The Law and Justice Win in Poland: Implications for the United States, Germany, and the EU
Law and Justice (PiS) took home a commanding victory last weekend, making it the first party to have an absolute majority in Poland since 1989. Though it had been clear for months that PiS would win the elections, the extent of victory and the fact that the PiS will be able to rule without a coalition partner came as a shock to many in the Polish political class. These elections clearly mark an end of an era; with Platforma (PO) in the opposition and the Left Alliance out of the parliament, PiS is now in the position to transform Poland’s domestic and foreign policy. This will have important consequences for Poland’s key allies including the United States and Germany, as well as its position in the European Union.
New Leadership in Warsaw
WARSAW—The truth is that there will likely be a significant degree of continuation between PiS and the previous Civic Platform (PO) governments. The PiS government will focus at least as much as its predecessor on security issues, especially as next year’s NATO summit in Warsaw draws nearer. As a consequence, the new leadership in Warsaw will place a priority on its relations with the United States, looking for U.S. military presence in Europe’s east and decisive leadership in NATO. One of the leading PiS politicians, Witold Waszczykowski, said that “U.S. military presence is welcomed and necessary, and has to be sufficiently large to deter a possible aggressor.” The new minister of defense (MOD) will also continue, and possibly accelerate, Poland’s military modernization program. The MOD will look to the United States for big defense contracts in order to strengthen the strategic ties between countries, but also to ensure greater transfer of technology to the Polish defense industry.
In the EU, the new government will place a lower premium on staying within the European mainstream, but there will be no desire to start unnecessary fights. Relations with the EU will reveal the most significant differences between the new government and the previous PO-led foreign policy. The government will be focused on domestic politics and interests, and willing to defend them vigorously in Brussels. This is likely to affect the refugee crisis in particular, especially since the incoming government is already on the record against taking in more refugees. The new government is likely to form a coalition with the other Visegrad Four countries against the compulsory refugee quotas, and will in turn focus on tightening external borders of the EU. The government also plans to move EU affairs to a separate ministry (removing it from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dossier) and put at the helm a politician with experience in Brussels.
The change of government in Poland comes at a challenging time for the EU, as it faces a multitude of crises and instability coming from inside, east, and south. The refugee crisis, in particular, has put massive strain on EU cohesion. Matters of tone and investment on both will be crucial in order to avoid exacerbating existing tensions in Europe.
Germany and a Law and Justice Poland
BERLIN—The fact that Germany’s eastern neighbor, Poland, will now be governed by veteran nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party is causing some trepidation in Berlin. Less than ten years ago, the Kaczynski brothers, Jaroslaw as prime minister, and his late brother as president, poisoned the Polish-German relationship with nationalistic tones and historical stereotypes. The strategy of the German government then was to keep calm and carry on; Chancellor Angela Merkel did not respond to the provocations, so as not to contribute to the polemics. But under this surface of stoicism, Germans were offended.
The eight post-Kaczynski years of two consecutive center-right Civic Platform (PO) governments have seen a stabilization of the relationship between Berlin and Warsaw. Although there was some dissent over issues like energy and climate policy, the two largely cooperated constructively — despite a growing asymmetry in the relationship, with Germany moving to center-stage of EU policymaking since 2010. In fact, the demonstration of political closeness cumulated in then-Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski’s public invitation to the Merkel government to take an even stronger and more decisive lead in times of the euro area crises.
German policymakers are well aware that similar calls will not be heard from the new PiS government. But expectations in Berlin are still that tensions will not escalate to the degree they did a decade ago, not least because both Germany and Poland have a vested interest in the relationship.
Poland, the fastest growing economy in the EU, is a very important partner to Germany, the EU’s largest economy. Both Warsaw and Berlin share an appetite for a deepening of the European single market. Both traditionally favor sound public finances, based on constitutional rules in both countries. Looking at the PiS election platform, the hope in Berlin is that the protectionist-nationalistic proposals they put forward, such as privileging Polish of foreign companies, will not become policy, not least because Poland would break EU competition rules. Meanwhile, hopes that Poland would become a member of the euro area anytime soon had already been buried under the previous Civic Platform government due to the fading support of political leaders and the required majorities for the necessary constitutional amendment. In term of security policy, the expectation is that a PiS-led Poland will harden the tone vis-à-vis Russia, but will not fundamentally change its policy. For Germany, this will mean that its task to ensure a cohesive EU approach to the matter and transatlantic unity may become tougher. But here too, the assumption in Berlin is that Warsaw understands that it cannot risk weakening the European Union (in the face of Russian threats) by polarizing too much.
The toughest challenge may lie in the field of migration policy. In the refugee crisis, Germany has become a strong proponent of a liberal approach and European solidarity, for instance through a quota system. Before the general elections last Sunday, Poland was an important bridge-builder between those countries that ask for inner EU solidarity and those in Eastern and Central Europe who have outright refused quotas and related policies. The PiS government will strengthen those voices in the EU that see the refugee crisis as a problem that others, particularly border states and Germany, must manage on their own. Berlin will need to put considerable political capital into this and may have to explore options of satisfying Eastern and Central European demands in other policy areas. Warsaw can make itself a helpful partner in achieving this — if it so chooses.
PiS Victory: An Opportunity for the U.K.?
LONDON—While in Berlin the prospect of a PiS government may be viewed as a threat, in London it is viewed as opportunity. Prime Minister David Cameron is about to start renegotiating the U.K.’s relationship with the EU ahead of the referendum that must take place by the end of 2017. In this context, some in the U.K. see the new Polish government as a potential ally — precisely because it is more Euroskeptic than its predecessor. In particular, the view in London is that it is now even less likely that Poland will join the single currency in the next decade (Beata Szydło has said that her government would not “lead Poland into the eurozone” and accused her predecessor, Ewa Kopacz, of wanting to “turn Poland into another Greece” by supporting the introduction of the euro).
Unlike the U.K., which has an opt-out from Economic and Monetary Union, Poland remains a “pre-in” that is committed to joining the single currency eventually. According to Szydło, this would be when the Polish economy is much more developed and wages are higher. Nevertheless, the hope in London is that if it is clear that Poland will not join the euro for the foreseeable future, this in turn will strengthen its interest in supporting the U.K. in its attempt to guarantee safeguards for eurozone “outs,” one of the key points of Cameron’s renegotiation agenda. Indeed, part of the thinking behind Number Ten’s insistence that what is currently taking place are “talks” rather than the real renegotiation may be a belief that the climate in the EU would be more favorable for the U.K. after the Polish election.
In the end, while the PiS victory has been greeted by many pro-Europeans, not least in Germany, with furrowed brows, there are reasons to remain calm. First, there is little indication that PiS will choose a drastic course or strike overly aggressive tones that risk alienating important allies, including Germany. For that, the threat from Russia is felt too acutely in Warsaw. Moreover, if Germany and the United States want to avoid a Brexit, a PiS government might even be a blessing in disguise. Warsaw may become an ally on the most sensible point in Cameron’s renegotiation package, helping push Europe to devise a way to protect the interests of eurozone “outs” that satisfies London and the new Warsaw (and with them others outside the eurozone). If this helps lead to British membership surviving a referendum, it would be a win for Europe and transatlantic interests.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.