Despite praise for Ukraine stance, Polish government remains isolated and faces tough re-election bid

By Krzysztof Mularczyk

Vladimir Putin recently said that the West will “fight to the last Ukrainian”. He is probably over-estimating the determination of the West, which is more likely to be prepared to fight until the first gas shortage this autumn or winter.

Poland, by contrast, has staked a huge amount on Ukraine holding its own in this war. But the costs of this stance could prove to be very high for the ruling conservatives in the coming election year and for the country as a whole thereafter.

Poland cannot be a guarantor of Ukrainian security

Public support for Ukraine in Poland is overwhelming, but it may be blinding the country to some military, geopolitical as well as economic realities. Russia is fully responsible for the aggression in Ukraine, but it is not Central Europe – the countries that have borne the brunt of the refugee and inflation crisis – who should be responsible to answer it.

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That should have been done years ago, or should still be done now, by the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum – the USA, Britain and France – who joined Russia in providing security assurances for Ukraine in return for Kyiv giving up possession of nuclear weapons it had inherited from the USSR.

In that light, the Western powers’ response to the war in Ukraine should be a warning for those who believe that Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty is a cast-iron guarantee for Poland’s security. It does not explicitly commit any country to send an army to defend another and “solidarity” could be expressed in other ways, including being limited to the type of support currently offered by NATO states to Ukraine: weapons, intelligence and humanitarian aid.

No wonder then that Poland wants to spend 5% of its GDP on defence, something that surely would not be required if it could count for certain on defence by NATO forces.

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Since neither NATO as a whole nor the powers that signed the Budapest Memorandum are willing to commit ground forces in Ukraine or to enforce a fly-zone, it is most unlikely that, despite its incredible bravery and spirit, Ukraine can win the war, in the sense of pushing the Russians out of Ukrainian territory.

The Europeans and Americans have instead concentrated on sanctions against Russia. But these have proved to be a double-edged sword. While they may have hit the Russian middle class and disrupted supply chains into and out of Russia, the Europeans also look likely to suffer as a result of the curtailment of Russian energy imports.

It is this which is causing a lot of rethinking in west European capitals over this war. The pressure on the Ukrainians for a settlement is only likely to grow and the EU has leverage, such as Ukraine’s accession to the EU and aid funds.

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Ukraine war has not helped Poland with the EU

Poland has been attempting to portray itself as a leader in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region. However, the limitations of that claim became all too apparent when the French, German and Italian leaders took the Romanian president with them to Kyiv instead of the Polish head of state or government.

The Romanians want to enter Schengen and the eurozone and need the support of the core EU states to get that done. That is more important to them than any regional loyalty. And the region has been weakened by the Poles and Hungarians visibly falling out over the war in Ukraine. This has increased the leverage the core EU countries have over the CEE region.

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Some in Poland had hoped that its support for Ukraine would help it to end its dispute with the EU over alleged violations of the rule of law by the present Polish government, and would attract financial help for the country to manage the wave of refugees.

The European Commission did indeed approve Poland’s operational programme for the country’s allocation of the EU’s Covid recovery fund in June. But so far all the country has to show for it are milestones that it is required to fulfil before the cash is transferred rather than the funding itself.

Poland is still in the same doghouse as Hungary, but weaker because its government is facing an election next year, with some European capitals tempted to wait and see what happens before engaging more with the current administration.

That administration is dominated by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who now seems unwilling to compromise because he believes Poland is strong enough to take Brussels on and that the EU recovery fund is not worth backing down over. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda may have different ideas, but they do not call the shots in the ruling bloc.

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This is why pats on the back over support for Ukraine have not translated themselves into a change in the relationship the present government has with the EU.

Nor will fanciful notions of a wider Europe emerging with an outer circle of Britain, Turkey and Ukraine. These are nothing more or less than the two-speed Europe that Polish policymakers have been desperate to avoid but which does have adherents among Euro-federalists who want the core of the EU to proceed with rapid integration without having to wait for the eastern member states.

It would mean Poland becoming a rule-taker within Europe without having all that much say in the way these rules are set.

Leaders on conservative values?

The ruling PiS party aspires to defend conservative values in Europe and beyond. Undoubtedly national sovereignty and democracy are conservative values which are at stake in the war in Ukraine. So is a rule-based international order. That, together with fears of Russia wanting to dominate Central Europe again, is the reason why Poland will side strongly with Ukraine.

The problem is that the rhetoric of conservative values has sometimes failed in terms of deeds. First of all, even though one can question whether the response of European institutions has been proportional to the offence, the judicial reforms this government has introduced have been a failure in terms of the conservative value of rule of law.

They have slowed rather than sped up court proceedings and have led to major conflicts within the judicial community. Moreover, they have failed to tackle the pro-corporate and pro-establishment bias within the system.

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This is because they were top-down rather than bottom up and failed to include measures that would empower society, such as jury trials to limit the power of judges and justices of the peace to speed up the working of the courts. It is doubtful these reforms were ever worth fighting over with the EU.

Second, PiS has failed to build a strong relationship with Poland’s small and medium business sector. Instead of cutting red tape and taxes it has introduced more regulation and made the tax system more complex. While the clamping down of tax fraud has been welcome, the lack of pro-development tax reform and de-regulation certainly has not. This jars significantly with the conservative value of protecting economic freedom.

Third, the ruling party has mistaken the defence of the church as an institution with defending Christian values. By keeping close to a Catholic church that has been hit by sexual abuse scandals of its priests and a hierarchy manifestly failing to tackle the issue, it has actually made it harder to defend key values. The alliance of church and throne is problematic at the best of times and in Poland it does not seem to be serving either particularly well.

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Election looming

Putting all eggs in one basket of Ukraine winning the war seems a risky strategy. If that war goes badly, if EU funds remain absent, and if inflation continues its upward spiral, the ruling party will have one hell of a job staying in power when the election comes in the autumn of next year – especially given the fact that it has limited its electorate building measures to social transfers that are losing their value fast as the economic crisis bites.

While Poland has received international plaudits for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a more bitter reality may soon sink in and someone will see that the emperor has not got any clothes.

Main image credit: KPRM (under CC BY 3.0 PL)

Krzysztof Mularczyk was a presenter for TVP World (2018- 2022), presenting programs such as “World Today”, “Three Seas” and “Pole Position”, and writer for Poland IN (2018-2021).

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