Poland loses interest in EU

When the Council of the EU votes on energy transformation, environmental protection or transport, the PiS government is usually in the minority.

The Eternal Question

Since joining of the EU, Poland is facing the question of its own position in the Union. The question is linked to its size: Poland is the smallest among the so-called “big states”, being demographically e.g. 54% smaller than Germany. At the same time, it is almost four times more populous than the group of numerous EU countries with a population of around 10 million. For example, Poland’s population is larger than the other nine countries that joined the EU fifteen years earlier. The economic potential undermines Poland’s stronger position by the fact that the Polish economy measured at constant prices is comparable in size to the economies of less populated countries of Western (Belgium) or Northern Europe (Sweden).

However, the status of Poland is determined not only by statistics. Over the past several years, Poles – its officials, as well as leading politicians – have learned to use their own advantages and play disadvantages effectively to pursue national interests. “At the dawn of accession, the Spaniards taught us that one should not be ashamed of being poor,” is one of the many lessons of Polish diplomacy testifying to the strategy for Poland’s presence in the EU.

This strategy was based on a delicate balance. Being the smallest of the big and the largest of the small, the Polish EU strategy included incorporating the Central and Eastern European perspective in its own political relations with large partners such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Hence, French President Sarkozy spoke in the middle of 2000s about the need to create a G-6, a group of six major EU countries. Today certain European politicians have similar ideas, including the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who talks about the weaknesses of the Franco-German leadership in Europe and the need to include Italy, Spain and Poland in it.

This delicate balance was an effective approach. One of the leading European think tanks ECFR, placed Poland as the fourth, equal to Italy, among the most influential EU country. A richer Poland has negotiated more funds for its own cohesion policy for the years 2014–20 from a smaller EU budget than in the previous budgeting period. Over the past fifteen years, Poland has not only made up for economic development (from 47 per cent of the EU average GDP per capita in 2004 to 71 per cent in 2018), but also gained many political advantages. Successful negotiations led to a new political opening towards Eastern Europe (Eastern Partnership), and two Poles took key positions in the EU: Jerzy Buzek presided over the European Parliament (2009–11), and Donald Tusk was the European Council president (2014–19) .

The 2015 Change

This strategy was abandoned by the government elected in 2015. The curent Polish government treats the Union as a purely external issue, of foreign policy, so it does not understand the involvement of EU institutions in the issues of legal system reforms in Poland. Since the dismantling of independent judicial institutions, as well as the civil service or independent journalism in public media, Poland’s position in the EU has deteriorated rapidly. In the national debate, the PiS government accuses the opposition of turning the European partners hostile, and that the European institutions are acting in bad faith and want to harm “good” reform for ideological reasons.

Meanwhile, there are objective reasons for launching the infringement procedures. The government under the direction of Mateusz Morawiecki is trying to promote its own version of “Europe of Nations”. These arguments boil down to undermining the independence of the EU institutions from the national governments. The Prime Minister said in the European Parliament that “respecting […] national identities is the foundation for trust in the Union. … every country in the Union has the right to shape its legal system in accordance with its traditions.”

There are many examples of progressing marginalization.

First, votes in the EU Council. The data collected by VoteWatch.eu shows that the Polish government is increasingly losing votes in the Council. By the end of the PO-PSL (EPP) coalition’s government, the rate of losing votes was at 3.1 per cent, placing Poland at comparable levels of Austria and Germany. From PiS’s rise to power in November 2015 to the end of 2018, this ratio increased to 6.6 per cent, and Poland fell to the second to last place. Only the Brexit’s UK achieves worse indicators.

This should be read as the growing incompetence of PiS politicians to substantively resolve controversial issues. Sometimes voting is used in a populist narrative in the country – with the directive on copyright in the digital single market, the Polish government voted against knowing that it is in a minority. The ruling party used a populist argument in the campaign to the European Parliament and to the Polish Sejm: “that’s why we opposed the EU regulations regarding […] censorship on the Internet (ACTA 2).”

Between 2015 and the end of 2018, the PiS government was in a minority in 19 votes, which are most often related to the topics of energy transformation, environmental protection, and transport. Those files concern legislation which was processed mostly in the ENVI (5) and TRAN (4) committees of the European Parliament, while in the Council the most problematic files were addressed by the General Affairs Council (8 files).

Second, the issue of differentiation of levels of integration. Poland has always been against structural divisions between member states, and deeper integration meant deepening of Poland’s involvement in European structures. However, since 2015 Poland has not participated in any new enhanced cooperation. No attempt was made to join the new ones (European Public Prosecutor’s Office, recognition of divorce and separation documents). During this period, Poland also did not join any of the previously initiated forms of enhanced cooperation.

In 2017, the government joined the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which brings together all EU countries except for Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom. In 2019, as part of defence cooperation, Poland participated in 10 projects, while France in 31, Italy in 25, Germany in 16, and Spain in 24. This shows Poland’s position among countries of medium potential – Czechia participates in 9, Hungary in 10, and Slovakia in 6 PESCO projects (out of 47 possible). Moreover, Czechia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania have been leading at least one of the projects since 2018. The first project with Poland as a leader was accepted only in November 2019 (The Military Medical Training Center).

Et alors?

The European elections have also accelerated the marginalization of PiS politicians in the European Parliament. The PiS MEPs are with the ECR. This it the sixth largest political group. Before the elections, the ECR was the third force in Parliament. A sanitary cordon against the PiS candidates was applied during the election of the leaders of the new European Parliament: the PiS candidates for the chairmanship of the employment committee (EMPL) and for the vice president of the Parliament failed in voting.

Today’s Poland is at one of the last places in the EU in terms of commitment to European integration and is not particularly interested in deepening the EU in new areas. Thus – standing still – Poland is moving away from other European countries.

The weakening of Poland’s position is not insignificant. The Polish success is the success of the most important European integration process of the 21st century: the unification of Eastern and Western Europe. The Polish failures are a symbol of the failure for the entire region.

This blog post is a translation and adaptation of the Gazeta Wyborcza article of 28-29 December 2019 as well as the a chapter of the book “Priorities of the New European Commission and the Polish Interests” published last month (Warsaw 2019).

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