View from Poland: New government, new tone

View from Poland: New government, new tone

Commentary

While Poland's position is formally unchanged, Law and Justice's rhetoric is riling European partners

The terrorist attacks in Paris caught Poland in a political limbo. The first session of the new Polish parliament was held on the day before these tragic events. Following constitutional provisions, President Andrzej Duda accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and the new government of Beta Szydlo (Law and Justice) was installed. That Duda chose the very day of the long awaited Valetta summit on migration for this ceremony met a lot of criticism in the media, not to mention among the ranks of the outgoing government. Duda maintained  that he was not aware of the Valetta summit taking place on the same day – for many commentators this was either a sign of the sheer ignorance of his advisors, or pure arrogance (if he deliberately disregarded the unfortunate clash of both commitments). Regardless of the real reason for his decision – miscommunication or a conscious choice – it meant that Poland was not represented at  Valetta or in the subsequent European Council. It also meant that neither Kopacz or Duda could participate and the Poland’s position on the issues at hand had to be presented (read out) by the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka instead. The domestic controversy over the president’s move to prevent Poland from taking part in the negotiations, with their focus on managing the refugee crisis overshadowed the discussions about the substance of Valetta decisions (more relevance was ascribed to the informal talks at the margins of the summit and the European Council meeting than Valetta itself). Valetta did not stir people’s interest and has largely been considered of much less importance than negotiations with Turkey about how to close down the migration routes through the Balkans.

The political limbo lasted until Monday, when the new government was formally appointed and the ministers took their offices. But even before that, some bold statements on the refugee crisis by its prominent members sparked a debate both in Poland and abroad. Most significant was the short commentary written on the right-conservative website Wpolityce by the new minister for European affairs (and sherpa) Konrad Szymanski, who just a few hours after the Paris attacks claimed that under the new government Poland would not be able to fulfil the commitments it made in July and September (to resettle and relocate  7,000 refugees in the country starting in 2016). His remark received a huge level of criticism for linking terrorism to the refugee crisis. Szymanski and the newly appointed foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski clarified that Poland would not back-track on the commitments made by the former government (which Law and Justice had heavily criticised in the electoral campaign for putting Poland’s security at risk, betraying national interests and bowing to the pressure of Brussels and Berlin). However, Poland will have to make sure that the only refugees coming to Poland are those who do not pose any security risk for the population. So, formally Warsaw has not changed its position. At the same time, however, Waszczykowski accused the “leftist ideologists” of shaping Europe’s response to the refugee crisis according to their false convictions, and reiterated that a bold response to the crisis is needed, in particular by strengthening the protection of the EU’s external borders. He also put forward the idea of forming a “foreign legion” of Syrian refugees to be sent to fight for the freedom of their country (instead of letting the Europeans do the job). He did not, however, specify if the legion should combat the Islamic State, fight against Assad, or do both.

Declarations made by the new ministers met criticism from the European public and led to a heightening of tensions between European and Polish leaders. Most notably, the president of the European Parliament condemned Szymanski’s statement in a German TV show on Sunday evening and reminded Poland that it had received the solidarity of other EU member states in policies towards Russia and in the form of structural funds. According to Schulz, to pick up those policy areas in which it is convenient to claim solidarity and refuse to show it in the others, is unacceptable behaviour. Responding to this two days later, Mariusz Blaszczak the new minister for internal affairs (who is also responsible for the management of the refugee policy) said that this was a prime example of “German arrogance”.

It remains to be seen how the new government will design its response to the refugee crisis once these waves of controversy have calmed down. It is highly unlikely that Poland will want to share much of the burden of the crisis with other countries, most notably Germany. However, the situation unfolding in Europe, not least in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, will see Warsaw confronted with new challenges. It is also in the Polish interest (especially with regard to EU’s policy towards Russia) that the political situation in Germany and the position of Angela Merkel remains stable. This is less and less certain, with the rise in popularity of AfD (Germany’s largest far-right party), changing public sentiments and difficult (for CDU and Merkel) upcoming elections in three Länder in March 2016. Without a European solution and support from other EU member states it will be difficult for Merkel to defend her policy in the domestic arena. Second, with France going to war against ISIS and calling upon solidarity from other EU member states, Poland faces new expectations which it will struggle to respond to. Sending troops to Syria or Iraq is a no-go, but will Warsaw contribute to France’s efforts in Mali or in the Sahel? In the recent past Poland has been refocusing its efforts on territorial defence, which has been the main feature of Polish security policy – and is the aspect most strongly emphasised by Law and Justice. Poland wants a substantial reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank and for the EU to maintain its sanctions against Russia. After Paris none of this will be a priority for France because it seeks cooperation with Moscow in Syria against ISIS and needs to invest more in counterterrorism. Therefore, the level of flexibility and empathy Poland will have to demonstrate to its partners in order to to pursue its interests and achieve its specific goals, may just prove too much. After all, flexibility and empathy aren’t qualities we have seen much of in recent days.

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.

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