MOscow’s invasion of Ukraine was a pivotal moment for Poland: proof positive it had been right about Russia all along, and the start of an immense national humanitarian effort. For its government, it is also an opportunity to score some points in Brussels.
Poland has “never had such an excellent brand, all over the world”, its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared last week. It is “in the right position in international politics”, he said, no longer behind a “wall of unfair isolation”. The US president, Joe Biden, is due to visit the country on Friday.
Mired in a bitter seven-year standoff with the EU over democratic backsliding and the rule of law, the government in Warsaw – whose populist brand of national-conservatism has also strained relations with Washington – now hopes the fallout from Vladimir Putin’s war will finally oblige the pad to cut it some slack.
In particular, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, whose popularity is on the rise again after sliding for 18 months, wants Brussels to unlock €36bn (£30bn) in pandemic recovery funds blocked over concerns about whether Warsaw can guarantee it will spend EU money properly because of its politicized judiciary.
But while the Polish government is clearly seeking to capitalize on the country’s newfound good-guy status – and may well win some short-term favor – Warsaw’s longer-term conflict with the EU is unlikely to disappear, analysts say.
“PiS may be saying: ‘Look, there’s a real dictator out there, waging a real war – that’s all that matters and that’s what we should all be concentrating on right now,’” said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex.
“But at some stage there will be a negotiated peace, or the war will sink into one of attrition and fall out of the spotlight. More normal patterns will summarize. And the underlying causes of Poland’s rule-of-law dispute with the EU are not going away.”
Scarred by centuries of Russian aggression and occupation culminating in nearly half a century of communist dictatorship, Poland has long warned the EU of the threat from Moscow, especially since the time of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.
The nationalist PiS-led government’s constant recent rowing with Brussels, its culture-war attacks on LGBTQ+ people and abortion rights and its bridge-building with anti-EU, pro-Putin figures such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen may have slightly muddied the picture.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was nonetheless a historic “we told you so” moment for Poland, said Ben Stanley, a political scientist at the SWPS University in Warsaw. It meant Warsaw could try to position itself as “the capital that had been warning this would happen” for years.
As Putin’s aggression shifted the EU’s center of gravity eastward, the crisis “creates an opportunity for Poland to stake a claim to being a regional leader”, Stanley said. “It’s determined to show itself as taking the lead in persuading a reluctant West to take tougher action; stiffening resolves in a very public way.”
Morawiecki’s visit to the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, after the invasion was seen by many as instrumental in Germany’s about-turn on arms shipments, defense spending, and financial sanctions. The visit by Morawiecki and the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, this month to embattled Kyiv “on behalf of the EU”, alongside the Czech and Slovenian prime ministers, underscored the strategy.
Poland has also been tougher than any other EU member state on sanctions in calling for a total embargo on all trade with Russia. It also proposed a Nato peacekeeping force in Ukraine, and stepped up to become the main transit point for western shipments of arms, munitions and military equipment to Ukraine.
The country’s immense humanitarian effort – albeit widely acknowledged as more due to the extraordinary generosity and mobilization of civil society than to central government – in taking in more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees is also being touted by some politicians as grounds for EU leniency.
A recent poll for Oko.press showed 66% of Poles wanted the government to accept EU rule of law rules and end its dispute with Brussels – including nearly one in three PiS voters. But 56% also said the funds should now be released without conditions, bolstering a potential PiS narrative that Poland should get the money with no strings attached because it has welcomed so many refugees.
“There’s a strategy to emotionally blackmail the EU into taking a softer line,” said Stanley. “An attempt to refashion the discourse, to say: ‘We’re trying to deal with real problems; you’re just hindering us with all this rule-of-law stuff.’”
Szczerbiak said PiS had long pursued a twin-track strategy towards the EU of accepting inevitable conflict over rule-of-law and culture-war issues, while at the same time insisting Poland was being a “positive, constructive EU member” on the subjects that really matters.
“In a sense, the war has actually reinforced that discourse,” he said. “It means Warsaw can say: ‘OK, so there’s a lot we disagree on. But on the really important stuff, look what good Europeans we are.’ It means there’s now huge pressure on both sides to de-escalate.”
Some in Brussels believe Poland, which has put the cost of welcoming refugees from Ukraine at €2.2bn this year alone, could ask for special compensation, perhaps similar to the deal the EU struck with Turkey after the 2015 refugee crisis.
But EU officials also say the Polish government now has a bigger opportunity to close long-festering disputes with Brussels over the rule of law which have led to €1m daily fines and the freezing of the country’s pandemic recovery fund.
Warsaw’s plan for the fund could be approved within weeks, EU officials say, if Poland moves ahead with a promise to abolish the disciplinary tribunal of the supreme court, a system of political control that violates EU law.
Danuta Hübner, an MEP for the centre-right opposition Civic Platform party and former EU commissioner, said she was proud of Polish civil society’s refugee effort but accused the government of being “entirely absent”.
She said Poland needed the recovery funds “as quickly as possible” but still had a long way to go to unlock them. Abuse of the rule of law was “ongoing”, she said, adding that the commission should approve the plan only if Poland’s supreme court was properly reformed.
Robert Biedroń, a centre-left opposition MEP, said it would be outrageous if the commission defied “the mainstream and the will of the citizens of the county”, as well as the European parliament, by not sticking to conditions to release the funds.
He said he would “fight very hard” for EU funds for refugee support, but warned against releasing other EU money without ensuring Warsaw rolls back recent changes to the court system that undermine judicial independence. “The rule of law cannot be another victim of this war,” he said. “How would we explain the difference between us and Putin if we don’t respect the rule of law?”
Ultimately, said Andrzej Bobińnski and Wojciech Szacki of the Polityka Insight thinktankthe war could be “a cathartic moment” for Poland’s political class – but it was still “too early to tell if this means a U-turn for Poland back toward the liberal west”.
Some PiS politicians may want peace with Brussels, they argued, others insist the war shows precisely how “the west was wrong, how it needs Poland, and how Poland now has the upper hand in security, humanitarian, and European issues”.
PiS would certainly not hesitate to exploit any EU reluctance to pay up, Stanley said – especially once the enormous future cost of housing, educating and employing 2 million refugees becomes a political reality.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism