The first week in office of the new Polish government seems to indicate that the worst concerns about the country’s potential ‘Orbanisation’ might even have been overly optimistic. Despite initial commentaries cautioning against alarmism the new government has so far managed to make Poles wake up to drastic political manoeuvres on an almost daily basis. The presidential pardon of an abuse of power conviction for the former head of the anti-corruption agency chief pending appeal to allow him to coordinate Poland’s secret services, and the attempts to appoint new judges to the constitutional court, are unprecedented.
In the realm of European and foreign policy there were similar calming assessments that no major changes to foreign policy are to be expected. However, while unlike on the domestic arena there have been no drastic actions taken, both rhetoric and symbolism seem to herald the return of the awkward EU partner Poland was perceived to be during Law and Justice’s previous term in office between 2005 and 2007. Poland’s agenda has already been at loggerheads with the EU mainstream on many issues, like its foot-dragging on climate change, its reluctance to asylum seeker relocation and its acute distrust towards Moscow. Therefore, the first signals coming out of Warsaw following the changing of the guard signify a deeper shift in the perception of European integration with potentially far-reaching consequences.
In a move that reverberated across Europe, the new Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, removed EU flags from her official press conference venue. She argued in support of the move that she will be talking about Polish government business at press conferences and thus there should only be Polish flags. If genuine, this argumentation reveals a rather shallow understanding of EU membership. But even if it is just a symbolic gesture to boost the government’s patriotic credentials, it has nevertheless been perceived in major European capitals as a snub to Brussels and as evidence for ‘a touch of Hungary in Warsaw.’ More disturbing was the new PM’s view on the current migrant crisis expressed in her first parliamentary speech outlining her government’s programme. Szydło stated that Poland stands behind the concept of EU solidarity but will not be burdened with what she presented as self-created migration problems of Western and Southern European countries. She referred to attempts of exporting these problems to other countries, like Poland, which have not contributed to these problems’ existence.
Timothy Garton Ash recently praised the European Union as ‘the world’s most effective exercise in political socialisation.’ Such assumptions have been challenged in the past, however, and the current reactions to the migrant crisis seem to confirm pessimism in this area. One has to face up to the reality that the pro-European course of the previous government has simply been motivated by the perception of being more helpful to secure Polish interests, rather than resulting from high flying European ideals. Now that Poland has started to incur costs of EU membership, the interest based nature of its relationship to the Union has become evident. In the current climate, there is even less hope for socialisation to affect the new foreign policy-makers in Warsaw in the near future. The recent remarks by Italian PM Matteo Renzi suggest that Poland’s new government might learn the hard way that one cannot only reap the benefits of EU membership at the expense of others and then refuse to contribute when others need help.
During Law and Justice’s previous term in power such messages have had little effect and provoked responses like the late President Lech Kaczyński calculating the costs of wartime destruction to Warsaw to demonstrate Europe’s, particularly Germany’s, debt to Poland.
This allows Poland to take the comfortable position of the eternal victim and to reject any uncomfortable contributions to joint European endeavours while trying to guilt-trip the Germans into concessions. This approach was not particularly successful between 2005 and 2007 and appears to be even less promising now.
This rationalist approach towards the EU and the absence of socialisation could result in substantial consequences. It is widely expected that Poland will become a net-payer in the EU’s post-2020 multi-annual financial framework. This has led to speculations within Poland that the national-conservative government might actually consider leaving the Union should this prediction materialise. On the one hand, it seems hardly imaginable that the country with one of most pro-European populations might actually consider such a move and thus be alarmist and overly pessimistic. On the other hand, however, the new government’s statements so far suggest that it sees EU membership not so much as a committed relationship but rather as friends with benefits, which could get complicated and awkward once the benefits part stops.