Only someone who has lived in Poland and dealt extensively with Poles could hope to understand the current political battle involving the Polish government and the election of Poland’s former president, Donald Tusk, as president of the European Council. I cannot find a case in which a member of the European Union fought has so hard against the election of one of its own citizens to the influential position of EU Council President. It is considered a great honor both for the individual and the country he or she represents. However, Tusk was elected EU president on March 9 despite opposition from his own government.
Poland is currently governed by the Law and Justice Party, an extremely conservative party by European standards. Indeed, the Polish Foreign Ministry took the unprecedented step of nominating Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a member of parliament from Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform Party, for EU President. The ministry considered Tusk “a German candidate.”
Anti-German sentiment remains strong in parts of Poland. Also, notably, Poland has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the EU’s resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees as required by Brussels. Warsaw strongly believes that Poland should remain Polish and that its national identity should not be diluted by a mixture of other nationalities, especially those from the Middle East. Polish money should be spent on Poles.
Also worth noting is lingering tension between Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party. Kaczynski resents the fact that Tusk was president of Poland at the time that Kaczynski’s twin brother was a casualty of an airplane crash in Russia that killed top Polish military and political officials. There is no proof that Tusk was involved, but Kaczynski blames Tusk because he was head of state at the time. Kaczynski appears to have gone even further, reportedly telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he might issue a European arrest warrant for Tusk because of his supposed involvement in the incident.
Poland is expert at mixing internal and external policies, especially in this case, as Foreign Minister Witold Waszcykowski has launched vicious verbal attacks on Tusk. In January, Waszcykowski described Tusk as “the icon of evil and stupidity.” A couple of weeks later he claimed that the “absurd” Tusk was “behaving grotesquely, ignoring his own government.”
In addition to personal differences. Poland under Kaczynski is fighting with the EU over a number of other issues, such as how much autonomy each state should have. Poland has always argued for more autonomy than the EU wants to allow. The country fears the EU will place restrictions on the rights of Poles in this heavily Catholic country. In essence, the Poles seem to agree on the need for further integration in security and defense; that is about all they are interested in. As for other state decisions, Poland will make them itself. The EU argues that the reforms Poland is considering, especially those concerning the media, pose “a strategic risk” to the EU itself.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Poland’s foreign policy is often the loser in such dust-ups. For example, the country’s attacks on Tusk only weaken Warsaw’s clout in Europe. Tusk is popular among European bureaucrats and politicians. As EU president, he has done an excellent job spreading the sense among European
officials that chaos reigns in Poland’s leadership. No one knows what the government thinks. Why pay much attention to it?
Yet while EU members might like to ignore Poland, the fact is that it is one of the largest countries in Europe.
At Tusk’s election as EU president, Poland was the only one of 28 EU members to vote against him. For most members, this would have been catastrophic. For Poland, however, it was normal politics.
From the beginning of the summit, Kaczynski brought up the German “devil.” Besides, claiming that Tusk was “Germany’s candidate,” Poland’s foreign minister spoke of a “Diktat aus Berlin” (A Dictate from Berlin), adding “Now we know, that Berlin gives the EU its tone.” From the standpoint of the other 27 countries, the high level meeting constituted a warning for Poland. The EU has begun to talk about sanctioning Poland and perhaps temporarily suspending its voting power because of its “independent” approach.
With Brexit on the horizon and Poland playing an independent role inside the EU, Europe could soon face even more disagreement and chaos.
Only one thing is true, as they say in Polish: “Poland remains Poland.”
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy captain.