The Polish Presidency in the Visegrad Group (PL V4 PRES) started on 1 July 2016. With Warsaw’s year at the helm of the Central-European grouping, many questions arose. The new government led by the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) redesigned the European policy of Poland. The domestic changes initiated by PiS have eventually led to an unintentional conflict with the European Commission and the European Parliament over the state of the rule of law in Poland. Moreover, Polish officials have repeatedly expressed their intention to focus on regional cooperation and assert that the Visegrad Group is at the centre of their attention. But the question is, how much can Warsaw rely on its Central European partners?
Law and Justice’s vision of CE
The broader region of Central and Eastern Europe has gained special attention among (PiS) policy-makers. Polish foreign policy has been traditionally determined by the East-West axis. Post-1989 Poland regarded the West as a source of inspiration, whereas the East was perceived as a source of concern or even as a threat. Central European policy has existed in parallel to this axis. Poland has definitely made its contribution over past the 25 years to the development of the Visegrad Group and broader cooperation in the region has played a substantial role in the foreign-policy of President Lech Kaczyński (2005-2010). However, the Visegrad Group has always occupied a secondary position in Polish foreign policy.
The Law and Justice government has founded on enhancing cooperation within the region. Firstly, special attention was paid to Central Europe at the PiS programme convention. The panel on foreign policy, which assembled most of the party’s foreign-policy thinkers including current foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, revolved around enhanced Central-European cooperation.1 Later, Andrzej Duda, shortly after assuming the office of President of Poland, spoke about the idea of a bloc of countries stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black Seas in the south.2 As he presented the idea, it immediately brought back to mind the concept of Intermarium developed by the leader of interwar Poland Józef Piłsudski. At that time, the plan to resist German and Russian influence in the region did not work because of mutual mistrust among the young nations.
In January 2016 in his annual foreign ministerial speech, Witold Waszczykowski underlined the need for a more active cooperation in the region and particularly within the Visegrad Group.3 In his article in the Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung, Waszczykowski promised to bring a new dynamic into to the Visegrad Group cooperation and again stressed the regional dimension of Polish foreign policy connecting the three seas – Black, Baltic and Adriatic.4
Still, it remains doubtful which countries should be covered by this format. The core would be comprised of the Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary), Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) along with Romania and Bulgaria. The link to the Adriatic Sea should be provided by Croatia and Slovenia. In fact, the group overlaps with the countries of EU eastern enlargements of 2004, 2007 and 2013. These countries and also Austria attended the first formal meeting at the Three Seas Forum organized by Croatia in Dubrovnik in August 2016.
The scope is more or less clear, yet not much has been said about the content of this new Central-European cooperation. Likewise, it is not known what Warsaw actually wants to achieve in the region and what kind of offer it has for its partners, in particular in the EU and NATO context.
Most of the foreign policy of the new Polish government is marked by a continuation of previous developments. Warsaw aims at enhancing forward presence of NATO in Eastern Europe, is suspicious of Russia, supports the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine and longs for close ties with Washington. However, there is also an important aspect of discontinuity in its European policy. PiS believes that deeper EU integration as well as further imitation and incorporation of West-European cultural patterns is harmful for the country’s development. In the view of the most influential PiS members including Jarosław Kaczyński himself, current EU trends endanger Polish sovereignty, national culture and economic modernization. Moreover, PiS looks at the European integration through the lens of the neo-realist theory of International Relations. EU institutions tend to be seen only as instruments and channels of influence of big and rich member states, which want to impose their rules over Poland.5
In order to overcome this peripheral and subordinate position, Poland needs to counter Western Europe. PiS’s ideal model is a poly-centric EU where peripheries balance dominance out the Franco-German core. In order to achieve this, it needs allies in Central Europe among which to build a strong and cohesive coalition. Ideally, the coalition would have been backed by the United Kingdom, another peripheral member state. However, this vision had to be abandoned after the referendum in the United Kingdom.
Such an alliance is quite a new element in Polish national-conservative foreign policy. Manifestos of PiS or its predecessor – the Kaczyński led Centre Agreement Party of the 1990’s – were suspicious of far-reaching European integration and Germany, but they did not entail a vision of a broader cooperation in the region.
In this sense the role of Central and Eastern Europe is mainly instrumental in enforcing Polish interests: balancing Western Europe, retarding EU integration and retaining sovereignty. In cultural terms, it is intended to protect the national identity and traditional conservative values from their further erosion under the pressure of globalization.
However, Warsaw’s self-centred strategy for the broader region is based on false expectations. Almost nobody desires to be dragged into a clash with Brussels or Berlin rooted in Polish domestic politics. While Poland and Hungary currently share the vision of national development based on a sharp cultural distinctiveness from Western Europe, other Central and Eastern European countries see the future in the continuation of the European integration and westernization of societies and economies. The East-West divide on the approach to migration which hit the EU in 2015-2016 is perceived as an unwelcome issue, not as an unavoidable ideological battle to be won. That is why the concept of Baltic-Adriatic-Black Sea alliance alarms many policy-makers in Prague or Bratislava. They do not wish to be part of any consistent alliance against Chancellor Merkel.
Polish leaders will either realize this or they will find it out if their quarrel with the European Commission over the Constitutional Court is to continue and intensify. The regional support for Warsaw has its limits. If the Commission’s investigation into the deterioration of the rule of law in Poland ends up with it voting according to Article 7 of the Treaty, only Hungary is likely to back Kaczyński’s Poland. All other countries will not want to damage their own credibility in front of Berlin, Brussels and other EU partners.
Nevertheless, the Polish plan for the broader region is not based only on false ideology and self-centred needs. Warsaw wants to give a fresh impetus to several policy initiatives which are actually neither new nor controversial. On the contrary, through non-ideological and much needed projects, they could bind the region together. Nevertheless, the Polish management of these issues has led only to limited success.
The first initiative concerns the enhanced and persistent presence of NATO in the region. The group of countries was formed upon a Polish-Romanian initiative and met on the heads of states level in November 2015 in Bucharest. During the NATO Warsaw Summit, the future direction of the Alliance was determined. The initiative has so far been supported by all participating nations. However, some countries have been hesitating whether to contribute to the four brigades, which should according to the decision taken in Warsaw guard Poland and the three Baltic countries.
The second policy issue is the EU’s migration crisis. In this regard, several Central and Eastern European countries already form a bloc against binding relocation quotas and emphasize the protection of Schengen borders. The Visegrad Group in particular is unlikely to alter its hard-line policy so the Polish view receives partners’ support. However, this is nothing novel and the European discussion on relocation quotas ceased to be the most important part of the common EU solution of the refugee crisis. The main issue is now the feasibility of the EU-Turkey deal.
The third package involves several projects related to the development of infrastructure. Poland has argued for the improvement of the energy infrastructure in the region. As the new LNG terminal in Polish Świnoujście was opened last year, Warsaw has been expected to lobby for new interconnections in Central Europe on the north-south axis. This is not a novel idea at all, since such initiatives have been part of the cooperation in the Visegrad Group and broader region since 2009. Surprisingly, Poland put new constraints on the realization of the STORK II pipeline between the Czech Republic and Poland. The principle argument behind this act was that STORK II would contribute to bringing more Russian gas into Central Europe. Poland is still developing its new energy security policy and lacks any offer to the broader region. Apart from reiterating rejection of the Nord Stream II project, the region does not have any new common policy towards enhancing energy security and Poland is doing little to change this.
Apart from energy infrastructure, Poland is also concerned about poor north-south transport interconnectedness in Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw therefore is pushing forward the Via Carpathia project – a road interconnection stretching from Klaipeda in Lithuania through Eastern Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria down to Thessaloniki in Greece. The Polish aim is to get the road on the EU’s TEN-T core network list to receive substantial EU funding.6 The Via Carpathia initiative has to be seen as an opportunity to reinvigorate the connections of Visegrad High Level Working Group on Transport, which should by March 2017 provide a joint list of projects to be realized in the next EU Budgetary Financial Framework.7
Poland is also pushing forward a new EU Macro-Regional Strategy for the Carpathian Region, which should help with the cohesive development of this mountain area. A pet-project of some Law and Justice politicians, including the Marshal of the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament) Marek Kuchciński, will not cause harm to the Visegrad Group, but Poland will have to persuade partners about its added value. As much of the Carpathian Macro-Regional Strategy would overlap with the Carpathian Convention area, potential participating countries need to be aware of the benefits of the new project. Otherwise, it would make more sense to include south-eastern parts of Poland in the EU Strategy for the Danube Region which already covers all other estimated areas.
The above listed infrastructural and regional-development projects are closely connected to another priority area of the PL V4 PRES – the EU budget. The mid-term budget review will start soon and negotiations on the post-2020 shape of EU cohesion and agricultural policies will follow . The stakes are very high for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe and a strong alliance of countries with well-defined interests will be needed. The result of the United Kingdom referendum has brought a new dynamic into this process. The insistence on raising issues of socio-economic convergence voiced by the V4 leaders in the months after the referendum should be understood as a well-chosen form of preparation for the next budgetary debate.
The perspective of PiS on international, European and regional politics is the view of a party which has been isolated from the main European debates over the last eight years. Of course, regional partners have to tell the new Polish leadership that they object to its vision of Europe and the role Central Europe is supposed to play in it. But by the same token, they have to underline that important sectoral initiatives can only succeed if Poland tempers down its conflicting language vis-à-vis the European institutions and if it has a clear offer. Unfortunately, the management of the issue by Poland has been poor in many aspects so far and it was the Croatian President who took up the initiative for regional cooperation. Unless Poland is able to fine-tune its contradictory European and Central-European policies, the Intermarium will remain a pipe-dream.
The text is partially based on the policy paper “Understanding New Polish Intermarium: Trap or Triumph for the Visegrad Group?“, which was published in June 2016 by the Association for International Affairs (AMO) and is downloadable from bit.ly/1r50UN1.
1 Myśląc Polska: Konwencja Programowa Prawa i Sprawiedliwości oraz zjeodnczonej prawicy, p.78-87. http://pis.org.pl/media/download/8ca7395d19e772c16152240faa6b437a9d62212d.pdf.
2 Sojusz państw od Bałtyku po Morze Czarne? Duda chce odnowić międzywojenną ideę miedzymorza. http://forsal.pl/artykuly/886941,sojusz-panstw-od-baltyku-po-morze-czarne-duda-chce-odnowic-miedzywojenna-idee-miedzymorza.html
3 W. Waszczykowski. Informacja Ministra Spraw Zagranicznych na temat polityki zagranicznej Rządu RP w 2016 r. http://www.rp.pl/Rzad-PiS/160129236-Pelna-tresc-expose-Witolda-Waszczykowskiego.html#ap-4
4 W. Waszczykowski. Dziś i jutro integracji europejskiej- spojrzenie z Warszawy. http://centrumprasowe.pap.pl/cp/pl/news/info/51532,33,msz-minister-witold-waszczykowski-w-faz-dzis-i-jutro-integracji-europejskiej-spojrzenie-z-warszawy-(
5 A. Balcer, P. Buras, G. Gromadzki, E. Smolar. Jaka zmiana? Założenia i perspektywy polityki
zagranicznej rządu PiS. http://www.batory.org.pl/upload/files/Programy%20operacyjne/Otwarta%20Europa/Jaka%20zmiana%20w%20polityce%20zagranicznej.pdf
6 Iran zainteresowany Via Carpathią. Polska poszukuje unijnego finansowania. https://biznesalert.pl/iran-zainteresowany-via-carpathia-polska-poszukuje-unijnego-finansowania/
7 Memorandum of Understanding concerning the Roadmap for Determining the Future Development of the Transport Networks of the Visegrad Group Countries. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2014/memorandum-of
oszukuje unijnego finansowania. https://biznesalert.pl/iran-zainteresowany-via-carpathia-polska-poszukuje-unijnego-finansowania/ (dostęp na 12.12.2017)
 [online] Memorandum of Understanding concerning the Roadmap for Determining the Future Development of the Transport Networks of the Visegrad Group Countries. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2014/memorandum-of (dostęp na 12.12.2017)