The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament
Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) currently appears to be unstoppable. After winning the presidential election in May, PiS also managed to obtain an absolute majority within the Sejm after the country’s parliamentary election in late October. In a shift to the right, Poland is now under the leadership of a political party that is nationalist, socially conservative and mildly Eurosceptic. In promising an increase in social spending, increased taxation of the rich and opposition to immigration, the party’s policies have been described as having “a leftist socioeconomic agenda with a rightist cultural and political agenda” — a stark contrast to the previously centrist and liberally-minded government, led by the Civic Platform (PO) party. What does this political shift mean for the future of Poland-EU relations?
Contrary to the views offered by observers such as the Financial Times and Politico, Poland’s shift to the right is beneficial from a national security perspective. The newly elected president, Andrzej Duda, is determined to install permanent NATO bases and aims to foster more intimate ties to the United States — seen as a key political ally and main protector against Russian aggression. Such rhetoric points to a departure from the policies of the previous government, which attempted rapprochement with Russia, and was careful not to stray too far from mainstream EU policies. In many cases, these efforts have resulted in little political gain, and have sacrificed Poland’s economic and political interests.
The Ghosts of Smolensk
One of PiS’s largest grievances with the previous government was its inability to secure a leading investigative role in the 2010 Smolensk disaster. The tragedy resulted in the death of many of the country’s top political, economic and military figures, including the president, senior military officials, the head of the national bank, and several MPs. PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother, rejected official reports that blamed pilot error as the main cause of the crash, and argued that “the state had failed” the Polish people in regards to their handling of the investigation.
While the Smolensk crash has remained controversial to this day, many have argued that the investigation was not as transparent as the Polish government led its people to believe. Several Russian dissidents and critics of the Kremlin suggested in an open letter that Polish officials gave “too much credit” to Russian officials during the investigation, stating:
“It seems that the Polish friends are demonstrating some naiveté, forgetting that the interests of the current Kremlin leadership and those of the nations of Russia’s neighbors do not converge.”
Given that the crash killed most of Poland’s top military and civilian leaders, Donald Tusk — the premier at the time — should be ashamed of having allowed Russia to manage the main investigation, particularly in light of the adversarial history between the two countries. In addition, the failure of securing the wreckage, which is still in Russia’s possession, has prevented Polish experts from conducting their own impartial investigation. It is clear that the efforts of Tusk and his government in trying to warm Russo-Polish ties have blinded them to the fact that Russia, as all states, will act in its best interests, regardless of what claims it makes in public.What leading politicians in Poland should focus on, especially in the context of the precarious international situation that exists today due to the threats of Islamic terrorism, Russian revanchism and Berlin’s insistence on dictating EU policy, is to create the strongest domestic and external position possible. Now that PiS is in control, these concerns may finally be addressed.
Security vs. Humanitarianism
President Duda, for his part, is determined to adopt a more assertive stance in regards to EU policymaking, particularly concerning German-led efforts to force a quota system on EU members in dealing with the influx of Middle Eastern migrants and refugees. Even before the elections, Poland was opposed to accepting large numbers of Middle Eastern refugees, and suggested that it would accept only Christians. While this stance has been widely criticized, it is nonetheless understandable. The majority of Poland’s population, of which 94% identify as Catholics, are against “non-white” immigrants. As a senior PO politician explained, “People just don’t want immigrants here. They don’t understand them, they don’t like them, and believe that their maintenance is too expensive.” Shouldn’t democratic governments rule in a manner that reflects the will of their people, even if their popular beliefs may not be considered “politically correct” in relation to those of other countries? In this regard, Poland has taken a similar attitude to states such as Hungary, whose president, Viktor Orban, argued that “we should not put European lives at risk on the basis of any kind of ideology or economic arguments.”
While Brussels and Berlin desire a common European response on most matters, the migrant crisis is a unique situation. Why should EU members buckle to the views of Germany, whose Chancellor has been nicknamed “Mama Merkel” after rashly proclaiming her country open to all Syrian refugees? Given the thousands of migrants arriving in Europe daily, European security and intelligence forces are struggling to process the sheer numbers of people flooding into the continent. Hungary’s president has warned that the migrant situation can be exploited by terrorist groups looking for a way to get into Europe — a fear borne out by the revelation that two of the suicide bombers in the recent Paris attacks posed as refugees. In reaction, Poland has since refused to accept migrant quotas unless given express security guarantees by the EU.
In this regard, countries like Poland and Hungary may be the only ones addressing their legitimate national security concerns — at the expense, of course, of being criticized as anti-humanitarian.
Poland is also at odds with the EU over its energy policy. In particular, it has been critical of a recent energy agreement between Germany and Russia, which would create a direct natural gas connection between the two countries. For President Duda, the deal “completely neglects Polish interests” and “makes it hard to believe in Europe’s unity” when it comes to economic and political matters. Poland, which pays among the highest rates for natural gas in Europe, has built a major gas-trading terminal in the Baltic port of Swinoujscie, intended to provide countries such as Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary an alternative to Russian-sourced natural gas. The Russo-German deal threatens not only this project, but it also keeps Europe dependent on Russia for energy — a situation that Moscow has readily exploited.
A New Poland?
Given the new government’s shift in foreign policy, it is clear that it intends to assert its national interest over the competing directives of the EU. By taking a stronger stance against Russia, and by pushing back against certain EU policies that threaten the country’s self-interest, Poland is determined to strengthen its position on the international stage, even at the expense of Polish-EU relations.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and History.