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19th Feb 2019

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Poland - a mature country about to discover the dangers of leading

  • From 2007 onwards, Poland took a much more pragmatic approach to its foreign policy (Photo: EUobserver)

On its path to maturity, Poland's foreign policy has been steered through difficult choices, and has even stalled at times. But with its first presidency of the EU council, Warsaw has a rare chance to be promoted to one of the top EU players. The last years have seen its stature grow while the external opportunities are quite favourable.

Since 1989 the ‘return to the West' was Poland's loudly proclaimed foreign policy aim but it faced only limited immediate response from the cherished dreamland.

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No new ‘Marshall Plan' was created. Instead Poland had to fight even for a mention in its association agreement that the EU would recognise CEE aspirations for joining the club one day. Ten years later, thanks to its determination and despite of all Russia's objections, Poland (along with the Czech Republic and Hungary) was welcomed as a new member of NATO - an enlargement policy driven by the US and Germany. At this stage, Poland had also formally started its EU membership negotiations. Again Germany was on board as the strongest supporter of EU's eastern enlargement.

The NATO and EU enlargements kept Poland's political elites united on the basic assumptions of its foreign policy. Although the hard choices were appearing, they did not divide Poland's public opinion. No controversies appeared where it came to interventions in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). However, in the third case the decision taken was contrary to the main EU engines: Germany and France.

On that occasion, president Chirac even said that Poland had lost its chance to keep quiet. On top of that, Poland also bought US F-16 aircrafts. This caused further anger in some EU countries (despite the fact that Italy did the same thing only shortly before).

In this context Poland appeared as one the US' closest friends on the continent. Former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld added fuel to the fire distinguishing between a "New Europe" and an "Old Europe". The led to Poland sometimes being labelled by its critics as an American ‘trojan horse' on European ground.

However, the frictions were generally not of tremendous importance for Poland's foreign policy. Politically and economically it was still an ‘aspirant' country. Attitudes towards the US were a divisive factor in Europe everywhere. NATO was the primary security organisation, Russia used to sidestep Poland and talk to big EU countries, and Germany was still in a self-restrained mood, lining up its foreign policy with wider European interests.

Things changed with the eastward enlargement of the EU in 2004. First, what had previously been recognised as Poland's foreign policy, became the internal policy within the wider EU system. The big goal as well as the grand consensus among Polish political elites have disappeared.

The 2005 double political change in Poland (government and president) brought to power forces that tended to perceive foreign policy as a zero-sum game – a highly ineffective strategy to play inside the EU. They still considered Poland's geographical position – a land between Germany and Russia- as a ‘fatalité', and so trusted rather in an American friend when it came to security. Poland's image further suffered with the issue of US missile shield to be installed in Central Europe.

At the same time, Russia suddenly discovered that the wave of colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space, and the EU and NATO (double) enlargements, had changed its own geopolitics. Moscow needed to give a strong response, which President Putin duly did.

Meanwhile Poland dared to punch above its weight as a new EU-member. It strongly influenced Ukraine's orange revolution, protested against the Nord Stream pipeline between Germany and Russia, talked to the US about Washington's missile shield and vetoed EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement talks, thus making its biltateral meat dispute with Russia a test of European solidarity.

Additionally, Poland disagreed with Germany (a strong supporter of cooperation with Russia) over the voting system in the EU Council within the Lisbon Treaty. In this risky game, a backlash could have been avoided if Warsaw had voiced its dissent with more restraint - in the event, it brought up World War II arguments.

The 2007 change of government in Poland resulted in much more pragmatic approach to foreign policy.

It toned down its rhetoric for a start - the image and perception of a country are often as important as the substance of the policy it pursues. It also drew some valuable lessons. in particular that effectiveness in the complicated EU system means constant subtle coalition-building and bargaining games instead of a simple veto threat.

In those games, a lot can be achieved by having Germany on board, and nothing if it is not. In this light Polish-German relations were not simply renewed, they were practically redesigned and aimed at making partnership in the EU a policy practice.

Politically, other important parallel dynamics also happened. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 partly reversed Poland's simplistic anti-Russian image. Poland (together with Sweden) used the window of opportunity to introduce an Eastern Partnership idea.

Soon afterwards, Poland and Russia's impressive reconciliation process appeared to be something that previously seemed unimaginable. But it did not come as a miracle. Nor was it the result of the tragic accident in Smolensk on April 2010 when many of Poland's political and military elite were killed in a plane crash.

Both countries simply discovered that their "business as usual" relations diminishes their influence within or with the EU. Russia cannot simply talk to the EU countries it likes most while ignoring Poland and Poland is slightly less effective in important EU policies if it is considered to be an anti-Russian ‘Cold War Warrior' and EU trouble-maker.

A third factor was that external opportunities favoured Poland. Poland's economic performance during the global financial crisis seemed remarkable. For some time it remained the ‘green island' of European economic growth among the lands of recession.

All of this this has meant that, somewhat unexpectedly, Poland's model of successful transformation has been recognised as a desirable toolbox for the democratic revolutions in north Africa.

Today, Poland's first presidency in the EU Council takes place at a fascinating moment. A mature country is about to discover the dangers of leading.

The writer is executive director at the Center for International Relations, a Warsaw-based think-tank. E-mail: Nowak@csm.org.pl

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