Biden Must Keep Rule of Law on the Agenda with Poland

March 25, 2022
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President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland comes after relations with the United States had been tense for some time.

But this changed one month ago when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became Poland’s war next door, leaving some to fear that President Vladimir Putin might not stop there. Warsaw now needs US military protection and political backing. At the same time, the United States and NATO need a strong, resilient Poland. Security concerns are at the top of Biden’s agenda, but the country’s democratic backsliding should not be brushed aside as a result, and there are good reasons to use the carrot, rather than the stick, toward it.  

This is a pivotal moment in Polish politics. Poland could rejoin the community of Western democracies if the political class feels the West wants it back. Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński is torn between the West-leaning president and the anti-EU Justice Minister. President Andrzej Duda is at the helm of reconciliation efforts with the EU. He introduced legislation addressing the controversial judicial reforms and traveled to Brussels to mend fences with the EU, among other moves. On the other end is Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who continues to try to destroy the independent judiciary. On March 10, the politicized Constitutional Tribunal ruled that part of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) guaranteeing the right to a fair trial is inconsistent with the Polish constitution. The war did not change the fact that Poland is still a semi-consolidated democracy according to the Nations in Transit report by Freedom House. Two million refugees have found a permanent or temporary home in Poland but migrants crossing through the Polish-Belarusian border are still being pushed back. Kaczyński has yet to decide who to follow.

This is a pivotal moment in Polish politics. Poland could rejoin the community of Western democracies if the political class feels the West wants it back.

The Biden administration is likely worried about antagonizing the ruling party. A frail and divided Polish government increases vulnerability to Russia. Polls conducted after Russia’s attack on Ukraine indicate that support for the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) is slightly higher than it was before. Poles rallied around the flag and forgot about skyrocketing inflation and the meanders of a new tax system. It is too early to say whether PiS can win the next election, but the pro-democratic forces within the government could win now. Kaczyński will also look to the PiS electorate for guidance on his decision. The humanitarian situation will be high on Poland’s agenda for the 2023 parliamentary election. If other governments and organizations provide help, PiS voters will want a European liberal Poland. 

Once an international pariah state thrown into the same basket as Hungary and Turkey, Poland is now NATO’s easternmost border to Russian-controlled territory. Some politicians hope that the disagreements over judicial reforms can be forgiven and forgotten. PiS called for the EU rule-of-law mechanism not to be applied due to the war in Ukraine and the pandemic. But the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to withhold funds from member states that fail to respect the rule of law. Tit-for-tat will not work and the EU conflict is more complex than the current US-Polish relationship. Poland is enjoying the good press, the high-level visits, and the consultations. It expects the West to make the first step. During the US president’s visit to Poland, the Biden administration should applaud those trying make peace with the EU and express support for President Duda’s bill addressing judicial reforms and cooperating with the opposition since the start of the war. It should also meet with Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski and other local government officials and NGOs who have been dealing with the migration crisis.  

Poland finds itself in a new security environment. Within one month, its foreign policy has made a U-turn. Its future trajectory is being decided now. The country should be commended for hosting refugees, having been right about Russia and for recognizing that there will not be Western unity without Polish democracy. Good friends and allies must hold each other accountable to the values that underpin the relationship. Arming and supporting Poland during a humanitarian and security crisis can go hand in hand with Poland in the right direction.