A call for pragmatism of the Polish foreign policy

By Valentin Stoian | 17 February 2011

To quote this document: Valentin Stoian, “A call for pragmatism of the Polish foreign policy”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 17 February 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1020, displayed on 09 August 2022

The Polish foreign policy has recently had a good press in the mainstream media. A series of published articles (including The Economist and Financial Times) describe a fundamental change in the perception of Poland and its policies. A departure from the times of romantic passions, often marked by russophobia, disorganization and pettiness, which have been associated with the government of the Kaczynski brothers (formed by their party Law and Justice, ‘Prawo i Sprawiedliwość’) is repeatedly mentioned. What has happened? What will be the consequences of such a change? This article aims to assess these changes it the context of the European politics.

From Romanticism to Pragmatism

From an international point of view, the Polish foreign policy has become more pragmatic and open. As a consequence, some authors suggest that Poland is slowly losing its status of the ‘new member state’ and has been included among the ‘heavyweight players in Europe’, similarly to France or Germany. These changes have been accentuated by a recent redefinition of the priorities of the Polish foreign policy.

For the previous Law and Justice governments, the United States was the most important Polish ally. However, the government of Donald Tusk, has set America aside and the European Union became the most important forum for the Polish foreign policy. This change was due to the lack of tangible benefits from the preferential relations with Washington (the failed missions in Afghanistan and Iraq have not strengthened the Polish position nor in major economic contracts for Polish companies). Other disappointments include the lack of implementation of the offset agreement that was supposed to help in modernization of the Polish army and economy; and the withdrawal of Americans from the proposal to place missile shield on the Polish territory. To cap it all, Poles still face a tough visa regime when traveling to the U.S. despite their unquestioned involvement into US-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Positive opinions about Poland are largely due to its economic success. As the only European Union country, Poland has maintained economic growth at 1.7% rate in 2009 and tops the growth table in 2010 with buoyant 3.5%. Poland was therefore called the ‘green island’ on the map of Europe. Additionally, a new approach to the most important Polish neighbours, introduced by the government of Donald Tusk, has resulted in significant improvement of relations with Germany. The progress is evidenced not only by gestures, such as the initiative of Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, who made Warsaw his first official destination, but also by specific policy initiatives. For example, minister Westerwelle with his Polish counterpart, Radosław Sikorski, tried to convince the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko not to intervene against manifestations in the presidential elections in Belarus in December 2010. Unfortunately, they did not impede Belarusian authorities from skewing and falsifying the vote. The reported abuses highlighted limits of the impact and the effectiveness of such initiatives. However, despite its defeat on the streets of Minsk a joint German-Polish cooperation should be seen as a novelty and a step in the positive direction. Similar interactions are also continued at lower levels, experts from the Polish Foreign Ministry hold internships in its German counterpart and vice versa.

Despite the catastrophe in Smolensk, in which the Polish President and 95 high rank officials were killed, and despite political quarrels over the outcome of investigation of the crash, the relations with Russia have also been warming. This trend correlates positively with the growing position of Poland in the EU. This situation has been achieved mostly because of less confrontational attitude of Polish politicians to their European partners. It seems that the Polish political leaders have understood that Poland could be safe only because of its strong position in the EU.

The new approach marks a closure of a period of the prevalence of romantic affects towards Europe and indicates a commencement of the attempts to conduct a more pragmatic policy. This change is also recognized by the Russian Federation. Moscow has realized that better relations with the EU are not possible without an agreement with Warsaw. Warm relations with Brussels and the support of the EU member states in issues of an utmost importance for Russia, like its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), constitute vital interests of the Kremlin and can seriously influence its internal economic situation. The attempt to benefit from a recently discovered interdependence of Poland and Russia, was the first in last 10 years official visit of the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev to Warsaw. Although the visit had mostly a diplomatic character, the gradual warming of bilateral relations and the commencement of works at expert level on issues such as: coordination of radio spectrum or navigation on the Vistula Lagoon is expected to be continued (the Polish port Elbląg is blocked from the open sea – Polish ships are not allowed to cross the Strait of Baltiysk, which belongs to Russia).

The flip side of the coin: risks of the Polish strategy

This evolution of the image of Polish foreign policy is a very positive development and proves good direction of changes. This strategy, however, bears some risks.

The pertinent and significant disparities between the biggest EU economies such as Germany or France, and Poland mean that the Polish politicians have to punch above their weight. Until the size of their economies is comparable, the relations between these states and Poland will remain asymmetrical. Poland may benefit more from these relationships than Germany or France. Attempts to revive cooperation forums, such as the Weimar Triangle, will not become a success unless Poland will not be able to bring an added value, as new possibilities that neither Germany nor France would not be able to achieve individually.

Regrettably for the Polish politicians, the repeated mantra of the Polish bridge between East and West Europe may not materialize. Despite the centuries-old economic, social and political ties Poland still does not have a significant impact on the countries of the region. The success of the Orange Revolution in 2004 in Ukraine, which was broadly supported by the Polish authorities, seems to be the only achievement in this field. Unfortunately, limited resources allocated by Poland to its relations with these countries, and the lack of any strategy towards them (as shown by dispute over Georgia between Tusk’s government and the late president Kaczyński), and above all, unfavorable development of internal situation in these countries (Ukraine and the complete damage of the Orange Revolution’s acquis) has weakened the importance of Poland.

There are, however, initiatives that deserve a praise: the Eastern Partnership, which seeks to promote European interests of the eastern Polish neighbours at the political level, along with projects aimed at strengthening of the social interactions between societies: limiting or liberalizing the tight visa regime, opening of the Polish labor market and funding scholarships in Poland for students from these countries.



Worsening relations with Central European countries

The possible Polish impact on countries of the region that are already member states of the EU is even more difficult to achieve due to the lack of clear benefits, which can be offered by the Polish government. In addition, while relations with Germany and Russia tend to improve, relationships with partners from Central and Eastern Europe are visibly cooling. Relations with Lithuania have been the worst in a decade. Most of the discrepancies concern the common history and ethnic relations, i.e. the rights of the Polish minority in Lithuania (including spelling of the Polish names) and economic issues (the oil refinery in Mazeikai). Lithuania, however, accuses Poland of imperialism and meddling in the internal affairs of the country.

Political relations with the Czech Republic are also not the best, despite the lack of clear ideological or economic disputes. It seems that in contrast to the late president Kaczynski, the ruling Civic Platform differs from the Czech president Vaclav Klaus in the understanding of such fundamental issues as the nature of the EU or the definition of the interests of nation states in the Community. Diplomats directly working in the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) have complained that in addition to official visits by prime minister Tusk and his declarations of commitment to this forum, it is increasingly difficult to encourage the participation of Polish representatives in the development of regional projects, such as the interconnection of energy grids. A clear reduction in the rank of this group is evidenced by the fact that during the meetings of the ministers of the Visegrad Group, Poland is usually represented at the level of deputy minister or undersecretary of state.

Why is Poland neglecting Eastern Europe?

It seems that the neglect of Central and Eastern Europe by Poland may result from several factors.

First is the ‘lack of attractiveness’ of the Central European partners. Poland behaves like a nouveau riche at the high class reception. Attracted by glamour and splendor, Poland is not paying attention to those standing in the corner, less elegant colleagues, with whom it has been invited to this reception. All countries in the region have been severely affected by the global economic crisis. Most of them were forced to endure drastic budget cuts, which led among others to big spending cuts on the foreign and defense policy. Though the situation of the Polish army and diplomacy is becoming increasingly difficult, Poland still remains the exception. Poland is one of the few countries in the region whose military expenditures fluctuate around a NATO-recommended level of 2% GDP per year, whereas Hungary and Slovakia spend less than 1%.

The second reason lies in the adoption of the mentality of ‘major player’ in foreign policy. Poland devotes its attention and resources adequately to countries' capacities. This largely rational strategy results in a situation where Polish diplomats are more focused on Germany, than for example on the Czech Republic. This method of thinking is reinforced further by more and more popular concept according to which the existing divisions between east and west of Europe are finished. Differences revealed by the crisis exposed a new division: reckless and wasteful south vs thrifty and responsible north. Observed detachment from Central and Eastern Europe may be the result of conscious attempts to distance Poland from the ‘worse’ part of the continent, which largely consists of traditional allies of Warsaw. Hence the fact that Poland is adamant in stressing its ‘northern’ identity rather than its ‘eastern’ legacy.

This natural instinct to play among the stronger players may, however, bear its negative side. Despite its growing position, Poland does not have access to the all the main platforms of development of the modern European politics. Remaining outside the euro area, Poland will be excluded from the most important debate in Europe in 2011 – the discussion on the future of the European currency. Moreover, even in cases where Poland is formally involved, its impact on the policies of other countries is still limited. Examples can be multiplied: Polish government failed to block the Nord Stream pipeline, Poland did not participate in the summit of France - Germany - Russia in the city of Deauville in October 2010, where the European security was debated, despite the fact that Warsaw has been trying for years to convince its partners not to carry out these subjects without its participation.

How to improve the Polish foreign policy

Therefore, it seems that the Polish foreign policy should be redefined, so that the Polish position grows not only on paper, but brings tangible results and leads to the final acceptance of Poland among the European premier league players. Otherwise, one must be prepared for the situation in which Poland may get stuck in the so-called no man's land. Unable to break through, Poland will not be counted among the major European powers and on the other hand, the relations with smaller countries in the region would weaken. This negative trend should be reversed.

Maintaining good relations with the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe is facilitated by the decision-making procedures in the EU. The multilevel structure of the Community (Commission, Council, Parliament) and the multistage arrangements of their positions (the comitology procedure, the Council working groups) require technical and constantly changing alliances, often at the working level, in order to settle specific cases. Past practice indicates that the proposals made jointly or those having the support of several member states, may have greater chance to become a legislative act. The similarities of the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe are not confined to their proximity or common history. This familiarity is due mainly to the similarity of the economies and the resulting proximity of interests.

Particularly in the context of the upcoming Polish Presidency of the EU (and the current Presidency of Hungary) a political force to enhance technical arrangements is required in order to coordinate at the expert level areas such as the energy security, the development of transport and telecommunications infrastructure, and especially before the upcoming negotiations of the long-term EU financial perspective. In all these areas the Polish government has natural allies. With their support and expertise, with the assistance of their votes in the Council of the EU and benefiting from an increased political pressure Poland could act as true a leader in this part of Europe. With the support of others, Warsaw would be able to counterbalance proposals the old member states, which are not always favourable to this region.

Making the most of the EU: boosting lobbying capacities

Such coordination should be easy enough as the new member states are still learning and are constantly testing the capacity to influence the decision-making process in the European institutions. Lobbying by the new member states is difficult, because it requires unified supportive block consisting of lobbying pressure groups, experts from the new members states and the dense network of contacts at each stage of the European legislation. Unfortunately, the interests of the new countries in Brussels do not have adequate clout. Building a support group requires considerable funding and time. National quotas in the institutions for the new member states have still not been filled, and worse, most of experts from the new member states working for the EU institutions are stuck at the bottom of the hierarchy. Poland has two times less officials in the EU in relation to comparable Spain. At the same time, Poland, as the sixth largest EU country has only one of 37 positions of the Directors General of the European Commission - the number of senior officials should reflect the size of the country.

In accordance with the art of lobbying in the EU, the promotion of one’s interests should be done through:

  • lobbying institutions at the earliest stage of decision-making process (the Commission's public consultation, the comitology procedure);
  • avoiding presenting one’s own proposals as a particular initiative, underlining paneuropean character of a dossier and providing the support of the largest number of member states;
  • taking care of the greatest value of the proposal.

Accordingly, it would be necessary to build such mechanisms and procedures aiming at the exchange of information, so that it would be possible to increase the impact of the Central and Eastern Europe on the EU's decision-making process. The existing cooperation fora such as the Visegrad Group, should be redefined. Their functions and duties ought to be analyzed and the feasibility of establishing a new consultative body at the level of individual ministries should be contemplated. The Visegrad debating club should change to the open forum for other countries. The forum for sectoral arrangements among interested member states, which would be able to actively shape the decision-making process in the EU. Of course, the variable nature of technical arrangements requires the structure that can be the most flexible and open to other countries, without geographical limitations. In order to play the role of the regional leader, Poland should initiate the abovementioned changes.

Therefore, despite the naturally growing Polish ambitions, it is in its vital interests to conduct a pragmatic foreign policy. This is particularly necessarily in the context of the EU, which is indisputably the most important international policy forum for Poland. The Polish government should extend its far reaching vision of the foreign policy and aim high in defining its goals. On the other hand, however, it should be careful not to trip over local problems in its own disordered backyard. More effective cooperation in the region of the Central and Eastern Europe can grant greater willingness of Paris or Berlin to seek the cooperation with Warsaw.


Martin Krasuski has graduated from the College of Europe, currently works for the Polish public administration in the field of the European integration. His interests include: the history of Central and Eastern Europe, political situation in the Nordic countries and the impact of new technologies on political life.

The article was originally published in Polish by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation on 13 January 2011. This translation was provided by the author.

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