Global Agenda

“Thank You, Poland”? Warsaw courting controversy while building allies

Raul Bertoldini

“Thank you, Poland. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’re doing.” Just two years ago, these words spoken by Joe Biden in Warsaw on February 21, 2023, might have sounded strange to the ears of some European observers. Led by the right-wing and conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, the Polish government has taken many controversial decisions in recent years, navigating a complex domestic and European landscape to strengthen its grip on the country. The latest of such choices, establishing a State Committee for the Examination of Russian Impacts on Internal Security, has drawn attention from international observers such as the E.U. and the United States. The European Commission issued a statement on May 30 expressing apprehensions about the committee’s establishment, citing its operation outside the constitutional framework and its wide-ranging investigative and judicial powers. Despite the reassurances offered by Polish president Duda, who proposed to amend the law, on June 8, the E.U. announced the opening of an infringement procedure against Poland concerning the matter. The fear is that the government could use it to ban individuals from holding public office without proper judicial review and, therefore, target political rivals like Donald Tusk, a former Polish Prime Minister and primary opponent of the PiS party, in the forthcoming political elections in the Autumn of 2023. These elections challenge the PiS, given that the government’s actions have polarised Polish society, leading to demonstrations, social tension, and a growing urban-rural divide.

The recent law adds to the ongoing struggle between Brussels and Warsaw over issues related to the rule of law. However, it is essential to note that this time the PiS party’s move comes at a moment when the international context is evolving, and unity within the West is crucial. The situation appears to leverage Warsaw’s stand in two main ways:

First, Poland’s vital role in the Ukraine conflict has made it a crucial partner for Western allies and the E.U. The country serves as a hub for military and humanitarian support for the embattled nation and, since the beginning of the conflict, has been at the forefront of the efforts to enhance European coordination and response in the region. Poland’s management of the refugee crisis and the direct repercussions of the conflict the country has been facing has earned widespread praise. Second, the country’s assertive stance on Russia and the powerful symbolism of opposition to it makes it difficult to argue against a law designed to curb Kremlin influence. Indeed, the Polish government has justified the initiative by arguing its complete legality and the fact that the text will be subject to the screening of the Constitutional Court. Moreover, a Warsaw representative stated the intention to propose a similar initiative at the next European Council in order to bring the issue to a European level and stress its relevance for the entire bloc.

Moreover, the conflict has also enabled Poland to further foster relationships with key partners outside the European Union, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. From the U.S. perspective, Poland is seen as a strong, increasingly militarized ally in Europe. President Biden’s speech praised the nation, and despite the U.S. State Department expressing concerns about the developing situation, these worries are probably balanced against Poland’s growing importance within NATO and the European security context. Poland’s strategic role and military expansion have also generated lucrative contracts for major American defense contractors. Similarly, the U.K. views Poland’s involvement in the conflict and its strengthened ties with Central European nations as a way to retain influence on the continent post-Brexit.

However, despite the favourable international context, Warsaw’s approach still faces limitations. Poland remains deeply interconnected with the E.U., particularly economically. As the largest recipient of E.U. funds, with a total allocation of €139 billion for 2021-2027, Poland relies on this funding to support its economy, including infrastructure, business innovation, and social inclusion programs. The ambitious plans to revamp its military will also require significant financial resources. The E.U. has demonstrated its willingness to use funding as leverage in disputes, withholding millions in recovery cash due to concerns about the Polish government’s interference with the independence of the courts. The new infringement could worsen this situation. Additionally, the polarization within the Polish public opinion presents a significant obstacle to the PiS party’s ambitions, as there is an increasing sense of resentment among specific sectors of Polish society. Notably, on June 4th, 2023, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Warsaw against the government in one of the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism.

The shifting geopolitical landscape has enhanced the importance of Poland’s strategic position and its role within the European framework. The ruling party attempts to seize upon this by maintaining a political trajectory that diverges markedly on certain issues from the preferences of many allies and the E.U. However, Poland cannot flourish in continental isolation. The course of these controversial reforms remains challenging, as it entails navigating a fine line between domestic priorities and the expectations of key partners. The following months leading to the Polish elections will play a decisive role in shaping the nation’s path. Brussels’ attention will likely refocus on Warsaw as the conflict endures. The ramifications of these decisions will unfold progressively, and achieving a balance between national interests, international partnerships, and the aspirations of its people will be vital for Poland’s long-term stability and prosperity.

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