Poland instructions centre stage in a reshaped Europe


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Welcome again. Europe’s centre of gravity is shifting eastwards due to Russia’s battle in Ukraine, and Poland is on the coronary heart of this momentous change. However can Poland benefit from its alternatives, or will its prickly model of populist nationalism and its quarrels with the EU maintain it again? I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

First, the outcomes of final week’s ballot. Requested if the combating in Ukraine would cease by the top of this yr, some 61 per cent of you mentioned no, 23 per cent mentioned sure and 16 per cent have been undecided. Thanks for voting.

Since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a yr in the past, skilled commentators have made the purpose that the battle has strengthened Poland’s standing within the household of western democracies.

Like its neighbours in central and japanese Europe, Poland feels its repeated prewar warnings about Russia’s malign intentions have been vindicated. In contrast, France, Germany and different western European states have been complacent or misguided of their insurance policies in the direction of Moscow.

Map showing eastern Europe and select countries

Sylvie Kauffmann, a Le Monde columnist (and like me, a former international correspondent in Poland), observes within the FT that “Warsaw now finds itself on the correct aspect of historical past”.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw workplace of the European Council on Overseas Relations think-tank, writes: “The battle has confirmed Poland proper: on Russia, on Nord Stream 2, on European safety and on the significance of the army.”

And Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Perception, says: “Poland immediately occupies a distinguished place on the worldwide chessboard.”

Poland performs an indispensable position in channelling western army help to Ukraine. It has risen to the problem of internet hosting greater than 1.5mn Ukrainian refugees.

It’s notable that Poland has thrown its help behind Kyiv regardless of intense disapproval in Warsaw of the rehabilitation in trendy Ukraine of Stepan Bandera. He was the Twentieth-century ultranationalist whose UPA forces are held accountable in Poland and Israel for massacres of Poles and Jews within the second world battle.

In the meantime, Poland is investing closely within the modernisation of its armed forces, making it one in every of Nato’s prime spenders on defence as a proportion of gross home product.

The burden on Ukraine’s neighbours is exceptionally high. Chart showin Total bilateral commitments plus refugee costs (% of GDP). Poland tops the chart with more than 2% of GDP. The US by comparison has committed less than 0,5% of GDP

The Polish financial system is in strong form, although inflation is excessive (17.2 per cent year-on-year in January). The EU expects progress to say no to 0.4 per cent this yr from 4.9 per cent in 2022.

A lot of Poland’s sturdy efficiency is attributable to well-executed market-based reforms after the top of communist rule in 1989 — on which, please see Marcin Piatkowski’s e-book, Europe’s Development Champion. Overseas direct funding is excessive, too — an indication of confidence overseas in Poland’s financial prospects.

Line chart of Foreign direct investment, net inflows (% of GDP) showing Poland attracts high levels of foreign investment

Lastly, Poland is forging a very shut safety partnership with the US. A everlasting US military headquarters is being arrange in Poland, accompanied by a discipline help battalion — the primary everlasting US contingent on Nato’s japanese flank.

US president Joe Biden underlined Poland’s significance as an ally by selecting the royal fortress in Warsaw because the setting for his speech marking the primary anniversary of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Rule of regulation quarrels

All this appears to result in the conclusion that Poland is establishing itself as a front-rank energy in Europe.

Dig slightly deeper, although, and a extra sophisticated image emerges. The principle considerations centre on Poland’s ruling rightwing Legislation and Justice (PiS) occasion — the way in which it governs at dwelling, and the way in which it handles relations with the EU and with Germany specifically.

On a go to to Warsaw final yr, Biden made a mild however pointed allusion to those considerations. “All of us, together with right here in Poland, should do the onerous work of democracy every day. My nation as nicely,” Biden mentioned.

Considerably, he singled out for reward Lech Wałęsa, the previous Solidarity chief whose courageous, impressed management of the motion that secured the peaceable finish of communism has been the goal of a relentless PiS-led smear marketing campaign.

What bothers the Biden administration, and much more so the EU, is the try by PiS because it got here to energy in 2015 to exert political management over Poland’s judiciary. For the EU, this effort tears on the coronary heart of what the 27-nation bloc stands for: the rule of regulation in a neighborhood of shared values and partly pooled sovereignty.

Now, PiS clearly takes a special view on this controversy. Aleks Szczerbiak, politics professor on the UK’s College of Sussex, sums up the occasion’s argument:

Following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key establishments, was expropriated by an especially well-entrenched, and infrequently deeply corrupt, post-communist elite.

[PiS] accused the EU establishments of bias and double requirements, appearing illegitimately past their authorized competencies, and utilizing the “rule of regulation” difficulty as a pretext to victimise Legislation and Justice as a result of the occasion rejected the [EU’s] liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural points.

Suffice to say that this argument is thought to be self-serving nonsense by Poland’s political opposition, whose main occasion, Civic Platform, is on the average proper moderately than the liberal left. The EU, for its half, sees the argument as a poorly disguised excuse for PiS’s willpower to undermine judicial independence.

Limits to Poland’s weight within the EU

Be that as it could, one consequence is that Poland continues to be in authorized battle with the EU. It’s due to this fact unable to realize entry for the second to tens of billions of euros allotted to Poland beneath the EU’s post-pandemic restoration plan and separate regional assist programmes.

Maybe this can change after Poland’s parliamentary elections later this yr, if the opposition defeats PiS. However that’s a giant “if”: PiS holds a small however regular lead in opinion polls.

Extra broadly, Poland’s weight within the EU is diminished by the actual fact it stays outdoors the eurozone, which incorporates 20 of the 27 member states.

To some extent, PiS has tried to place Poland as the most important nation of an off-the-cuff central European alliance, or perhaps a Scandinavian-Baltic group, that may act as a counterweight to France and Germany.

However in central Europe the Visegrad 4, which incorporates the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, barely capabilities lately due to Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán’s extensively disliked pro-Russian tendencies and strongman rule at dwelling. And no Scandinavian or Baltic nation welcomes the prospect of pointless dividing traces down the center of the EU.

Tensions with Germany

The deeper downside is the anti-German instincts of PiS political leaders and supporters. In this text for the New Japanese Europe web site, the Polish scholar Eugeniusz Smolar quotes Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a presidential adviser, as saying: “In the long run, Germany, France and Russia all have the identical strategic purpose — to push out the US from the European system.”

In keeping with Smolar, Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a PiS member of the European parliament, has gone even additional by asserting that “the menace to [Poland’s] sovereignty from the west is bigger than from the east”.

Such attitudes culminated final yr in a proper declare by the PiS authorities for €1.3tn in reparations from Germany for Nazi depredations in Poland throughout the second world battle. There are complicated political and authorized points to this declare, as I outlined in a Europe Specific publication final October, however the truth stays that Germany considers the matter closed.

All in all, the admiration in western capitals for Poland’s braveness and decisiveness throughout the Ukraine battle is combined with concern that the PiS line on Germany is unhelpful.

Anna Mulrine Grobe captures this evaluation in an article for the Christian Science Monitor, wherein she quotes Michał Baranowski, managing director for the German Marshall Fund East in Warsaw:

The quiet criticism that we see is that Poland has probably not been involved sufficient in regards to the unity of the alliance — significantly in the way in which it criticises Germany.

Poland continues to be discovering its manner in management, and it’s about steadiness. Typically it’s value it to ruffle some feathers, however the western view is that this may be finished with slightly bit higher model.

Extra on this subject

Forgotten lands? Remembering flight and expulsion in Poland’s former German territories — an essay by Marcel Krueger for the Notes from Poland web site

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The Democratic occasion’s efforts to mobilise black voters have taken on renewed urgency within the build-up to the 2024 US presidential election, the FT’s Taylor Nicole Rogers in New York and Lauren Fedor in Washington report

  • China’s peace plan for Ukraine is aimed not at ending the battle, however at impressing the growing world and rebutting fees that Beijing is Moscow’s silent confederate within the battle, Alexander Gabuev writes for Carnegie Politika

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