Turning its back on Europe: de-Europeanisation of Polish foreign policy

The idea behind the Common Foreign and Security Policy is simple: together, European states matter more in global politics and have a much greater weight than each of them separately. This is especially applicable to states like Poland or the Baltics, who had considered its NATO and EU membership as ‘return to Europe’ and a guarantee that they would not be cast again into someone else’s zone of dominance. Yet, since the 2015 elections we have been observing a gradual ‘de-Europeanisation’ of Poland’s foreign policy.


By Dr Karolina Pomorska, Assistant Professor, Maastricht University

The idea behind the Common Foreign and Security Policy is simple: together, European states matter more in global politics and have a much greater weight than each of them separately. This is especially applicable to states like Poland or the Baltics, who had considered its NATO and EU membership as ‘return to Europe’ and a guarantee that they would not be cast again into someone else’s zone of dominance.

Yet, since the 2015 elections we have been observing a gradual ‘de-Europeanisation’ of Poland’s foreign policy. First, the EU flag was removed from the briefing room of the Prime Minster and from the Presidential Palace, two highly symbolic gestures. Later, Polish PM argued in front of the European Parliament that Poland was ‘a sovereign country and a free nation’. This was echoed on many occasions by Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, who emphasized that Poland was ‘regaining its subjectivity in International Relations’ and in favour of ‘Europe of free nations and equal states’. He warned the EU officials that they should not ‘rape Polish interests’ and accused them of a hostile attitude and even fraud. Poland’s Representative to the European Union, an experienced diplomat, was recalled to Warsaw. While putting one’s nationals in key positions was always considered a good way of ‘uploading’ one’s beliefs and interests to the European level, the government is seriously considering withdrawing support for Donald Tusk as the European Council President.

How can we make sense of this change in discourse and in attitude? Is Poland turning its back on Europe?

Poland became an active and constructive member state, successfully promoting its project of Eastern Partnership.

It is astonishing how quickly Poland found its place in CFSP after joining the EU in 2004. But the beginnings were difficult. Many diplomats asked whether Poland was just moving ‘from Moscow to Brussels’. I remember one key official telling me that there were ‘great mental barriers’ in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that CFSP was often treated as something ‘alien’. Observers feared that Poland would not fit in and become a ‘Trojan donkey’ of the United States in the system of European defence.

This did not happen. Poland became an active and constructive member state, successfully promoting its project of Eastern Partnership. One of the first signs was Poland’s engagement in the ‘Orange revolution’ in Ukraine, when it acted through European channels, later followed by a good presidency and initiatives. Taking into account what the partners from the EU thought became a reflex in the decision-making process. It was taken for granted that Poland had more to win, rather than lose, by actively participating in CFSP. The Weimar Triangle (Poland, Germany, France), even if at times difficult, became a very useful tool of coordination.

So, what has happened?

In short: domestic populist politics happened. This is not to say that foreign policy was not subjected to the developments on domestic arena earlier, but in Poland there had been a broad consensus on the European orientation. Besides, it was believed that people did not vote on foreign policy. With PiS winning the elections in 2015, the move towards greater Europeanisation of foreign policy and ‘pooled sovereignty’ was suddenly seen on a collision course with the domestic agenda and rhetoric.

Poland’s ‘subjectivity’ and sovereignty have been portrayed (again) as opposed to Brussels and its officials, attempting to exert influence on Polish foreign policy.

One reason for this was of course the European Commission’s pursuit of the ‘rule of law’, which put the government in an uncomfortable situation. And here we come to the issue of sovereignty. The Foreign Minister said recently: 'we are quite a large state in Europe, we have interests of our own and demand that they be realised'. Poland’s ‘subjectivity’ and sovereignty have been portrayed (again) as opposed to Brussels and its officials, attempting to exert influence on Polish foreign policy. The idea that sovereignty is not compatible with international agreements or membership in international organizations is not unique for Poland. It is a popular belief in Trump’s White House (especially among people like Steve Bannon) and was repeatedly enlisted in the Brexit debate, too.

We have been witnessing the progressive ‘domestication’ of foreign policy, which was instrumentally used in internal domestic politics and in party-games. Nearly everything that is said publically (whether in the European Parliament or during an official visit to a third state) is aimed at domestic audience (mainly PiS electorate) rather than at the external partners. This may be confusing for the partners. Polish government officials emphasize that Poland is an independent and a large country, signaling national pride. This fits well into the domestic discourse. At the same time, there is a feeling of injustice and even contempt about being somehow cheated, not listened to and marginalized, all blamed on the previous governments. Mixed together, the result is a foreign policy that was summarized under a catchy headline of ‘getting up from one’s knees’.

We have been witnessing the progressive ‘domestication’ of foreign policy, which was instrumentally used in internal domestic politics and in party-games.

This opens up many questions for the future for those of us interested in the interplay of the EU level and the national foreign policy and the way in which certain norms ‘travel’ between both. Are the lessons in European cooperation and consensus-building ‘unlearnt’ or is the knowledge and practice institutionalized enough to survive the temporary setback? If Brussels is understood, or/and portrayed, as ‘them’, is this an understanding shared by a broader diplomatic community? Finally, how do we approach the study of foreign policy if it is so intertwined with the domestic populist politics?

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