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Marcin Kędzierski  29 września 2021

Poland in the eye of the storm. Will we become a „second-class” EU member?

Marcin Kędzierski  29 września 2021
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min
Poland in the eye of the storm. Will we become a "second-class" EU member? Magdalena Karpińska

We can delude ourselves that all it takes to bury the hatchet between Warsaw and Brussels is to get rid of Kaczyński and Ziobro in government positions. But this is political shortsightedness. Realism indicates the deepening structural differences of interests between the countries of the „old” and „new” EU. The mere removal of PiS from power will change little in this regard.

In the history of European integration, there have been periods of “good weather”, sometimes lasting for a very long time. The best example may be the last several years of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new century – from the Single European Act and the introduction of the so-called Four freedoms to the EU currency and the great expansion of 2004. There were also storms, however – undoubtedly the last decade of crises, which began with the crisis of 2008-2009 and the bankruptcy of Greece, and ended with the COVID-19 pandemic, can be called the longest storm in the Community’s history. In 2021, the rain and wind have stopped, though the air is still heavy and no one knows if another storm is lurking on the horizon. We do hope that sunshine will come back for good, but every stronger gust of wind makes us afraid.

We’re moving ahead and all stragglers, keep quiet

I believe this weather comparison describes the state of the EU well at the end of the summer of 2021. We have entered a period of uncertainty and anxiety full of suspense. We do know something, however. Despite some perturbations in the process of procuring vaccines, the EU has passed the exam in managing the pandemic crisis rather well. The vaccination campaign can be considered a success, even though in our part of Europe it does not go according to the decision-makers’ expectations for many reasons. In a large number of Member States, the oldest part of the population at risk of the most severe course of the disease is already overwhelmingly vaccinated.

The economy is showing positive signals as well. Individual Member States are slowly recovering from the crisis. The EU launched a large aid package for the labor market under the SURE program, worth EUR 100 billion, and most importantly, agreed to the communitarization of debt in the form of the Recovery Fund. This event is unprecedented – two years ago such a solution seemed unrealistic, mainly due to opposition from Berlin and the so-called frugal five. And now the Commission and the Council approve further national recovery plans as the basis for the disbursement of funds raised on the financial markets throughout the Community.

Admittedly, Germany insists that this is an exception, but the history of integration teaches us that the law of precedent applies – if something was possible once, it means that it can happen again. As is often the case in life, the first time is often the hardest.

Even in such a difficult matter as the issue of migration policy, one can hear a common voice throughout the EU today – although, in 2015, accusations were hurled by all and sundry from all over Europe on Viktor Orban, who was building a barbed-wire fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border, today a similar solution used by Vilnius and Warsaw has gained full acceptance and even encouragement from Brussels.

Since last July, when the European Council approved the EU Recovery Fund after more than 100 hours of negotiations, we have not heard any high-profile disputes between member states. One might get the impression that the EU wants to boldly go forward, as evidenced by the continuation of the European Green Deal by further strengthening the climate and energy policies.

The consolidation we are witnessing, however, changes the nature of the Community. Strengthening the integration means that the Member States, who are not interested in such a direction for various reasons, will either be marginalized or enter a collision course with Brussels. In the face of global challenges, such as the formation of a post-pandemic global trade order, the inauguration of the debate on the need to build a new architecture of the global security system or the aforementioned climate policy, the „Eurocratic” Community leaders do not want to get bogged down in local, irrelevant problems.

On the other hand, the electorates in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, touched by the pandemic crisis, are not delighted that countries such as Poland are recovering from the pandemic almost unscathed in economic terms – this was evident, for example, in the discussion of large funds from the EU Recovery Fund, which were awarded to Warsaw. All the more since „Polish” TV sets, cookers and furniture, which sold out so well during the lockdown, were manufactured by them until recently.

Forcing our region out of the first integration circle, and thus increasing transaction costs for the functioning of industry and encouraging it to return to southern Europe, may seem like a noteworthy solution to the average Italian or Spaniard, especially since the Polish factories are becoming more and more innovative and can guarantee stable, relatively well-paid employment. It is just as attractive to the Dutch and Austrians, who prefer the Spaniards to work and earn their own money, rather than having to chip in money for them.

The end of the reduced fare for young people from the East

Finally, one must bear in mind that the mechanism to support consolidation is to find a common enemy. One cannot expect it to be the US, China or Russia, whereas Poland, Hungary and recently also Slovenia are particularly well suited to this role, especially since the progressive societies of the West expect strong reactions in response to emerging allegations of violating the rights of the LGBT minority.

It is therefore not surprising that in recent months we have witnessed an escalation of the dispute between Warsaw, Budapest, Ljubljana and several other capitals and Brussels. It must be made clear that the potential for conflict between the East and the rest of the Community has existed since the very moment of our accession. However, it did not erupt for several reasons: (1) The lack of political assertiveness of the countries in our region; (2) Benefits related to the expansion of sales markets for Western European companies; (3) The sense of the obligation to „compensate” former post-communist states present among the political elites of the West; or (4) The existence of the American protective umbrella, which effectively cooled down anti-Central European moods.

The problem is that all these reasons have significantly weakened in recent years, and especially in recent months. Firstly, after ten-odd years of functioning in the Community and a leap in per capita income in countries such as Greece, Portugal, and soon also Spain or Italy, the societies of our region’s countries naturally begin to have higher aspirations, which, for equally understandable reasons, cannot meet with understanding in the West, especially in the times of global economic turmoil.

Secondly, the benefits to costs balance resulting from the liberalization of the flows of goods and services from the perspective of the old EU is getting worse every year. It is no coincidence that for the last 2-3 years, the EU has been talking about the return to protectionism, which is to help protect the Western European „champions” from competition from Asia, but at the same time results in the deterioration of the competitive position of companies from our region. Anyway, as the Germans understood very well, good political relations are not a prerequisite for maintaining good trade relations with the Visegrad Group.

Suffice to say that last year Poland entered the top five of Germany’s trading partners, despite the coldness in political relations between Berlin and Warsaw. Meanwhile, German analysts who some time ago called to tone down tensions in relations with Warsaw for economic reasons, are now in favor of a tougher course in EU-Poland relations.

Third, the symbolic manifestation of the end of an era of „redress”, which aimed at a stronger inclusion of the countries of our region, was the appointment of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

In the minds of Western European political leaders, there is no longer any trace of such an inclusive way of thinking towards Central Europe, and the recent controversies (for example, regarding the LGBT community) confirm their belief that we do not belong in the club together.

Moreover, Joe Biden’s taking office radically changed the image of the situation – on the one hand, it perpetuated the ideological division between East and West, and at the same time gave the EU the green light to discipline its „unruly” members.

Warsaw and Brussels on the war path. With PiS in power and without it

With all this in mind, it should be said that in the coming months we should expect an intensification of the conflict in relations between Brussels and Warsaw, on many fronts: the rule of law, environment, energy and climate. The exception will be the migration aspect, since here – as I wrote before – the solutions suggested by the EU are also the default preferred by the Polish government.

An additional favorable circumstance is the EU Recovery Fund – for the first time the EU has the possibility to de facto block or at least significantly delay the transfer of funds negotiated at the summit. Importantly, this will not happen under the so-called rule of law directive, which is not yet in force, but a political decision suspending the approval of the Polish National Recovery Plan by the European Commission. In practice, there are no official deadlines that would bind the Commission; therefore the transfer of our NRP to the EU Council will most likely be postponed to the limit.

The experience in disbursing funds from the Recovery Fund for Poland is an excellent lesson on what the allocation of European funds from the main EU budget may look like, once the directive enters into force, making the payment of funds conditional on compliance with the rule of law. After all, similar to the decision on the communitarization of debt, the mechanism once applied enters the institutional order and can be used whenever appropriate circumstances arise.

The ruling party in Warsaw finds itself in a trap – they cannot step down too much due to the part of the electorate which, mildly speaking, does not love Brussels and may tilt toward the Confederation, and at the same time it cannot go into engagement, since the money from the EU is just existentially important for another part of their electorate. This internal split will probably only encourage the European elite to harass PiS with further accusations. Overthrowing the PiS government could undoubtedly be advertised as a success in at least several countries.

Let’s imagine, however, that the PiS government would lose power soon and the current opposition would take over. Regardless of the balance of power, the new government will be much more pro-European, and an immediate end to the conflict over the rule of law or disputes over alleged „LGBT-free zones” should be expected. And that would be it.

Free movement of services, industrial policy, energy and climate policy, policy towards Russia, etc. – despite the most sincere intentions, the hard interests of the Polish state and our society’s expectations clash with the current EU policy in these areas. The situation with the euro area is similar – it is really hard for me to imagine that Polish parties guided by the expectations of voters would dare to postulate the adoption of the common European currency in Poland.

This means that although the change of government in Poland would undoubtedly cool down the dispute between Warsaw and Brussels, and make it much more „aesthetic”, the tensions themselves will be very difficult to eliminate. All the more since a change of power in Poland, de facto by foreign influences and the increasingly difficult conditions of EU membership (restriction of freedom of movement in the internal market, limitation of funds from the cohesion fund, rising energy costs, etc.) will trigger a part of our society, including Polexit sentiments among supporters of the opposition.

The conclusion is rather simple – regardless of the political situation in Warsaw, consolidation among Western European countries will, on the one hand, deepen the process of structurally pushing Poland out of the EU, and, on the other, strengthen anti-EU sentiments in Polish society. Admittedly, I believe the probability of Polexit to be very low, but one must be aware that from Poland’s perspective, this „new”, consolidated Union will be characterized by a progressive restriction of the free movement in the internal market, lower transfers of funds from the EU budget and, finally, very serious costs caused by the energy transformation, which we will only get partial compensation for. One must also take into account that this „new” EU will reckon with our vote even less than it is now, for example on relations with Russia.

Is it possible to turn back from this path?

Therefore, all that remains is to ask a fundamental question: to what extent is this consolidation (or deeper integration, as it is often called) a permanent and inevitable process? After more than a decade of turmoil, is the EU actually entering the period of post-crisis stabilization, but in a smaller group? Contrary to the beliefs of some experts, including the authors of the report New Chapter. Transformation of the European Union and Poland, such a direction of integration processes is neither certain nor even very probable.

The premise behind such a thesis is relatively simple – the pandemic has strengthened individualistic attitudes, both at the level of individuals and entire countries. Few people in Europe indeed criticize the Union today, but this is mainly since societies in individual Member States have focused very much on internal politics and are completely uninterested in what is happening abroad.

Currently, no one is concerned with the issues of integration. Until there are problems arise at the community level, such as another migration crisis, debt crisis or another wave of the pandemic, we will be able to live under the media-propagated impression that there are no major problems in the EU and we are heading towards deeper integration.

The problem is that such a state of affairs can inherently be very shaky, and should problems emerge, the anti-EU sentiments may return as quickly as they have been extinguished using billions of euros under the Recovery Fund. Moreover, if it turns out that it is necessary to take actions that require Community-wide solidarity, then we may witness the opening of the gates to hell, where „exit” slogans from the second decade of the 21st century will seem like innocent child’s play.

This does not mean that we should keep our fingers crossed for the next European crisis because due to our economic dependence and the weakness of our political potential, we can feel its effects painfully and not even receive the tiniest bit of support. Therefore, the only thing that remains for us is to reasonably prepare to function in the „new” EU, where Poland’s voice and position will be much weaker than in the past, and to find the optimal modus operandi in this new Union, and at the same time come up with a way to convince Polish society, that such second-class membership will still be better than Polexit. All this with the full awareness that both of these tasks will be very difficult to perform.

Polish version available here.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.