Wojciech Przybylski is editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of the Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw.
WARSAW — Poland’s presidential election on Sunday marked a major victory for the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. And, although PiS’s agenda has put it on a collision course with Brussels in the past, it may also be good news for the EU-Polish relationship.
Following Andrzej Duda’s victory on Sunday, the PiS government will want to stick to its guns and double down on some aspects of its domestic agenda before the next election in 2023. That includes its push to remake the judicial branch, take over the media landscape, centralize power at the expense of local autonomy and gag civil society. The guiding principle is clear: to choke off the possibility of a challenger from the right, including from the ultra-nationalist Konfederacja party, which is making gains in the polls.
But this is also a turning point for Poland, and the government remains vulnerable in several key ways: its reliance on EU money, its need for strategic alliances when it comes to its security and its desire to boost its image on the European and international stage.
To advance its strategic interests in those areas, PiS is likely to be in the mood to compromise.
The Polish government needs the EU cash cow now more than ever.
Instead of an occasion to escalate past disputes, Duda’s reelection is therefore an opportunity for the EU and Warsaw to reset a rocky relationship.
For Brussels, it’s a moment to recognize that the old approach hasn’t worked. PiS will pursue its agenda no matter what — and it has the potential to act as a spoiler to EU plans, so it is in Brussels’ interest to bring the Polish government on board as much as possible, even as it keeps insisting on EU values.
The first area for potential cooperation will be the economy: The Polish government needs the EU cash cow now more than ever.
The ruling party’s core electoral base is made up in large part of pensioners, farmers and the unemployed — all of whom are extremely vulnerable to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The state of Poland’s public finances has gone from bad to worse as the lockdown ground the economy to a halt. To get this moving again, the government needs to create new spending schemes, but it’s running out of money to spend.
To help release the funds of EU’s new investment schemes — which are tied up in thorny negotiations over the next long-term budget — the Polish government is likely to accept aspects of the EU’s green agenda that it previously resisted.
It is also likely to accept pressure on the rule of law through existing mechanisms — including monetary penalties for not implementing decisions by the EU’s top court — rather than give the green light to new proposals for “conditionality” that would tie the distribution of new EU money to rule of law adherence. (Warsaw sees these new rules as a fig leaf for an effort by the so-called frugal four to impose stricter conditions on how EU money is spent.)
Warsaw has already embraced the EU’s ideas for new sources of own revenues, including a crackdown on tax havens, a digital tax, a financial transactions tax and a carbon border tax. PiS knows that supporting the EU on these policies will mean it can claim credit for helping to resolve the EU’s most pressing stand-off and accelerate the release of much-awaited money.
Of course, this economic dependence is not a one-way relationship. During the crisis, Poland overtook France in the volume of its exports to Germany, for example. It is also in the EU’s interest to keep Poland’s economy ticking and to work with Warsaw to solve disputes over the budget and spending schemes. This is an obvious potential win-win situation for both sides.
The second area where the EU is likely to find a willing partner in Warsaw — and an opportunity to reset the relationship — is security.
Along with NATO, the EU has a strong role to play in mitigating Eastern Europe’s security concerns. For example, if Brussels were to take a strong stand against German pressure to complete the Nord Stream 2 project, a major source of insecurity for Poland under any government, that would send a positive signal to Warsaw.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, security also means the effective delivery and distribution of health resources and financial assistance — policies that will be key to boosting support for the EU across the bloc, especially with more Euroskeptic governments such as Poland’s. This is a key way the EU can constructively shore up its relationship with Warsaw.
The third area where the EU is likely to find helpful inroads with the PiS led government is in helping Warsaw shore up its image by acknowledging some of its successes and shifting the narrative.
During the campaign, PiS made a number of appeals to restore “dignity” to Poland. In its more radical iteration, this took the form of an indigestible mix of nationalism and bigotry. Those values may not be compatible with the EU’s — but that does not mean that communication should be cut off or that Warsaw’s goals are incompatible with the bloc’s.
The EU could learn something from the approach of opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski, who came closer than anyone else in defeating Poland’s illiberal government: He acknowledged that PiS’s policies respond to real concerns expressed by the Polish population, even if he disagreed with the party’s approach more broadly.
Instead of continually bashing Poland for its missteps, Brussels may want to try some reverse psychology: Praise Poland’s government for what it has done well — its efforts to eradicate poverty, for example, and the economic policies that have boosted the bloc’s prosperity.
That does not mean it should stop hitting Poland hard when it comes to concerns over the rule of law or the use of EU funds. But with PiS set to be in power at least until 2023, Brussels should seize the opportunity to show it is willing to engage with Poland constructively as well.
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