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03 November 2015

EPIN: Awkward partner once again? Repercussions for Europe of Poland’s elections

A clear majority of Poles voted have brought the national-conservative Law and Justice Party back to power. The implications of these elections for relations with Germany and France, and for Poland’s own EU policy, are a source of concern for the EU and European cohesion.

Poland has gained importance as one of the EU’s main players but the risk of confrontation over its new leader’s Euroscepticism is plausible. But despite the enduring and important influence of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a new generation of leaders has emerged within a Law and Justice Party (PiS) that is less anti-EU and less anti-German. Furthermore, in contrast to feelings in some southern member states, Germany’s current leadership is mostly regarded positively in Poland (and not only by the former Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski). It is thus far from certain that a new PiS leadership would try to capitalise on any direct confrontation with Germany, but it does not go without saying that it will pursue the PO’s strategy of trying to increase national power through a close alliance with Germany.

As a member of the European Conservative and Reformist Party (ECR), along with the British Conservatives, the PiS vehemently questions the EU’s current development and further integration projects but nevertheless supports the idea of European cooperation. Does this same partisan affiliation imply possible common interests with the UK’s re-evaluation of its relationship with the EU and the forthcoming British referendum? Poland’s change of government may in fact not change much on this issue. Unlike the United Kingdom, Poland does not favour treaty change due to the risk of being isolated and ending up with a less advantageous deal. A new negotiation may indeed lead to a deeper distinction between eurozone and non-eurozone countries and thus marginalise Poland. Until now Poland has managed to prevent a clear separation between the two zones, thanks to its intermediary status of ‘pre-In’ and its contractual perspective to adopt the euro when it is ready. This at least allows Poland a seat at the table, even if it cannot take part in the decisions. The nomination of Donald Tusk as President of the eurozone summits, despite the fact that he is a national of a noneurozone country, was already a sign of openness regarding this intra-EU frontier.

On this particular issue of the adoption of the euro by Poland, the PiS victory also portends another backlash. The PiS strongly opposes adoption of the euro and Beata Szydlo, the expected incoming Prime Minister, promised to start by deleting the post of negotiator for Poland’s euro accession. This will be another step but by no means a radical change, as the PO was already delaying any prospect of adopting the euro until further notice.

Economically, the PiS is in fact more leftist than the PO in that it advocates a strong state that has to intervene (or even nationalise) in order to defend national interests, while it is politically more to the right on cultural and social issues. The PiS indeed used to be known for its conservative and authoritarian values, with religious undertones. Such a state-centric tendency can be observed in several other European countries, notably in the current success of the Front National in France or the arrival on the German political scene of eurosceptic movement like the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). [...]

These two live issues – refugees and the climate negotiations - will be serious challenges for relations between the new Polish government and its European partners. The troublesome partner Europe once knew will most probably not be back in quite the same way, but nevertheless a strong player with nationalistic concerns has surely to be expected. Even though the Polish elections did not focus on EU issues they highlighted some of the fundamental concerns facing the EU, such as being able to sell, politically, the benefits of European integration; of narrowing the gap between Western and Eastern member states; and, more urgently, of finding a solution to the refugees crisis and its unforeseen consequences.

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© EPIN - European Policy Institutes Network

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