Two events last week show the direction in which Poland is moving. On Dec. 15, during a visit to Kiev, Polish President Andrzej Duda promised financial, political and energy support for Ukraine. A few days later, on Dec. 19, people in Warsaw and other Polish cities protested the government's controversial appointment of five new judges to the Constitutional Court — the second protest over the issue in two weeks. These two events, though seemingly unrelated, suggest the beginning of a new political phase in the country that will be felt across Europe.
After eight years under a business-friendly and pro-EU government, the Poles, exhausted with the existing establishment, voted for a nationalist administration in a general election in October. Some also believed the benefits of EU integration and economic liberalization were not equally distributed among the population.
The newly elected Law and Justice party ran on a promise of lowering the pension age, reducing taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, increasing family benefits, raising taxes on banks and foreign-owned supermarkets, and cutting the country's reliance on foreign capital. The party also has a skeptical view of the European Union and believes Poland should protect its national sovereignty and remain outside of the eurozone.
The new government's early actions confirmed that it would not shy away from controversy. The administration in Warsaw appointed contentious figures to key Cabinet positions, accused the media of manipulating the population, criticized the German government for its position on the refugee crisis and Russia, and started a war of words with the president of the European Parliament. These moves prompted opposition parties, EU officials and international media to accuse the Polish government of authoritarianism, warning that the administration's actions would herald a new era of isolation. However, the reality is more complex.
In the coming months, the Polish state probably will have a larger presence in the economy and will attempt to influence the justice system and the media. Warsaw's attempt to replace Constitutional Court judges appointed by the previous administration with judges supported by Law and Justice is an early sign of the central government's quest for greater influence. From the new government's point of view, if it wants to reverse some key decisions made in the previous decade and expand its political control of the country, it will need support from parliament, the judiciary and the media.
Poland's new political phase is intimately connected with events abroad. Law and Justice has repeatedly been compared to Hungary's ruling Fidesz party because both parties are reacting to what they perceive as increasing Russian aggressiveness and a progressively fragmenting European Union. These parties are skeptical of the benefits of EU integration and believe the post-national European model has failed to deliver the economic and political stability it had promised. Law and Justice and Fidesz assume that as the European core weakens, with no powerful patron to replace it, the concentration of power in the hands of the state is one of the few options they have to improve their positions in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment. Moreover, similar to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her policies probably will clash with the liberal ideals enshrined in the European Union. However, knowing that Poland (like Hungary) can no longer keep Russia at bay by integrating further with the European Union, Law and Justice cares less about the disapproval of the Western elite than about its ability to sustain Polish sovereignty.
However, the Carpathians and several independent states separate Russia from Hungary. Hungary does not feel nearly as threatened by Russia as Poland does, enabling Budapest to flirt with Moscow when needed — an option Warsaw clearly does not have.
Besides the inability to approach Russia, the Law and Justice party's Euroskeptic strategy has two shortcomings. The first is money. The new government in Warsaw may be skeptical of the benefits of EU membership, but Poland is one of the largest recipients of EU aid, in the form of structural funding and agricultural financing. In the coming months, Warsaw will challenge Brussels and protest whatever measures it feels undermine Polish sovereignty while understanding that Brussels has the power to cut funding for Poland. Moreover, the new administration will have to be careful regarding which allies to alienate and when. The government's plans against banks and supermarkets probably will irritate investors and governments in Western Europe and the United States at a time when Poland still needs military and financial support from abroad.
The second is Poland's civil society. Unlike the previous government including Law and Justice, which was part of a fragile multi-party coalition, Szydlo controls a strong majority in parliament. This fact suggests that the government will enjoy political stability, at least during the first months of its term. However, Polish society will become increasingly divided among pro- and anti-government camps, creating fertile ground for protests and demonstrations from both sides. Warsaw will have to find a way to expand its control of the country while keeping social dissent within tolerable margins.
Poland's Foreign Strategy
Poland's domestic transformations will affect its international behavior, but the country's foreign policy is not likely to change drastically. Poland cannot afford to be isolated. Located at the heart of the North European Plain and surrounded by powerful countries (Germany to the west and Russia to the east), Poland traditionally has had to seek alliances to secure protection. This strategy rarely worked — Poland was repeatedly invaded and partitioned — but it is a strategy Warsaw simply cannot avoid.
After the end of the Cold War, Poland sought to multiply its alliances. It joined the European Union and NATO, hoping that a political, economic and military alliance with the West would keep it safe. It also formed the Visegrad Group, a political alliance with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and sought deeper cooperation with Germany and France through the Weimar Triangle. Simultaneously, Warsaw built a strong bilateral alliance with the United States, hoping that its military support and investment would keep Russia at bay.
The political environment in Europe has changed dramatically since Warsaw made these decisions, but Poland's core imperatives have not. Poland needs its alliances more than ever, especially considering the crisis in Ukraine.
The political environment in Europe has changed dramatically since Warsaw made these decisions, but Poland's core imperatives have not. Poland needs its alliances more than ever, especially considering the crisis in Ukraine. The most important of these alliances is the one with the United States, Poland's ultimate protector. But Warsaw also needs to protect its ties with the European Union, if only to prevent the bloc from moving too close to Russia. But the Law and Justice party is asking a valid question: What do those ties mean in the context of increasing European fragmentation and Russian assertiveness?
The new Poland will be more combative than its predecessor. It will challenge German leaders on issues such as the refugee crisis, demand a larger NATO presence in Eastern Europe, resist moves to concede sovereignty to Brussels and defend the right of the Polish parliament to make its own decisions. It will side with the United Kingdom in its push to protect non-eurozone members from policies designed for the currency union and will share London's vision of a multiple-speed Europe, where not all member states are meant to integrate at the same speed and in the same policy areas.
Poland will also reassess its priorities and start looking more to the east and the southeast, particularly to its traditional spheres of influence: the Baltic area and Ukraine. The previous administration had moved Poland in this direction already, and in the coming years these changing priorities will be more visible. In addition to being former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the 16th and 18th centuries, these two regions share Poland's concerns about Russia. A recent plan to build a natural gas interconnector between Poland and Lithuania, early discussions over a similar pipeline between Poland and Ukraine, and Poland's promise of a 1 billion-euro (roughly $1.09 billion) credit line for Ukraine show Warsaw's intent to provide support.
Poland and Lithuania will coordinate on pressuring the European Union to be tough with Russia, especially when it comes to maintaining sanctions against Moscow. The two countries also will work together to reduce energy dependence on Russia. For example, in mid-December Lithuania finally connected its electricity market to Poland and Sweden, and now all the Baltic countries are in talks to synchronize their electricity networks with EU grids.
Finally, Warsaw will try to move beyond its alliance with the Visegrad Group to include Romania, the other large country in the region, where seemingly chaotic domestic politics also do not affect the country's foreign affairs priorities. So far, Warsaw and Bucharest's alliance is mostly diplomatic, but the two administrations have been meeting intensively in recent months and plan to increase political, military and economic cooperation in the future.
What the New Poland Means for Europe
Poland will want to retain its EU membership, but Warsaw will increasingly view the European Union as a club of sovereign nations linked by common and fluctuating interests rather than by the dream of a federal Europe. Thus Warsaw will cooperate with Brussels when it serves its needs but will also look for alternatives while trying to keep its foreign policy as independent as possible. The most interesting of these alternatives is the construction of regional alliances from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea — a strategy meant to both resist Russia and oppose EU policies that go against Poland's interests. Warsaw will not be alone; several EU members in the region share many of Poland's views.
Warsaw's interest in Eastern and Southeastern Europe is growing at a time when regionalization seems to be emerging within the European Union. In November, media revealed that the Dutch government had discussed the possibility of creating a smaller version of the Schengen area that allegedly would include just a handful of Northern European countries, suggesting that the Netherlands will also be interested in protecting its ties with its main political and trade allies as Europe fragments.
Of course, the European Union is unlikely to break up in the immediate future, but it is notable that governments are making plans for a time when Continental integration begins to reverse instead of expand. Academics have discussed the concept of a multiple-speed Europe, in which different groups of countries cooperate on different issues and do not integrate at the same pace, for decades. But now governments are starting to accept it as the new state of affairs for the European Union.
The most important aspect of Poland's new political phase is that the largest country in the European Union's eastern flank is no longer in love with the idea of Continental integration. Poland is not alone in this sentiment; many EU members are Euroskeptic, including France and the United Kingdom. But the rise of Euroskepticism in a region that only a decade ago was the most enthusiastic about the political and economic benefits of EU membership speaks volumes about the Continental bloc's crisis.