Polish foreign policy 2015-2017
On 25 October 2015, elections were held for the Polish Sejm and Senate, which led to an independent majority in the Sejm of a coalition, the core of which is comprised by the political party Law and Justice (PiS).
On 16 November of that same year, Prime Minister Beata Szydło, elected by said majority, was sworn in. At this point, we are mid-way through the parliamentary term. It is a good moment to review the Republic of Poland’s diplomatic activities over the course of the last two years. Evaluating the work of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have to bear in mind that said ministry is not the only thing that shapes Polish foreign policy. This area is also influenced by President Andrzej Duda as well as the Sejm and Senate – the latter by means of adopting resolutions and declarations as well as foreign activity by members of parliament. However, the constitution dictates that the ministers are responsible before parliament and controlled by the same, not the other way around. Minority and immigration issues, the reaction to incidents within the territory of Poland, military cooperation, etc. are in turn the responsibility of other departments (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration, Ministry of Defence), though they influence international relations and, therefore, the working conditions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The starting point for Polish foreign policy in 2015 was very weak. The Republic under the PO – PSL (Platforma Obywatelska – Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [Civic Platform – Polish People's Party]) governments, after breaking the promise of solidarity with the Visegrád Group, in the matter of a joint stance on the immigration crisis, was isolated within the region. Relations with Ukraine in 2008 were systematically cooled due to the recognition of Kosovo and the warming of relations with Russia during the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute. In 2014, these relations were defined by the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski, who encouraged Maidan to capitulate, and Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz suggesting the approach of “staying home with the children.” Polish-Russian diplomatic relations were defined by submissiveness after the Smolensk disaster, symbolised by the “lecture” by Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov during the annual deliberations of Polish ambassadors (2.09.2010); later, however, relations were defined by the principle of “not stepping out of line” amid Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbass. The situation with Russia was further clarified by cooperation with the Military Intelligence Service with the FSB (previously the KGB) on the basis of a secret agreement since 2010, extended by a further agreement in 2013.
Communication with Lithuania was suspended. Minister Sikorski, shy towards the superpower, demonstrated his power towards Vilnius, but instead of resolving disputes affecting Polish-Lithuanian relations, he merely offered criticism. His inept attempt to improve relations with Belarus were accompanied by the delivery to the Belarusian authorities by the Polish prosecutor's office of compromising documents concerning Belarusian oppositionist Ales Bialiatski in 2012. As a result, he was sentenced to 4.5 years imprisonment. The Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw (29-30.09.2011) was ignored by the leaders of every major EU country, with the exception of Chancellor Merkel and the outgoing Spanish Prime Minister José Luisa Zapatero. At the end of the summit, every country included in the partnership refused to sign the final resolution prepared by Polish diplomacy.
Poland’s position within the EU was made clear by the refusal, under pressure from France at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 (as part of negotiations of the European Fiscal Compact), to grant Poland a place as a permanent observer at Eurogroup summits, despite former prime minister Donald Tusk's allocation of EUR 6.27 billion to the stabilisation fund, as well as the refusal to invite Poland to take part in talks at the “Ukrainian table” at the ASEM summit in Milan (16-17.10.2014), despite minister Grzegorz Schetyna’s public declaration of Poland's attendance. The lack of consultation with Warsaw upon the signing of the French-Russian Mistral contract (2010) and the German-Russian contract for the construction by Rheinmetall of a Combat Training Centre in Mulino (June 2011), not to mention the Nord Stream 2 project and the failure to take into account Polish requests in terms of energy and climate policy, further weakened Poland’s weak position within the Weimar Triangle. Minister Sikorski’s sabotage of talks about the American missile defence system in Poland (refusal to ratify the previously signed agreement, later protested by the current head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) for many years highlighted the lack of a US military presence in our country. Reiteration of Germany’s criticism of the French-British operation and later the NATO operation in Libya was a break from the tradition of basing security policy on strong relations with the US. Passivity in the international arena was accompanied by the unravelling of the network of Polish diplomatic representatives. Under the PO–PSL governments, 39 Polish embassies and general consulates were decommissioned.
The electoral victory of the united right-wing parties led by PiS in October 2015 brought about profound change in terms of Polish foreign policy. This change also involved a personnel change - the head of Polish foreign policy, but it also occurred at a moment of dramatic “acceleration of the course of history,” the likes of which we have not encountered since 1989-1991 - the fall of the Soviet bloc, followed by the Soviet Union itself. The takeover of the reins of government by PiS saw the appointment of a new Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Gregorz Schetyna was replaced by Dr Witold Waszczykowski - a career diplomat serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992 as, among other roles, Poland's vice-representative to NATO, ambassador in Tehran (1999-2002) and secretary of state (2005-2008). Between 2008 and 2010, he was deputy head of the National Security Bureau, and in the years 2011-2015 vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland and delegate to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In terms of personnel changes within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were legal/procedural difficulties that were time-consuming to overcome. This stage is now generally behind us. Public opinion reacts most strongly to ambassador nominations, and here we are dealing with a series of doubtlessly very well-made decisions. The very highly regarded Professor Piotr Wilczek was posted at a key branch in Washington, while the long-time supervisor of the Klub Jagielloński in Krakow and the Polski Ośrodek Naukowy in London – Professor Arkady Rzegocki – was posted in Britain’s capital, Jan Piekło – former director of PAUCI (Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative) in Kyiv, Ursula Doroszewska – former oppositionist during the communist rule of the Polish People’s Republic and former Polish ambassador to Georgia – in Lithuania, and Professor Piotr Ostaszewski – an eminent expert of US history and the countries of Asia and the Pacific – in South Korea.
The circumstances of Poland’s activity in the international arena have deteriorated dramatically since 2014, and the new management of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has faced challenges that are unprecedented after 1989. This concerns several areas simultaneously: the development of events in Poland’s immediate vicinity (Russian aggression in Ukraine), the situation in the EU (Brexit and France’s intention to build a “small Europe” made up of the countries that founded the European Economic Community, in essence cancelling out the expansion from 2004), the challenges in the Mediterranean Basin (from the immigration crisis to earthquakes in Turkey and Spain), transatlantic relations (adversely affected by Brexit and anti-Trumpism), the situation surrounding North Korea as well as the attack of the EU’s mainstream left on the conservative Polish government inspired by total opposition. Despite the sad legacy of the PO-PSL governments in terms of Poland’s position in Europe and the world as well as the exceptionally unfavourable international circumstances since 2014, the Republic of Poland’s foreign policy in the last two years has seen a series of successes.
Since 2015, there has been a political consolidation of NATO’s Eastern Flank in the form of the so-called Bucharest Nine (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary). The NATO summit in Warsaw accepted the Nine’s calls for military reinforcement of Poland and the Baltic countries, and its decisions are currently being implemented. As a result, the aforementioned countries were awarded the same security status as the “senior” NATO member states. The summit was accompanied by the Warsaw declaration of EU-NATO cooperation.
In the last two years, there has been a consolidation and reinforcement of our position within the EU as a lobby group as well as a growth of among the Visegrád Group in terms of immigration policy. The Polish-Croatian action commenced in 2015 aimed at benefiting infrastructural cooperation in terms of transport and energy, known as the Three Seas Initiative, includes 12 countries from our region. President Macron’s attempt in August of last year to dismantle this initiative was unsuccessful, and his arguments were rejected in Romania and Czech Republic as well as Bulgaria. In terms of infrastructural initiatives, the President of the Republic of Poland and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened Poland to China as potentially its largest investor and largest market outside the EU. Poland has an opportunity to assume the role of a hub (main distribution centre) for Chinese exports to Europe under the Chinese initiative “One Belt, One Road” (the so-called “New Silk Road”), beating competition in this area from Germany and Belarus.
These regional successes were accompanied by conflict with the core of the old European Union. While Poland lost the conflict surrounding the appointment of Donald Tusk as head of the European Council, in terms of overall losses and gains, it could be said to have won. It ought to be taken into account that a result of 28:0 – i.e. a situation in which the Republic would accept the right of third countries to decide who is to be the Polish candidate for this position, would be proof of Warsaw’s disempowerment. Such agreement would simultaneously mean taking on “a debt of gratitude,” as the election of a Pole to the position of chair of the European Council would be presented as a concession to Poland, in return for which Poland’s support would be demanded in other matters. In addition, Tusk’s anti-Trump tirades would be held against Poland, forcing Warsaw to repeatedly distance itself from them or to pay the price in terms of its relations with the US. The result of the conflict in Brussels gave the opposition the opportunity to highlight Poland’s alleged isolation in the international arena, but this assessment by the opponents of the current government rings false in light of the progressing intensification of Warsaw’s international contacts. What’s more, on 2 June 2017 Poland was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, with a voting result of 190:0 and 2 abstentions. This was possible thanks to the intensive work of Polish diplomacy (70 foreign visits, including ministerial visits, made in relation to the matter in 2016 and a further 16 up until 2 June 2017 as well as 100 visits from foreign diplomats to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
The latest success of Polish diplomacy was the very effective preparation for the visit of President Donald Trump to Warsaw. The visit was a triumph for Polish foreign policy in terms of military security and energy, at the regional level and of course in terms of image. It was preceded by the formation of close ties between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the new US administration, which was demonstrated in the talks between head of Polish diplomacy Witold Waszczykowski and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This success was heavily contributed to by Poland’s refusal to participate in the hysterical and extremely unprofessional diplomatic reaction of the Western European political class to the election of Trump as President of the United States. This allowed during the US President’s visit for the attainment of his support for the idea of the Three Seas Initiative. The balanced position of Poland toward Turkish domestic problems and the appreciation of the meaning of our interests in close ties between Turkey and NATO and the West, as well as care for security in the region of the Black Sea were expressed during the four-sided meeting (25 August 2017) between the heads of Polish - Witold Waszczykowski –, Turkish – Mevlut Cavusoglu – and Romanian – Teodor Melescan – diplomacy with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Considering the meaning of these contacts, it ought to be remembered that Turkey has the largest military of any European NATO member state and is located between integral regions: its neighbour across the Black Sea – Ukraine, Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans; Romania, meanwhile, is Poland’s strategic partner on NATO’s Eastern Flank, a co-founder of the Bucharest Nine and one of the pillars of the Three Seas Initiative.
Despite significant differences of opinion with Germany on the matter of energy, climate and historical policy as well as disputes surrounding attempts to interfere in Polish domestic affairs, diplomatic relations between the two countries have improved. On 29 August 2016, Waszczykowski gave a lecture in Berlin at the annual conference of German ambassadors, after which he attended a similar conference for Hungarian ambassadors in Budapest - a drastic contrast with the situation where Sergey Lavrov spoke at the annual conference for Polish ambassadors. For Germany, the Polish market is twice the size of the Russian market, and the result of the September elections in Germany is a reason to hope for a new deal in mutual relations, based on the gradual equalisation of certain differences, e.g. in Germany’s support of the French idea to divide the EU into two speeds with an institutional-treaty separation of the Eurozone as the first speed. Relations with Great Britain are developing exceedingly well, and meetings on a ‘Quadriga’ basis (between the ministers for foreign affairs and ministers for defence of both countries), which took part in January 2016 in Edinburgh and in October 2017 in London, as well as inter-governmental consultations planned for December 2017 between both parties in Warsaw attest to the dynamic nature of these relations.
Polish foreign policy toward the east, neglected in the years 2008-2015, was again made a primary area of focus for the Republic. This is a result of both the nature of the challenges, i.e. the Russian threat, aptly assessed by the current governing party, rightly criticising for the preceding eight years the unjustified trust shown by the PO-PSL government in the good intentions of Putin’s Russia, as well as improving and giving substance to the bilateral relations with our eastern neighbours. Russia’s aggressive policy determines the situation to the east of our borders. Relations with Moscow are poor, and nobody is pretending otherwise (after the aggression in Ukraine, this became impossible even for PO). The state of Polish-Russian relations is down to Moscow, not Warsaw. However, Poland is not alone but is rather firmly bound to NATO as it holds therein the respectful position of one of the five (alongside the US, Great Britain, Estonia and Greece) countries of the Alliance that meets the requirement of allocating 2% of GDP to defence. Poland is also developing very close ties with the Scandinavian countries, which share Poland's point of view concerning the nature of the threat posed by Russia.
With regards Ukraine, despite the problems caused by the discrepancies in the historical memories of Poles and Ukrainians, Poland’s policy appears better than as described by the Polish opposition. It is not just about grand gestures and ceremonies: the presence in 2016 and 2017 of the most important national dignitaries (respectively - President Andrzej Duda and head of the Ministry of Defence Antoni Macierewicz) at Ukrainian independence day celebrations, the participation of the Ukrainian Minister for Defence General Stepan Poltorak in that year’s Polish Armed Forces Day, the yearly laying, on 15 August, of wreaths on the graves of soldiers of the Ukrainian Army, who were allied with Poland in 1920, or the participation of subdivisions from both armies in parades coinciding with the respective celebrations in Warsaw and Kiev. Poland has currently adopted an active policy toward Ukraine, both in terms of real support for the country in its fight against Russian invasion and in terms of a clear stance on the part of Poland concerning historical disputes. Polish and Ukrainian diplomacies have to make clear their positions on such disputes, but they do not create them. Rather the opposite, they work to resolve them. On 23 January 2017, Witold Waszczykowski introduced the Polish-Ukrainian Partnership Forum, an equivalent of which was also formed at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This allowed for a dialogue to be established in terms of positive actions (one of the effects of which was the naming of a street in Kiev after St. John Paul II) and difficult problems, i.e. historical disputes. In 2016, over 54% of the foreign students at Polish universities were Ukrainian (30.5 thousand), with the second largest group being Belarusians (8%). This demonstrates the scale of the efforts made by Poland to influence beneficial mental and cultural changes beyond our eastern border. The presence of a large number of Ukrainian immigrants in Poland is also a cause for concern for the Polish government, though it’s practical dimension (counter-intelligence cover and caring for the employment and social rights of immigrants who in any event make a contribution to the development of Poland's economy) is not within the remit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In terms of cooperation, in light of the war in Donbass, the Ministry of Defence plays an important role. In December 2016, a Lithuanian-Ukrainian-Polish brigade was certified ready for combat, and in 2017 an agreement was concluded for the provision of Polish optics for Ukrainian combat vehicles. Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces are currently involved in a training mission in Ukraine, under which a Polish task force is training Ukrainian soldiers. In May 2017, 40 special forces soldiers from 6 Airborne Brigades were assigned to broaden this activity, working jointly with the Americans, Canadians, British and Lithuanians as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group - Ukraine, which strengthens military cooperation with NATO allies.
With regards to Belarus, Poland, thanks, among other things, to the policy of the current Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has won a race against time. The equalisation of relations between Warsaw and Minsk since 2015, carried out in the face of Russian pressure on Belarus to establish Russian military airbases within its territory, is the result of the acceptance of President Lukashenko’s refusal to create new Russian military bases in Belarus. Russia currently has only two military installations in the country - in Vileyka and in Hantsavichy in the Brest Region. Both of these locations were assumed by Russia before 1994 and they are too weak for Moscow to use them to gain military control of Belarus. The debate about whether NATO military reinforcements would arrive on the Alliance’s eastern front faster than the Russians would arrive in Belarus was won by Poland. Relations with Lithuania have a dual nature. Poland demonstrates its allied loyalty as part of NATO in terms of the security of the Baltic countries while at the same time strenuously resolving problems in two-sided relationships. The reform of election law in Lithuania in 2016 eliminated the so-called “gerrymandering” of the electoral constituencies in the Vilnius Region. With rail transport routes to the refinery in Mažeikiai cleared, chances will increase for the solution of the problem of the Polish media presence in the Vilnius Region as well as the issue of the spelling of surnames. Talks held in September of last year in Krynica allow for an optimistic view of the future.
The assessment of the activity of Polish diplomacy in the years 2015-2017 would not be complete if we did not discuss the problems that remain unsolved.
- The immigration problem was brought upon the EU by the Germans due to their unconsulted decision, which is in breach of the Dublin Regulation on the rules for granting asylum. Poland, in solidarity with the V4 Group, protects itself against the unlawful imposition of quotas, the blurring of the differences between the terms refugees and immigrants as well as the disregard of the inefficacy of the hitherto EU prescriptions for combating the immigration crisis. The Republic of Poland wishes to implement the resolutions of the G7 in the area of migration. This issue, as it concerns homeland security, lies within the remit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Climate and clean energy policy are also areas spearheaded within the EU by Germany, motivated by the desire to sell German technology on the European market. Poland is not against environmental protection, it recognises its importance; however, it also protects itself against the high costs that threaten our economy due to drastic increases in energy prices. This matter is dealt with by the Ministry of Environment.
- Deforestation of the Bialowieza Forest is also an issue that falls under the competence of the Ministry of Environment. This issue is used as a tool by EU bureaucracy to fight the Polish government. Countries that have already cut down their forests are trying to tell us how to protect the aforementioned area of wilderness. However, the Polish government is responsible before Polish citizens for maintaining this element of national heritage, which is why it does not accept the position ecologists who call for the abandonment of actions designed to save forested stands, thereby effectively calling for said area of wilderness to be destroyed. This is exactly what would happen if infected trees were not cut down.
- The Constitutional Court dispute was initiated by PO, which, disregarding the imminent parliamentary elections and thereby undermining the foundations of democracy, elected their own candidates “just to be safe.” Regardless, the opposition turned this matter into a means to discredit Poland abroad.
- The judiciary reform prepared in the Sejm and within the Ministry of Justice in order to repair the ineffective and corrupt system is, in accordance with Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, the exclusive competence of Poland. The European Commission has no legal grounds to interfere in the laws of Member States. Article 19.1 of the Treaty on European Union, invoked by the EC, concerns the legal system of the European Union and not that of Member States.
- The directive on posted workers is an issue of contention with France invoked by President Macron, who is dealing with the threat of mass protests in his country against the reform of French labour law and attempting to portray himself in the eyes of the French public as a defender of jobs for French citizens. Poland has no reason to accept such position, which is contradictory to the free movement of services within the single market of the European Union, or pay for the realisation of President Macron's interests with 50 thousand jobs for Poles and the bankruptcy of Polish shipping companies.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not responsible for the initiation of any of the above-mentioned disputes. The problems in the EU Forum are the result of Brussels’ excessive activity, which causes conflicts with Poland, often without legal grounds, in bad faith (in order to provide political support for the opposition and weaken the position of the Polish government, which intends to be neither compliant nor passive in EU politics). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs demonstrates a willingness for dialogue and compromise in these matters.
Conclusions? Poland’s international position, despite difficult circumstances and in spite of constant breaches by the opposition of the rule (valid until 2015) on refraining from bringing party disputes to the international arena, has in the last two years markedly strengthened. Poland has become a hub for political decisions to be reckoned with and whose position is to be strived for. It has also become a centre for the crystallisation of two important regional groups: the Bucharest Nine in the area of military security and the Three Seas Initiative in the area of infrastructural cooperation, obtaining NATO’s support for the former and the US’s support for the latter, which was demonstrated during President Trump's visit in Warsaw. Poland has also renewed its solidarity with the Visegrád Group, including in terms of the immigration crisis. The government, made strong with the support of Polish society – up to 47% support – does not wish to but is ready to enter into political conflict with external entities in defence of the interests of the Republic of Poland and its citizens. It strives to ensure that these disputes are substantive in nature. It cannot, however, shy away from answering these attacks, which are often unjustified, just as it will have to react to challenges that it will be faced with in the future.
PRZEMYSŁAW ŻURAWSKI VEL GRAJEWSKI (1963)
A coordinator of the Security & Defense Section in the National Council of Development at the President of Poland and an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland.