Poland aims to be a more assertive power player in Europe

Will cozier relations with Berlin make Warsaw a 'new Paris' on the Continent?

As Poland prepared to join the European Union, French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 told the Poles to “shut up” about their support for the unpopular, US-led invasion of Iraq.

They did not. But Polish rhetoric in the following years was not preoccupied with the foreign policy issues of the day, or even its new membership in the EU. Instead, Warsaw veered between two deeply historic sentiments: anti-German and anti-Russian.

In 2007, when political scientist Bartek Nowak was working in the European Parliament in Brussels, he says the Polish position on everything from budgetary issues to treaty change was always driven by nationalism hailing from World War II and Soviet occupation. “The image of Poland in the EU was very bad,” he says. “It was very difficult for me to be ambassador of my country.”

Today that job would be much easier. Poland has not only shed its image as a pesky Atlanticist and cold war warrior, it is a rising star on the foreign policy stage of the EU, consciously forging its relationship with Germany, not as a former foe but as the key ally to have in the EU.

Some even call Poland a new “Paris” – comparing it to the dual role France and Germany (increasingly the latter) have played in forging the diplomatic policies of the Continent. While most dismiss that comparison as hyperbole –  Poland is in no position yet to define European policy – it still points to how power is shifting at a time of economic crisis in Europe.

Poland's rise has implications for how Europe deals with Eastern Europe. And at a time when European citizens are broadly skeptical of the EU, the optimistic, pro-European Poles are a critical player as the Continent seeks to get its head above various political and economic storms.

“Poland today is a responsible player with big ambitions,” says Mr. Nowak of the Center of International Relations in Warsaw. “We are getting more and more influential.”

For decades it has been France, the United Kingdom, and Germany driving the affairs of the EU. But with the UK perhaps distancing itself from the project, and France weakened by an ailing economy, Germany, the de facto leader of Europe, has sought new allies.

The Poles made a conscious decision to cozy up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which they could pull off because of a relatively healthy economy. In 2009 Poland was the only EU economy not to enter into recession, aided by an infusion of EU funds, a depreciated zloty that made exports competitive, and a strong banking sector. 

Poland does not use the euro, so it is not part of the core group of Europeans dealing with a currency crisis. Yet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski share Ms. Merkel’s policies on how to steer Europe out of crisis, and they support her push for austerity, spending cuts, and fiscal responsibility.

“Our [mutual] support is a reflection of the growing convergence of our agendas,” says Jakub Wisniewski, director of the department of foreign policy strategy in the Polish ministry of foreign affairs.

This has put the two center-right governments on the same side of the table, as both put aside long-standing tensions and stereotypes. In March, the Bertelsmann Foundation and Poland’s Institute of Public Affairs released a study showing increasingly positive views that Germans have of the Polish, especially among members of Germany’s elite.

“Poland is very close in many points to Germany, which thinks that the debt crisis should be solved, not by making more debt,” says Christian Schmitz, head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Warsaw.

Beyond Germany

In fact, Poland’s rise goes beyond its partnership with Germany. The face of Poland’s foreign affairs, Mr. Sikorski, has undertaken his job more assertively than his predecessors. He grabbed headlines in 2011 in a famous, oft-quoted speech saying he feared German inaction more than its action. “What’s next” for Sikorski is often the buzz in Brussels.

“He is talking to Europe on equal grounds,” says Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Res Publica Nowa, a political and social journal in Poland. 

Poland has taken strong positions on federalism and more integration for Europe, particularly for its defense systems. Under Sikorski’s stewardship, Poland just completed the presidency of the Visegrad Group, which includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. It launched the Eastern Partnership with Sweden, an initiative to bring the eastern neighbors of the EU closer to the bloc; it launched the European Endowment for Democracy to help democracy movements across the globe.

In fact, while Poland has not eclipsed France, France can no longer expect Poland to keep quiet. If anything, it may be that a new Paris, Berlin, Warsaw axis now becomes a reality, says Roderick Parkes, head of the EU program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

And that could play an important new role in Europe's geography of power, should broader pathways open toward Eastern Europe and Russia.

Poland gives Germany an alibi to rethink its relationship with Russia,” Mr. Parkes says, “as well as a means to approach Central and Eastern Europe without people talking about its territorial ambitions and invasion. … It’s allowed Germany to get beyond that historic blockage.”

Infusion of optimism

Poland’s rise also brings a healthy infusion of optimism to an EU that many citizens would rather wish away. While many across Europe are starting to resent the sacrifices they’ve made by adding the EU to their identities, Poles generally recognize how much they have gained, despite resistance to join the currency.

In a recent global attitudes poll by the Pew Research Center, Poland reports the most support for the EU at 68 percent, dropping only 1 point from 2012 to 2013 despite the woes of the EU. That compares to a favorable rating of 41 percent in France, and 46 percent in Spain, dropping respectively 19 percent and 14 percent in just one year’s time.

Poland’s support is in part because Poland needs Europe more than the more established members do. EU funds are one reason the Polish economy has been strong, and it just received more money than any other member state for the 2014-2020 EU budget.

At a political level, Poland has much greater power as a part of the EU than it does standing alone. “The existence of the EU is in our absolute national interest. We feel secure only in this wider constellation,” says Nowak.

And that is truer today than in the past, when Poland often looked past the EU to the US, home to so many in the Polish diaspora, and to NATO, as its most trusted ally and defender.

Today Poland needs both. But the EU is Poland's daily reality, from its trade with Germany to the funds it gets for infrastructure from the EU, particularly as the US has “pivoted” toward Asia.

“It’s not an either-or… but it is the EU that defines their daily lives,” says Andrew Michta, Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington and expert on Central Europe. “Europe is essential to Poland’s modernization.”

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