Where Does Poland Stand on the EU’s Eastern Partnership?
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are seen, at least in the security dimension, as a region with an overall unified voice. The four belong to the EU and NATO, and are recognized as high performing former communist countries. They also have typically approached the EU’s Eastern Partnership in a similar manner, with Poland as its co-founder and the three Baltic states actively promoting closer cooperation between the EU and EaP countries. However, despite the common outlook on NATO’s Eastern Flank and increased U.S. military presence that exists among the group, cracks in their approach to the EU’s East are emerging.
2017 can easily be labeled a challenging year for everyone: the United States, EU, and transatlantic relationship. For the Eastern Partnership countries, however, this description falls short of the mark. Russian aggression remains an everyday worry, and the EaP countries must also contend with the fact that, for now, the prospect of full EU membership seems to have been removed from the table. The fatigue and indifference that seem to mark many EU members’ outlook to the EaP did not, however, stop Estonia from using its platform during the European Council presidency to advocate for the EU’s East.
Estonia — determined to leave a digital mark on Brussels and thrust the Union into more innovative and digital solution — also included the EaP in one of four core priority areas: a safe and secure Europe. Although the idea of Eastern Europe as a homogenous and unified region is diminishing, Estonia has used its shared history as a point to cooperate with the EaP countries in striving for democracy and development. Prime Minister of Estonia Juri Ratas opened the presidency in the European Parliament stating hopes “that it is not impossible that one day in the future, a Ukrainian President may stand in front of this house, in the same role as I am today.” Additionally, the three Baltic states also affirmed commitment to the EaP countries in a joint letter recognizing the countries as an “indivisible part of the European family.” The common history that binds the three states to the fate of the EaP members seemed also to ring true with Poland — a country also the victim of Russian aggression and oppression — but now the EaP’s biggest ally in the EU is wavering.
It would appear that the Eastern Partnership — or the goals of democracy building and stability it strives for — would be of particular interest to Poland who shares a border and close historical ties with two EaP states, Belarus and Ukraine. So why is Estonia currently the most vocal in the EU in advocating for the Partnership when its closest EaP neighbor shares neither geography nor common history apart from the period of Soviet occupation?
Sweden and Poland initiated the EaP in 2007, and although consensus-based decisions determine the current policy, Poland notably shaped its direction, especially in its advocacy for Ukraine during the Maidan revolution and continued Russian aggression. Poland has a lot to offer: Polish experts and diplomats have the most valuable expertise on the post-Soviet states in Europe and there are a lot of initiatives to promote the EaP within Poland and beyond. However, after the turbulent political transition in Poland from a pro-EU government to a more conservative Eurosceptic government, the country has become more reluctant to maintain its former policy. PiS, the current Polish ruling party, has chosen to risk in particular the stability and integrity of Ukraine in achieving goals promised by its rhetoric.
Stable, prosperous, and democratic Eastern peripheries of the EU could only bring benefits for Poland, Central and Eastern Europe, and the entire EU. European integration, not without its challenges, has triggered social, economic, and political changes in Ukraine and Georgia. The Baltic states, most notably Estonia, appear to recognize the value of the policy by continuing to support the EaP’s strategic goals as a means to strengthening their own security and economic prosperity. Joining forces with the Baltic states would create a strong regional voice in a sometimes Western-dominated institution. Forging a unified position to place the Eastern Partnership higher on the EU’s agenda would be beneficial to the partnership countries and the stability to the EU’s East.
Despite the fact that Polish diplomacy has taken different direction, the EaP should and will remain strategic national interest to Poland. As a key country in NATO’s Eastern Flank, Polish security could significantly diminish when having a weak Ukraine at its doorstep. A Polish abandonment of this policy would be a great mistake for EaP, EU, and especially Poland.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.