Poland’s sovereigntist backlash has put it in a peculiar position. On the one hand, Poland’s reaction to proposals to make the EU more flexible was negative, with foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski commenting that putting flexible integration on the table was “a recipe for failure, division and separation” and that such proposals may give rise to “hegemonic” solutions that would leave behind any countries that do not fully integrate. On the other hand before there was a political debate about a ‘flexible Europe’. Polish politicians were much less critical about the prospect. In fact, Warsaw maintained that the EU cannot function according to the principle of ‘one size fits all’. Instead, the Polish view was that the EU needs to allow member states to integrate as much as they want while allowing those who do not want to integrate further to preserve the full benefits of integration.
The idea of advocating flexible ‘opt-out’ mechanisms resembled a ‘Europe à la carte’ in which each country can pick and choose cooperation formats that best suit their interests. But this has never been a viable option. Indeed, Poland faces a dilemma in its European policy: it wants to benefit from the single market and cohesion fund but is not ready to participate in integration projects that constitute the foundations of real solidarity and cooperation. When it comes to the single currency, migration policy, defence policy, or social policy – all areas where forms of enhanced cooperation among groups of member states may come into being – Poland’s government and society share a high level of scepticism, if they do not openly oppose them. If the future of the EU is based upon such coalitions of the willing, Poland’s approach will come to be more and more at odds with the EU’s direction. Brexit makes this dilemma even more significant because, without the UK, the ability of the non-eurozone countries to influence the direction of EU integration will be more limited still. The Polish position that the “EU needs to accept that it is not a one-currency union” will be very difficult to credibly uphold to the important member states in the eurozone.
It will require a lot of political courage for Poland’s government to redefine the country’s national interests in line with the development of the EU. But it might be one of the only things Poland can do to move away from the collision course it is currently on.
It is not clear whether the PiS government has the political courage or will to change tack. Indeed, it is not clear that the idea of an ambitious and responsible Poland, which is willing to compromise and make difficult choices within the EU, would receive strong public support. Even though approximately 84 percent of Poland’s public is in favour of EU membership, support is often shallow and rarely extends beyond membership of the single market to support for more integration. What is more, the national-conservative rhetoric of PiS does resonate positively with a large and politically active segment of society.
Poland needs to legitimise the idea that it is deeply anchored in a changing EU. But that will not be possible unless it upholds the rule of law and protects its democratic institutions. New and more ambitious EU integration projects are on the table, in the realms of security, migration, and the eurozone, but Poland will be powerless to shape them if it continues to de-Europeanise. The prospect of Poland leaving the EU is not in sight yet, but the PiS government needs to be careful. If it continues to drift away from Europe, it may be the EU that leaves Poland behind, not the other way around, as it embarks on ever greater integration initiatives. But this time, without its eastern partner.
Head of ECFR Warsaw Office