Economist and political scientist, head of foreign policy and international relations research program in WiseEuropa institute, a Warsaw-based think-tank (www.wise-europa.eu)
Poland belongs to those European countries that run the risk of losing the most as a result of the British referendum and the following consolidation of the EU’s hard core. Ironically, the national right government of Law and Justice (PiS) seems to be relatively optimistic about what it entails. On a number of occasions, its representatives have suggested that Brexit confirms their earlier conviction about the EU’s deep crisis and that it may open the door for a major European reform which, in their view, should consist in the EU’s comeback to the roots.
Before the UK referendum, Warsaw could reasonably expect that Britain would serve as its valuable ally in seeking an EU of variable geometries, with a stronger role of national capitals and a greater emphasis on the Single Market vis-à-vis the Eurozone as the major champ of European integration. Indeed, early this year, Minister Witold Waszczykowski indicated Great Britain (not Germany) as the country’s most important political partner in the EU. However, the turn of events soon after the British voting has forced the Polish government to develop a ‘plan B’. Reacting to the harbingers of a closer integration among the Eurozone’s western members, Warsaw has opted for the re-invigoration of not just the cooperation with the V4’s ‘usual suspects’ (Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) but also within the Weimar Triangle (with France and Germany).
Nonetheless, it faces an uphill struggle. Most of all, the country is staying outside the Eurozone, with neither the current government’s nor the society’s visible interest to join, and with ever fewer partners in a comparable situation. Worse still, Warsaw is starting to serve as a useful culprit of the EU’s re-created division between the West and the East, in particular due to its firm opposition to subscribe to the EU’s migrant relocation scheme. If that were not enough, never-ending tensions between Brussels and Warsaw have substantially tarnished Poland’s soft power within the EU.
Poland’s “plan B”
In the years to come, we should expect a rising pressure to be exerted on Poland (both from the West and from amongst its regional partners, like Slovakia) to accept at least some sort of integration with the Eurozone, if not its full membership. To be sure, that would be particularly hard to swallow for the government which has gained its mark as the defender of the country’s sovereignty and national identity. That does not mean that Warsaw will sit and wait. The Polish government will surely hope to retain an impact on the course of the EU’s coming developments, trying to turn the European discussion to other subjects, such as the EU’s inter-institutional relations, justice, security or the Single Market. However, it may no longer have sufficient clout to promote those issues in European debates.
Poland can still hope that the EU’s new bargain will be decided not between two groups of countries (e.g. old versus new members; or Eurozone versus the rest), but rather in a triangle, most notably with Club Med countries increasingly vocal in their criticism of German propositions on the future of the Eurozone. If such a triangular geometry is confirmed in the discussions on the EU reform, then it might to some extent strengthen Poland’s or Central Europe’s bargaining power and help them to avoid the most extreme versions of a “multi-speed EU”. Yet, much would depend on the Polish government’s readiness to pursue a more pragmatic and conciliatory foreign policy than what it has demonstrated so far.