided in their policies towards Moscow.
Sylvie Kauffmann, a Le Monde columnist (and like me, a former foreign correspondent in Poland), observes in the FT that “Warsaw now finds itself on the right side of history”.
Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, writes: “The war has proven Poland right: on Russia, on Nord Stream 2, on European security and on the importance of the military.”
And Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, says: “Poland today occupies a prominent place on the global chessboard.”
Poland plays an indispensable role in channelling western military support to Ukraine. It has risen to the challenge of hosting more than 1.5mn Ukrainian refugees.
It is notable that Poland has thrown its support behind Kyiv despite intense disapproval in Warsaw of the rehabilitation in modern Ukraine of Stepan Bandera. He was the 20th-century ultranationalist whose UPA forces are held responsible in Poland and Israel for massacres of Poles and Jews in the second world war.
Meanwhile, Poland is investing heavily in the modernisation of its armed forces, making it one of Nato’s top spenders on defence as a proportion of gross domestic product.
The Polish economy is in robust shape, though inflation is high (17.2 per cent year-on-year in January). The EU expects growth to decline to 0.4 per cent this year from 4.9 per cent in 2022.
Much of Poland’s strong performance is attributable to well-executed market-based reforms after the end of communist rule in 1989 — on which, please see Marcin Piatkowski’s book, Europe’s Growth Champion. Foreign direct investment is high, too — a sign of confidence abroad in Poland’s economic prospects.
Lastly, Poland is forging a particularly close security partnership with the US. A permanent US army headquarters is being set up in Poland, accompanied by a field support battalion — the first permanent US contingent on Nato’s eastern flank.
US president Joe Biden underlined Poland’s importance as an ally by choosing the royal castle in Warsaw as the setting for his speech marking the first anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Rule of law quarrels
All this seems to lead to the conclusion that Poland is establishing itself as a front-rank power in Europe.
Dig a little deeper, though, and a more complicated picture emerges. The main concerns centre on Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party — the way it governs at home, and the way it handles relations with the EU and with Germany in particular.
On a visit to Warsaw last year, Biden made a gentle but pointed allusion to these concerns. “All of us, including here in Poland, must do the hard work of democracy each and every day. My country as well,” Biden said.
Significantly, he singled out for praise Lech Wałęsa, the former Solidarity leader whose brave, inspired leadership of the movement that secured the peaceful end of communism has been the target of a relentless PiS-led smear campaign.
What bothers the Biden administration, and even more so the EU, is the attempt by PiS since it came to power in 2015 to exert political control over Poland’s judiciary. For the EU, this effort tears at the heart of what the 27-nation bloc stands for: the rule of law in a community of shared values and partly pooled sovereignty.
Now, PiS obviously takes a different view on this controversy. Aleks Szczerbiak, politics professor at the UK’s University of Sussex, sums up the party’s argument:
Following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite.
[PiS] accused the EU institutions of bias and double standards, acting illegitimately beyond their legal competencies, and using the “rule of law” issue as a pretext to victimise Law and Justice because the party rejected the [EU’s] liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural issues.
Suffice to say that this argument is regarded as self-serving nonsense by Poland’s political opposition, whose leading party, Civic Platform, is on the moderate right rather than the liberal left. The EU, for its part, sees the argument as a poorly disguised excuse for PiS’s determination to undermine judicial independence.
Limits to Poland’s weight in the EU
Be that as it may, one consequence is that Poland is still in legal conflict with the EU. It is therefore unable to gain access for the moment to tens of billions of euros allocated to Poland under the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan and separate regional aid programmes.
Perhaps this will change after Poland’s parliamentary elections later this year, if the opposition defeats PiS. But that’s a big “if”: PiS holds a small but steady lead in opinion polls.
More broadly, Poland’s weight in the EU is diminished by the fact it remains outside the eurozone, which includes 20 of the 27 member states.
To some extent, PiS has tried to position Poland as the largest country of an informal central European alliance, or even a Scandinavian-Baltic group, that can act as a counterweight to France and Germany.
But in central Europe the Visegrad Four, which includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, barely functions these days because of Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán’s widely disliked pro-Russian tendencies and strongman rule at home. And no Scandinavian or Baltic country welcomes the prospect of unnecessary dividing lines down the middle of the EU.
Tensions with Germany
The deeper problem is the anti-German instincts of PiS political leaders and supporters. In this article for the New Eastern Europe website, the Polish scholar Eugeniusz Smolar quotes Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a presidential adviser, as saying: “In the end, Germany, France and Russia all have the same strategic goal — to push out the US from the European system.”
According to Smolar, Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a PiS member of the European parliament, has gone even further by asserting that “the threat to [Poland’s] sovereignty from the west is greater than from the east”.
Such attitudes culminated last year in a formal claim by the PiS government for €1.3tn in reparations from Germany for Nazi depredations in Poland during the second world war. There are complex political and legal aspects to this claim, as I outlined in a Europe Express newsletter last October, but the fact remains that Germany considers the matter closed.
All in all, the admiration in western capitals for Poland’s courage and decisiveness during the Ukraine war is mixed with concern that the PiS line on Germany is unhelpful.
Anna Mulrine Grobe captures this assessment in an article for the Christian Science Monitor, in which she quotes Michał Baranowski, managing director for the German Marshall Fund East in Warsaw:
The quiet criticism that we see is that Poland has not really been concerned enough about the unity of the alliance — particularly in the way it criticises Germany.
Poland is still finding its way in leadership, and it’s about balance. Sometimes it’s worth it to ruffle some feathers, but the western view is that this can be done with a little bit better style.
Forgotten lands? Remembering flight and expulsion in Poland’s former German territories — an essay by Marcel Krueger for the Notes from Poland website
Tony’s picks of the week
The Democratic party’s efforts to mobilise black voters have taken on renewed urgency in the build-up to the 2024 US presidential election, the FT’s Taylor Nicole Rogers in New York and Lauren Fedor in Washington report
China’s peace plan for Ukraine is aimed not at ending the war, but at impressing the developing world and rebutting charges that Beijing is Moscow’s silent accomplice in the conflict, Alexander Gabuev writes for Carnegie Politika
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