Disloyalty to the EU Plunges Poland into Irrelevance

Bernardo de Miguel

5 mins - 25 de Septiembre de 2023, 07:00

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided Poland with an opportunity to increase its power and influence in Brussels as one of the countries most indirectly affected by the conflict and one of those that warned for years about the Kremlin’s threats. But Warsaw’s Eurosceptic government anchored in the past is squandering it – or worse. The government headed by Mateusz Morawiecki, a technocrat under the orders of the crafty Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is losing prestige in Brussels and is provoking its European partners, who accuse it of maintaining an attitude of blackmail and advantage seeking towards the war. The run-up to the elections on 15 October, in which Kaczynski’s party (PiS) is vying for power, is further deteriorating Poland’s relations with other European partners and even with Ukraine itself.

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The Polish government trumpets its unwavering support for Ukraine. And it allows itself to lecture other EU countries, in particular Germany, on solidarity. But it has been the first, and so far, the only one, to start charging Ukrainian refugees for their upkeep. And it has not hesitated to close its borders to Ukrainian grain exports, one of the few economic resources that Ukraine has left to survive, citing its impact on Poland’s agricultural sector, although most analysts see this veto, backed by other countries in the region, as an electoral asset for PiS ahead of this autumn’s elections.

To make matters worse, Warsaw last week sowed doubts over arms support for Zelensky’s government, further souring the dispute over agricultural exports, and Polish President Andrej Duda (also PiS) compared Ukraine’s desperation in the face of the Russian invasion ‘to that of a drowning man, who is very dangerous because he will grab on to anything and can drag down anyone who comes to his rescue’.

In Brussels, more than a few delegations interpret the Polish government’s attitude as a clear disloyalty towards the EU, which has made closing ranks with Ukraine an existential issue for the bloc. Some voices also regret that Poland, the EU’s fifth most populous country, does not assume the responsibility and weight that it should due to its size, history, and geographical position.

The war had given Poland the chance to become a major player in the European club and to join the group of countries that exercise clear leadership either through their economic size, such as Germany and France, or through their ability to position themselves at the helm, such as the Netherlands and Belgium. But Morawiecki’s government is on the way to squandering this historic opportunity. Warsaw has opted to sidestep, and in the EU, like in a sporting match, to be on the winning team only warming the bench. 

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank, believes that “the dispute with Ukraine is proof of Poland’s self-marginalisation in the EU”. He likewise notes that “Polish-Ukrainian relations have become hostage to the Polish election campaign”. Buras blames the recent tension between the PiS government and Kyiv on the basis that Kaczynski’s party disputes nationalist and anti-Ukrainian votes with the far-right Konfederacia. “There is a risk of a deterioration in bilateral relations,” warns the analyst.

Lithuania, a country with strong historical ties to Poland and Ukraine, has offered to mediate to prevent the clash between Warsaw and Kyiv from benefiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has longed for the break-up of European unity since the start of the war. “I call on President Duda and President Zelensky to resolve the current tensions,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said last week.

Brussels is confident that the waters will calm down once the Polish elections are over. But ECFR’s Buras predicts that the Polish authorities’ toughness towards Ukraine will continue after 15 October because “the formation of a government will be difficult and a new election in the spring of 2024 cannot be ruled out. The European elections that year and the presidential elections in 2025 will also shape a political debate in which the crumbling of the consensus on support for Ukraine will play an important role”.

Poland is thus condemned to deepen the political irrelevance in Brussels into which it has fallen since PiS came to power in 2015. Its status as a political pariah in the EU capital contrasts with the success of its economic trajectory since joining the EU in 2004. Poland has enjoyed decades of uninterrupted growth, with a single dip (of 2.2%) in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Its gross domestic product per capita, according to Eurostat data, has risen from 47% of the EU average at the time of accession to 80% in 2022, only five percentage points behind Spain and ahead of older partners such as Portugal and Greece.

Brussels, Berlin, and Paris have repeatedly tried to bring Warsaw out of political ostracism. The European Commission tried at the beginning of Ursula von der Leyen’s term of office (in 2019) to steer Poland away from the Eurosceptic and authoritarian drift of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. But Morawiecki’s government, in thrall to a Kaczynski obsessed with the ghosts of the past, has stuck to Budapest’s line and given up the possibility of becoming a reference point within the EU and the undisputed leader of a growing group of Central and Eastern European countries within the bloc.
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