Poles lose an ally

UK’s break from the EU has dealt Warsaw a blow, writes Pawel Swidlicki

When asked what the best case post-Brexit scenario would be from the perspective of Warsaw, a leading Polish politician joked that it would be for someone to invent a time machine.

Although Polish-British relations have been complicated in recent years given the tensions generated by the influx of Poles into the UK since 2004, the two countries nonetheless shared many common interests in the European Union, and as illustrated by the quip, the loss of the Britain will be painful for Poland.

Broadly speaking, both countries valued the EU’s single market and wanted to see it expanded as well as safeguarded against potential encroachment of eurozone integration.

They also share an Atlanticist outlook and believed the EU should stand firm vis-à-vis Russia while other member states were more willing to give Russia the benefit of the doubt and ease the economic sanctions imposed in the wake of its aggression in Ukraine.

Under the new Law and Justice government, Poland and the UK’s philosophical perspectives on the EU were also more aligned than ever before – both countries envisaged the EU as an association of sovereign member states as opposed to a supranational entity. The European Commission’s decision to involve itself in the dispute over Poland’s constitutional tribunal as well as its policy of relocating refugees across EU member states prompted a backlash and the kind of rhetoric about protecting national sovereignty and democracy that has been commonplace in the UK debate.

For these reasons, in January, Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, described Britain as Poland’s most important EU partner and aside from the tricky issue of migrants’ access to benefits, Poland was strongly supportive throughout David Cameron’s EU renegotiation when it came to improving economic competitiveness, safeguards for non-euro member states, more powers for national parliaments and qualifying the concept of ever closer union.

'Without the UK Poland may need to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards Berlin'

Indeed, it is notable that despite the referendum result, the Polish government still wants to bulk of the agreement to be implemented on the basis it remains a good model for the future development of the European Union.

Without Britain, it will now be harder to pursue such a looser, more flexible model of integration. Given its many opt-outs, the UK served as a functioning example of an alternative form of EU membership. Had the referendum gone the other way, it is likely that the UK would have continued pushing for an even looser relationship which could have attracted others.

However, the unhappiness of many at the UK’s ‘special status’, including its budget rebate and its opt-outs from the Schengen passport-free travel zone and the euro, mean that it will now be much harder for others to follow suit.

If not managed sensitively, the euro/non-euro divide could become a big faultline within the EU, as the eurozone will need a different arrangement, one that will most likely entail greater integration.

The risk, therefore, is that without the UK, the eurozone becomes more dominant and non-members are marginalized.

Given the lack of public support for euro membership in Poland, opposition parties have stayed silent on this issue.

This could change in coming years if the eurozone gets its act together (a big if) and the opposition deploys the argument that euro membership is crucial from the perspective of Poland’s wider strategic interests. Indeed, unlike the cool response from government, several figures from the opposition Civic Platform party, including its leader Grzegorz Schetyna, have talked about the need for Europe to respond to the Brexit vote with ‘solidarity and integration’.

When in office, Civic Platform positioned itself closer to France and Germany than to Britain and it is therefore now in a position to point out that the government lacks major EU allies outside Central and Eastern Europe, chiefly Hungary. This certainly presents a challenge for the Law and Justice party, under whom Polish-German relations have once again come under strain.

Without the UK, especially in view of the risk posed by a revanchist Russia, Poland may need to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards Berlin. That said, the UK will continue to want to remain engaged in European security co-operation via NATO, something all major political parties in Poland will welcome.

Ultimately, the future of the EU remains uncertain; Brexit may mark the beginning of its unravelling, or it could be the shot in the arm it needs to progress towards the next stage of integration.

Neither of these can be ruled out, but judging by past experience, a middle-of-the-road scenario is more probable; there will be a commitment to keeping Europe together but the rise of populist, anti-establishment parties from across the political spectrum all over Europe will mean that grand integrationist visions will be put on ice if not rethought altogether.

Either way, post-Brexit, Poland will be the EU’s fifth largest member state and so it will have an important role in determining how this all plays out.