The French and Polish governments are at loggerheads over questions of values and foreign policy. But each side can take steps to renew relations.

When he travels to Lithuania next week, Emmanuel Macron will fly over Poland – and as he does so he may recall his visit to Warsaw and Krakow earlier this year. The purpose of that visit – the first by a French leader after a six-year hiatus – was to rebuild relations with the Polish government. But since February, little has changed.

It is easy to blame the ongoing pall on covid-19, as Jacek Czaputowicz, Poland’s foreign minister, did in a press interview when questioned about relations with France as he resigned in August. The health emergency and the economic consequences of the pandemic have occupied most of the European Union’s political agenda since March; lockdowns and travel restrictions have made bilateral in-person meetings impossible. These have undoubtedly been barriers to Paris and Warsaw refreshing their relationship.

But this tells only part of the story. In February, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, signed into law much-criticised judicial reforms straight after Macron’s departure from Poland – which quickly erased much of the progress achieved during the visit. This became apparent in August at Poland’s commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw. Normally, France’s vital role in the battle would be underlined, and high-level French officials would be present, if only virtually this year. But this did not happen. At the same time, Paris has lately shown little consideration for Warsaw in its efforts to seek rapprochement with Moscow.

The pandemic itself could have served as an opportunity for at least some sort of reconciliation between France and Poland. Instead, the story of the summer was France and Germany taking the lead on the EU’s recovery, while Poland showed no inclination to join in with them.

What Macron’s February visit did not (and could not) change is the divergence between the two capitals on major points on the EU’s agenda – from climate, defence integration, and services liberalisation, to transatlantic relations, Russia policy, and future arrangements with the United Kingdom. These are real disagreements that go a long way to explain why the two governments are so annoyed with each other.

Recent surveys also reflect the poor state of relations. A staggering 90 per cent of policy professionals in Poland consider France one of the member states that has disappointed their country’s government most over the past two years, according to the most recent edition of ECFR’s EU Coalition Explorer. Nowhere else is the disappointment about France as strong as it is in the birth country of Frédéric Chopin and Marie Curie-Sklodowska: two great minds that represent the long-standing relationship between French and Polish society. At the same time, over 50 per cent of the French respondents to the survey point to Poland as equally disappointing a partner to their government.

Only a handful of EU pairings are characterised by such a strong mutual disappointment. This is the state of relations between Slovenia and Croatia; this is also how Hungary’s relations with Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany look. But France and Poland are unique among the EU’s large members in being united by such a strong animosity.

Interestingly, there is also a mismatch among the supporters of the ruling parties in each country. When asked whom they trust more – the EU or the United States – 83 per cent of La République en Marche! (LREM) voters name the EU, while only 24 per cent of Law and Justice supporters do. Similarly, when asked to choose between investing in NATO’s or the EU’s defence capabilities (or neither), 78 per cent of LREM voters and only 17 per cent of Law and Justice supporters say they would choose the EU. Among supporters of the ruling parties across the EU, it is hard to find another couple that is as estranged on these issues, as ECFR explained last year.

Disappointment between governments is not necessarily a bad thing given it suggests each side expects something of the other; there is something to work with. The two countries could cooperate more in the EU and use other suitable frameworks more willingly, such as the Weimar Triangle, a three-decade old grouping of Poland, France, and Germany.

For a while, it seemed that the Belarusian crisis could bring the two countries closer together. On the eve of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rigged presidential elections, the foreign ministries of France, Germany, and Poland issued a joint statement calling for free and fair vote – thus bringing the Weimar framework back from oblivion. However, they have given little sign of working together ever since. Macron’s phonecall with Vladimir Putin in mid-August, when they discussed the situation in Belarus, only strengthened Warsaw’s suspicions about his idée fixe of seeking a thaw with Moscow.

Both countries carry blame for their poor bilateral relations, but Poland will find it riskier than France if this situation persists. 

In recent weeks, Poland – alongside Lithuania and Romania – has been working on a package of assistance for the economic transformation of a democratic Belarus, including an offer of visa-free travel, a stabilisation fund, help in energy diversification, and a promising trade deal. This is supposed to serve as a carrot for the Belarusian establishment and to accompany sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime. However, while the initiative is slowly gaining traction in the EU, it has not yet received explicit support from Paris.

In the meantime, France has lately been much more focused on the rise in tensions between Greece and Turkey over gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Poland’s position on this issue remains disturbingly unclear, which adds to France’s already heightened annoyance with the country. To calm matters, it might be enough if Poland simply followed Germany in calling for a mediation between Greece and Turkey. Poland’s interest in the issue is in reassuring Cyprus, which currently is the one country blocking EU sanctions on the Belarusian regime. At the same time, France should seek to show more understanding for Poland on Belarus as well as on Russia – not least if it wants Polish cooperation in the Mediterranean.

While both countries are partly to blame for the bad vibes in their bilateral relations, this does not mean that both can afford to let this situation persist to the same extent. More concretely, France is in a much stronger position today than Poland.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address last week showed just how difficult things could become for the government of Poland in the EU that emerges from the covid-19 crisis. Warsaw will face tough questions on climate policy, as spending from the €750 billion Next Generation EU fund will need to be aligned with the European Green Agenda. If it does not rectify its rule of law shortcomings, it may risk losing some funds too.

Secondly, Donald Trump’s possible re-election could drive another wedge between Poland and the rest of the EU. Brussels may become even more determined to build European sovereignty, making it more difficult for the Poles to avoid feeling forced to choose between their European and transatlantic loyalties.

Finally, and most crucially, the EU that is now emerging is closely aligned with French ambitions, as Macron’s minister for Europe, Clément Beaune, argued in a recent influential paper. The EU’s strong focus on climate, sovereignty, the eurozone, and the rule of law results from a unique alignment of positions between Paris, Berlin, and the European Commission. It will be very hard for Warsaw to swim against this current.

After Brexit, Poland badly needs stronger links to some western EU member states; before the UK referendum, the Law and Justice government would put its bets on London as a key ally. But rather than investing in relations with France, Poland may find it easier to rebuild better relations with Germany, cooperate more with Sweden (with which, at least, it shares an interest on Russia and the single market), or simply focus on consolidating its position in central and eastern Europe.

It is a good sign that Poland’s new foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, has already held a phone conversation with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian – and that France plans to host the Weimar Triangle meeting of foreign ministers in October. A further happy coincidence is that France’s new ambassador to Belarus, nominated last week, speaks perfect Polish. But these possible openings in bilateral relations are yet to translate into concrete political results.

France, for its part, needs to make inroads into the EU’s east, not least to make Macron’s method of “talking to everyone” (as set out in Beaune’s article) effective and credible. However, given that France remains able to count on historically close links with Romania; shares parliamentary benches in Brussels with MEPs from the Czech prime minister’s party; and currently has good relations with the governments of eurozone members Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Macron might be tempted to continue flying over Poland.

Read more on: European Power, Cohesion & Governance, Rethink:Europe

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.