Brussels insiders may look askance at Polish entreaties to Donald Trump. But western EU member states share some of the blame for strained relations too
A crisis of trust reigns between Poland and many of its European partners. And it is not just the much-publicised tensions around the rule of law and the Damocles sword of Article 7 proceedings against Poland. The country’s own geopolitical manoeuvrings are also increasingly generating new tensions of their own, from the way in which the Polish government talks to and about Donald Trump, to how it frames the Three Seas Initiative, and to how it reacts to new forms of cooperation discussed in the rest of the EU. Across much of Europe, the impression is building that Poland’s new moves will inevitably lead to a weakening of the country’s solidarity within the European Union. But if the country effectively decides to pivot fully to the United States, it would not be its fault alone: both sides would be to blame.
Yesterday Polish president Andrzej Duda made an offer to his counterpart in Washington; effectively packaged as a ‘deal’ perhaps to appeal to his well-known sensibilities. The US president would get a place named after him; a “Fort Trump” to host American troops in Poland on a permanent basis. The Poles themselves would pay for its preparation although the US would have to cover the operating costs later on. All while Donald Trump is thought to have demanded a review of the US presence in Germany as his long-running feud with Angela Merkel simmers on. Yesterday both Trump and Duda repeated their strong criticism of the Russian-German Nord-Stream 2 project.
For good measure, Duda reminded the president, and the world, that Poland is in the process of buying US Patriot missiles. But the American front is not the only one the Polish president and government are active on right now. The president travelled to America directly from the third Three Seas Initiative Summit, in Bucharest. Officially, Polish leaders are presenting Three Seas – in which 12 central European countries participate – as complementary to EU goals. But the government’s intellectual circles in Poland – their outriders, effectively – often frame the initiative as a way to counterbalance the German influence in central Europe through a new cooperation structure that enjoys American approval. Some even call it an equivalent to NATO in the infrastructural and energy domains. One major Three Seas infrastructure project is the development of a pipeline to transfer American natural gas from Swinoujscie port in Poland to countries to the south.
Germany is relentlessly pursuing Nord Stream 2, claiming it is nothing but an economic venture, and doing so in the face of protests from Poland
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Paris, Berlin, and Brussels are watching Warsaw’s geopolitical moves with concern. Informal conversations in these capitals reveal a perception that the Polish government has set its course – but that it is the wrong one. While the rest of the world flinches at each new instance of US unpredictability, European observers look on somewhat incredulous as Poland treats the United States as the most dependable ally it has. They further note the country’s profound preoccupation with Russia as almost Europe’s exclusive security threat. They see the Polish government as doubling down on denial, paying no heed to the changed context, one in which the arrival of Trump upends normal transatlantic assumptions, while the Syria end game and migration crisis demand at least cooperation with Russia on Middle East stabilisation.
Listen to Law and Justice (Pis) party leaders, experts, and the public media, and you will find it hard to avoid the impression that Warsaw is ready to reach for hoped-for greater security from the American administration at the expense of EU solidarity. In 2015, after PiS retook office, the cancellation of armaments contracts with France by the new government was an early warning sign. And Poland’s lukewarm participation in European defence cooperation via the PESCO mechanism is another. And just last week, Duda went so far as to call the EU “ an imaginary community that does not give Poland many benefits”. A few days later, the power behind the throne Jaroslaw Kaczynski praised Polish cooperation with Germany, but warned too that history has not yet ended. Are both Duda and Kaczynski preparing Poles for a more intergovernmental and less integrated EU?
This is not all new. The legacy of the 20th century is such that Poles see the transatlantic alliance as the key plank of their foreign and security policy, at least on a par with EU membership. This is true of Poland’s political class in general and pre-dates the current administration. But continue down this road alone and Poland will risk significantly jeopardising its own security, leading to a further deterioration in its political position in Europe while also potentially receiving little or even nothing from an American president who is, at best, unreliable.
All that said: longer-established EU members need to take their share of responsibility for Polish jitters too. Germany is still relentlessly pursuing the Nord Stream 2 project, all while claiming it to be nothing but an economic venture, and doing so in the face of protests from its immediate eastern neighbour. France, for its part, failed to invite Poland to join the European Intervention Initiative. The French government’s well-known preference for PESCO involving only a small number of countries only added to Poland’s sense of exclusion. And when Emmanuel Macron or Heiko Maas discuss strengthened European cooperation, they often demonstrate a strong anti-American bias, which Poland would never be able to accept. All in all, if onlookers wonder why Poland is off discussing security with the US and not its European neighbours, then western Europe leaders share at least some of the blame.
For all that Poland’s US pivot looks already in train, the likelihood is that Poland is – as ever – simply expanding its options. A full turn to Washington is not inevitable. Most Polish experts and members of the political class continue to conclude it crucial to preserve both security anchors, the European and the transatlantic one. But more than just wring their hands at what they see as an irreversible Polish drift, EU member states can reach out their hands. They may find them clasped in return.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.