More of the Same Polish Foreign Policy

6 MINS READAug 24, 2015 | 21:12 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Poland's new president has wasted no time making his mark, and his anti-Russia rhetoric has led some to speculate that Poland's foreign policy is in for a radical change. On Aug. 23, Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Estonia in his first trip abroad as head of state. The visit was highly symbolic for two reasons. First, the selection of Estonia reflects Poland's traditional view of the Baltics as its natural sphere of influence. Second, during the trip Duda repeatedly vowed to push for a permanent NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe, a move that would create friction with Russia and Germany. The Polish president plans to make his request again during his visit to Germany later this month and to the United States in September.

Duda's victory in Poland's May presidential election has opened the door for the nationalist Law and Justice party to return to power in the country's upcoming general elections. However, it is unlikely that a political upset will result in a dramatic shift of the country's foreign policy. Poland's geopolitical constraints will continue to influence Warsaw's moves abroad, making a change in tone far more likely than an actual change in policy.

Poland's position at the heart of the North European Plain has made it the persistent target of invasion by its more powerful neighbors to the east (Russia) and west (Germany). Consequently, Poland's people have historically felt unsafe, which has forced the majority of Polish governments to seek alliances to guarantee the country's territorial integrity. More often than not, these alliances have not been able to prevent invasion, partition or countless other calamities from plaguing Poland's population.

After the end of the Cold War, Poland sought to multiply its alliances by joining large international organizations like the European Union and NATO, as well as smaller political and military blocs such as the Visegrad Group. Despite its many and varied alliances, Warsaw also sought the reassurance of a strong bilateral relationship with the United States, which many in Poland see as the country's ultimate protector against Russia.

Duda's election raised eyebrows both at home and abroad because it signaled the potential revival of his Law and Justice party, a nationalist force that briefly ruled Poland from 2005 to 2007. The country will hold its general elections Oct. 25, and according to most polls, Law and Justice is poised to win, even if it does not receive enough votes to form a government on its own. The party espouses a strong anti-Russia platform and advocates that Brussels return some sovereignty to EU member states.

Despite the wide ideological differences between Law and Justice and the current Civic Platform-Polish People's Party government, a victory by Duda's party in the general elections probably would not significantly disrupt Warsaw's foreign policy. However, it could cause the Polish government to become even more vocal in its concerns about the Russian threat to Central and Eastern Europe. It could also lead to Polish demands for greater participation in discussions on Ukraine, which Germany, France and Russia dominate. But the current Polish government is already one of the European Union's more hawkish members when it comes to demanding the extension and expansion of sanctions against Moscow; a new Law and Justice government would not deviate much from the hard line Warsaw has already adopted.

Still, Poland's more aggressive tone would likely put Germany in an uncomfortable situation. Berlin is often forced to both appease EU members that push for a tougher stance on Russia and satisfy those that demand a normalization of relations, mostly in Europe's south and west. German leaders have long opposed permanently positioning NATO troops in Poland because it would irritate Moscow and violate a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia. A Law and Justice win would also create room for friction with Germany over the European Union's energy policy, since the party might try to protect Poland's intensive use of coal, against Berlin's wish to transition to renewables.

The victor of Poland's upcoming elections will also determine, at least in part, which of the country's alliances Warsaw will emphasize over the next term. Under the conservative Civic Platform, Warsaw sought to maintain close ties with Germany and the European Union, a decision that was rewarded in 2014 with the appointment of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk as the president of the European Council. But under Law and Justice rule, the government may instead try to expand Poland's alliances in the region, including with Romania, given its size and location near the turbulent Black Sea. One of Duda's advisers recently mentioned an alliance "from the Baltic to the Adriatic," suggesting that a Law and Justice government may also choose to reach out to Croatia, a potentially important partner because of its plans to build an LNG terminal to reduce the region's reliance on Russian energy. But again, neither of these ideas is new, which suggests that the overall direction of Poland's foreign policy will likely remain unchanged, regardless of which party wins.

The United Kingdom could stand to gain from a more nationalistic party coming to power in Poland. British Prime Minister David Cameron has advocated that the bloc give more power to national parliaments when it comes to EU decision-making, a cause that a Law and Justice government might choose to support. However, the United Kingdom's request to reduce welfare rights for immigrants in the European Union will be a thorny issue, since a significant Polish community resides in the United Kingdom. Similarly, a Law and Justice government is unlikely to change Poland's stance on joining the eurozone; the ruling Civic Platform has remained ambiguous on the issue, and a nationalist government would make accession even more unlikely, if anything.

While the October elections are unlikely to mark a profound change in Polish foreign policy, we could certainly see changes take place on the domestic front. Members of Law and Justice have promoted the introduction of turnover taxes on banks and supermarkets, a policy that would be unpopular in the private sector and with foreign investors. If the party wins, it may try to slow or even reverse the rapid economic liberalization that several of its predecessor governments have pursued over the past two decades. Should it occur, the policy could hurt Poland's relationship with Western Europe and the United States, since it would negatively affect several of their companies.

So, while Poland's October elections may indeed put a new party in power, they will not change the fact that Warsaw's options are limited, no matter who is in charge. 

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