Poland’s new ultra-nationalist government is sharpening the European Union’s internal problems. Just as EU leaders are warning that the bloc is in danger of collapse from internal tensions, the ascendant Eurosceptic Poles are pushing contradictions to the limits. In an attempt to ease the EU strain, the US-led NATO alliance is being called upon to mollify Poland’s anti-EU government. However, in mitigating the EU’s «Poland problem», the consequence will mean more NATO aggression towards Russia.
When Poland’s new President Andrzej Duda was received in Brussels this week there was a palpable sense of strained relations with the 28-member EU bloc. The EU announced that it was going ahead with a formal inquiry into fresh laws enacted earlier this month by the ruling Justice and Law (PiS) party. The party came to power in Polish elections last October on a platform of anti-EU rhetoric and socially conservative policies, propelled by Poland’s largely Catholic electorate.
The new Polish laws in question allow Duda’s government to sack or appoint senior managers of the country’s publicly owned media networks and also to weaken the constitutional court. The latter is seen as a move towards giving the ruling party more power to enact its brand of conservative policies. The EU formal probe into Poland’s new laws will determine if they contravene the bloc’s «democratic standards». More Brussels-Warsaw confrontation is on the way.
As Deutsche Welle commented: «Many EU member states see the changes in Poland as reflecting a return to nationalist, anti-EU sentiment in the bloc’s new eastern European members».
Duda’s Justice and Law party is firmly against joining the Euro single currency; and it wants more autonomy for Warsaw to set its own economic policies, such as raising taxes on bank assets. Poland is ditching the pro-EU stance that was the hallmark of previous Warsaw governments ever since the country joined the bloc in 2004. That’s a big concern for Brussels.
The new Warsaw administration is also averse to the influx of immigrants from outside Europe. Justice and Law party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has infuriated liberal sensibilities in Brussels with testy anti-immigrant statements. He has said, according to a Reuters report, that Muslim refugees would not be welcome because they «threaten Poland’s Catholic way of life».
Such anti-immigrant views have rankled the German government of Angela Merkel. Berlin was formerly close to Warsaw as an EU partner. But the harder Polish line towards refugee-intake is causing consternation in Berlin, partly because it means Germany being more burdened with its erstwhile open-door policy.
Moreover, Poland’s strident anti-immigrant policy serves to embolden other central and eastern European member states in their reluctance to take in refugees. Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Slovenia are vexed that they are feeling the brunt from the more than one million refugees to have entered the EU this past year alone, largely from the conflict zones of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Representing one of the largest EU countries, Poland’s Justice and Law government adds more political gravitas to the anti-immigrant ranks.
But the EU problems stirred up by Warsaw are bigger than the narrow issue of migration. In challenging Brussels’ centralized economic policies and laws, in favor of more nationalist-oriented interests, Warsaw is piling on more Eurosceptic pressure to challenge the entire EU project. Eurosceptic parties, both on the political right and left, are soaring across Europe, from Britain to Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden on top of the fractious eastern EU members.
Poland and other eastern European countries pose an acute threat to the Brussels establishment and aligned governments in Paris and Berlin. Because these dissident states are more militant in pursuing their national interests – and in particular on the issue of non-EU migrants. Both European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk issued dire warnings in the past week that if free movement is undermined by member states closing borders then the whole EU structure is in danger of collapsing.
Added to this challenge is that the Polish Justice and Law government is now openly flouting EU central rule of law with its new media and judicial legislation. This bold dissent from Brussels authority by Warsaw will no doubt galvanize other like-minded European parties to follow suit in asserting their national interests against centralized edicts from the European Commission.
From Russia’s point of view, it is arguable that instability, uncertainty and incoherence within the EU might be construed as an advantage for Moscow.
For one thing, such instability undermines the EU’s blanket adoption of US-led economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Several EU countries have already expressed disquiet over the sanctions policy on account of the damage to their own economies from the severance of business ties with Russia. The more fractious the bloc becomes over internal matters the less cohesive it is on implementing anti-Russian sanctions.
So, on one hand, from a Russian perspective, the rise of Eurosceptic parties is to be welcomed.
However, Poland is a case of double trouble. This is because the coming to power of the Justice and Law party will mean a more aggressive NATO policy in Eastern Europe towards Russia.
Poland has shown itself to be fervently pro-NATO since the end of the Cold War. And anti-Soviet sentiments are of course a big axe to grind within Poland even before the new ultra-nationalist government.
But the Justice and Law party takes NATO cheerleading to new heights, as well as the mantra of alleged Russian aggression to Europe.
While President Duda was in Brussels this week it was significant that he also called at the NATO headquarters in the Belgian capital, greeted by the military alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
Duda made an explicit appeal to NATO for more troops, weapons and «infrastructure» to be permanently based on Polish soil.
The Polish president said at a joint press conference: «Today, everything points to the need to have substantial presence of both infrastructure and military units on the ground in central European countries, as well as a well worked-out system for these units and defense should there be any act of [Russian] aggression… That means increasing presence in central-eastern Europe, both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization… I would want it to be permanent to the greatest extent possible».
Stoltenberg gave a receptive response to what would constitute a serious escalation of NATO firepower pointed at Russia.
«NATO now has a persistent military presence in the region, of which Poland is part. And I trust that after the Warsaw summit [set to take place in July] we would see more NATO in Poland than ever before», added Stoltenberg.
Getting back to Poland’s internal trouble for the EU, the Financial Times this week reported in brief but significant words: «The [new Polish] media and judicial measures have sparked criticism from national leaders in Europe and prompted calls for the Obama administration to intervene».
We thus plausibly surmise the following: the EU establishment in Brussels and its main national supporter in Berlin are deeply concerned by Poland’s anti-European administration and how it is fueling more dissent within the bloc. Warsaw is adding unbearable pressure on an already acutely pressurized EU. But this Warsaw government is also rabidly pro-NATO and anti-Russian. Therein lies a release valve for Brussels.
What the Financial Times clip above reveals is that the EU establishment is calling on the Obama administration to mediate with its troublesome surrogate in Warsaw. That inevitably means that President Duda’s request will be met by the Americans for more NATO troops, tanks, missiles and warplanes to be permanently stationed in Poland and other pro-NATO states in the Baltic, Romania and Bulgaria. That escalation entails a dramatically greater aggressive posture towards Russia on NATO’s eastern flank.
In exchange, Brussels seems to be betting on NATO favors taking the anti-EU sting out of Warsaw.
In other words, the EU’s problem with an uppity Poland is being solved by indulging Warsaw through NATO. But in trying to solve its internal problems, as manifest in Poland, the EU is shifting the trouble on to its external relations with Russia.