Poland and the Common Security and Defence Policy

By Tita Aver | 17 August 2011

To quote this document: Tita Aver, “Poland and the Common Security and Defence Policy”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 17 August 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1132, displayed on 02 April 2023

July 2011 marked the beginning of the Polish presidency of the European Union. Strenghtening the CSDP is one of the targets put forward. However, already during its accession process to the EU, Poland has been keen on getting involved in the transformation of the European Security and Defence Policy and has continued to do so since it became a member. Nonetheless, one must not forget the weight NATO and the USA have in the Polish Army.

The accession process

Poland did not wait to join the EU to become active in the formation of European security policies. Indeed, it took part in the formulation of the European Security Strategy and also the security part of the defunct European Constitution. 2004 heightened Poland’s engagement in plans such as the 2010 Headline Goal, creating Battlegroups, encouraging European Defence Agency activities, taking part in international military operations…

With its 100 000 men strong army, Poland makes the largest contribution to European military capacities among the new members of the 2004 enlargement wave. Logistics-wise, it came with numerous navy, land and air forces equipment such as tanks, helicopters, jet fighters and attack aircrafts, submarines...

Poland as a member

Since the 2004 EU enlargement, the European institutions and policies have mutated due to the integration of new members. The importance of national sovereignty was reinvigorated as it was a crucial element of the security policies of the Central and East European EU member states. In addition, an emphasis was laid on the significance of continuing to enlarge the EU, to further encompass states such as Romania and Bulgaria. East European states have also traditionally had a powerful pro-American streak, believing that the US remains vital to European security.

Poland also faced and still faces a dilemma regarding which affiliation to follow. Polish political elites are pondering whether to affiliate more to the Americans or rather to the “Old Europe”. However, such a choice is not a genuine obligation for Poland. Certainly, this claim could be justified in the 1990s and in the early 2000s. One can indeed recall the episode of the War in Iraq and Jacques Chirac’s anger against pro-American future members, which “had lost a good opportunity to stay quiet”. Poland was then regarded as an American proxy or Trojan horse. Nevertheless, this should no longer be an existing worry. European capitals have evolved and become more Atlanticist – especially France with the election of President Sarkozy.

Moreover, one must also not forget the still existing but softening perception that insecurity comes from the East, that is from Russia. Consequently, Poland has been at the forefront of an invigoration of the EU’s Eastern Policy, close to Poland’s vital interests. Even so, the Polish political elite still has difficulties picturing itself within a strong EU. As a result, the question of which security organisation to prioritise (between NATO and the EU) looms in and pops up again. NATO occupies a place of predilection in the security structure of Poland. Even though one can consider that there has been a slight shift in perceptions, the Alliance remains a subject of main concern. This was also caused by the fact that Polish high commanders distrusted the ESDP as it could undermine NATO. As a matter of fact, they felt more reassured under the umbrella of an organisation dominated by the United States. Nonetheless, Poland could not afford to hurt its image among the EU states so had to maintain an engaged stance within the ESDP reform process, but never at the expense of NATO superior strength.

However, what Polish military strategists probably have not grasped yet is that a choice between the two is not indispensable. Even though there are undeniably parts of their activities where they overlap, the Alliance and the CSDP manage to progressively reduce their areas of duplication, thus giving more responsibilities to the EU. For instance, the 2010 Headline Goal or the Rapid Reaction Forces increase the European operational capacities. In addition, the EU has with its CFSP given more liberty to its members. Now, member states can get involved in EU operations on a case by case basis, following a “Coalition of the willing” pattern.  In addition, the US has in a way given its green light for a strengthening of the EU defence pillar. While the US was originally concerned about a possible weakening of NATO due to the development of an autonomous European defence policy, it was reassured by EU Member States’ desire to ensure complementarity between CSDP and the Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, burden-sharing is an important argument to convince the Americans of the need for a stronger European defence policy. The United States is now engaged in numerous battles and can no longer devote as many capabilities to European defence. Therefore, it grants Europe more “autonomy” and encourages a departure from a solely European “soft power”.

This environment demonstrates once again that Poland (due to its larger size among the new members but also on the whole within the EU) could more easily take a leading role in the launch of a new Common security and defence policy. And indeed, this prediction revealed itself to be true as could be observed during the EU accession process. Already in 2006, it was foreboded that Poland would assume a major position in the possible reform or strengthening of the European security policy.

Nonetheless, the plans are not met by sufficient measures. Indeed, military spending in the new member states is still too low (below 2% of GDP) and does not suffice to fulfil European defence needs. In addition, the CSDP does not require a strong commitment (from a technology and human perspective) from the new members. Here, Poland can be seen as an exception, considering it is slightly more involved in European defence activities, contributing to police and rescue units and sending off battalions in the framework of the European Rapid Reaction Force.

The 2011 Polish presidency of the Council of the European Union

In the programme of the Polish presidency, Poland clearly states that in order to have an EU with “a well-established position in the world”, the latter needs to develop its CSDP to counterbalance its already more active “soft power” branch. To facilitate the implementation of this project, Poland recommends an improvement of operations structures, taking into account the civilian and military character of European armed forces. It is not Poland’s wish to exclude NATO from these discussions as Poland sees the Atlantic Organisation as the first pillar of its security policy, with the EU only coming second. This further shows the importance classical security represents for Poland as there is an unequivocal penchant for NATO as a security actor on the European stage.

As a result, it is important for Poland to not duplicate activities between the two organisations but rather to find a middle-ground so as to have complementary pursuits. Cooperation and close relations between the two are therefore highly sought after.

The Weimar initiatives

Alongside the Presidency’s priorities, Poland’s initiatives within the framework of the Weimar Triangle also need to be mentioned. Indeed, this loose grouping represents the opportunity for the three countries – Poland, France and Germany – to launch pioneer proposals and act as promoters of further integration in military and security issues. The relative exclusive relationship between France and Britain in the field of defence was, until recently, actually considered as an obstacle to a Polish involvement. The Weimar Triangle therefore appears for Poland as an interesting forum for playing a more active role in the EU. The three countries sent a joint letter on December 6th 2010 to Catherine Ashton which became known as the “Weimar initiative” and asked for a renewed commitment to the development of CSDP. Built on the proposals that were made in this letter, a report was presented by the High Representative on July 11th. Several measures were envisaged in order to improve the European defence policy, such as the increased sharing of defence capabilities, the establishment of a permanent civil-military planning cell, more operational engagement and an improvement of EU/NATO relations.


When the current economic crisis in the EU lessens, there will be a range of new opportunities for the EU to become a stronger actor in world politics and security. One can hope that the Polish EU presidency will be used wisely and much energy will be devoted to achieving the goals set in its programme. The European Union has much to gain from achieving a position as a security actor on the European and global stages. Evidently, duplication with activities already in the realm of NATO must be avoided. Finally, the question as to what role the United States must play in European security deserves further scrutiny.

For his help and advice, the author would like to thank Jakub Korejba, MGIMO student specialised in the foreign policies of post-communist states.

Illustration : Muzeum im. Przypkowskich w Jędrzejowie by PolandMFA on Flickr