Poland’s bold new foreign policy

Poland’s bold new foreign policy

Written by Charles Grant, 01 February 2008

For the rest of Europe, the worst thing about Poland’s Law and Justice government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was its foreign policy. His approach towards Russia, Germany and (sometimes) the EU – supported by his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski – was confrontational. The new Civic Platform government is working hard to repair the damage. Its ministers speak to the Germans without reminding them of the war. And the government has made an effort to build bridges to Russia. Moscow has lifted its ban on meat exports from Poland, while Warsaw has stopped blocking Russian membership of the OECD. The Polish government has also consulted the Russians about the Bush administration’s plans to deploy missile defences in Poland.

Civic Platform is even contemplating a radical shift in policy on gas pipelines. With help from German companies, Gazprom plans to build the Nordstream pipeline, under the Baltic Sea, to Germany. The economics of this project are rather a mystery: it would be much cheaper to build a new land pipeline from Russia to Germany, passing through Poland. Many Poles therefore see Nordstream as a geopolitical threat, since it would allow Russia to cut off gas to Poland without affecting supplies to Germany and the rest of Europe. Poles of all political stripes have therefore attacked the planned pipeline as a threat to their national security.

But in Germany Angela Merkel’s government, though keen to see better relations with Warsaw, continues to back Nordstream, and the odds are that it will be built. The Germans and the European Commission are urging the Poles to join the project. Nordstream will run over German land near the Polish border, and a short spur could take gas from there into Poland. Some senior figures in the Polish government see the geopolitical benefits of joining: Russia could not squeeze gas supplies to the Poles if they could draw on Nordstream gas via Germany.

But the government is cautious about joining Nordstream for two reasons. The first is economics. If joining meant that Poland had to take on a significant share of the costs of building the Baltic pipeline, it might not be worth it. However, some Poles believe that they can play on the Germans’ sense of guilt – the previous German government embarked on Nordstream without consulting the Poles – to get them to pay most of the bills. The second issue is politics. If Prime Minister Donald Tusk ‘gave in’ to the Russians by supporting their pipeline, it would be hugely controversial. Jaroslaw Kaczynski would attack him for failing to stop Nordstream and for pandering to Russia.

Although defeated in last October’s elections, Law and Justice remains powerful. The party increased its share of the vote from 27 to 32 per cent, and only lost power because support for its far-right allies, the League of Polish Families and Self-Defence, collapsed. The party’s hold on the presidency means that it can veto laws passed by the Polish parliament.

Law and justice is already attacking Civic Platform over missile defence. Both Kaczynskis want American missiles on Polish soil as soon as possible. They believe that participation in missile defence would increase the security bond with Washington, and provide extra insurance against potential Russian aggression.

Tusk and his foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, take a somewhat different line. They argue that while missile defence might enhance US security, it could have the opposite effect on Polish security. Poland is not currently threatened by any Iranian missiles (against which the Pentagon wants missile defence), yet the installation of US missiles on Polish soil would stoke up Russian hostility towards Poland. So the Polish message to the US is that, in return for taking the missiles, it wants cash, Patriot 3 air-defence missiles and investment in the Polish defence industry. The Polish government is therefore diverging from that of Prague, which is enthusiastic about taking radars for the US system (although public opinion in the Czech Republic, as in Poland, would rather opt out).

Tusk’s tough stance may be working. The US, it seems, is doing its best to meet Poland’s demands. But Tusk may hesitate over a final commitment to missile defence while George W Bush is in the White House. There is considerable mistrust between the two administrations. Poland may wait to see whether the next president wants to pursue missile defence, and then take a view. Such caution would probably be wise, even though the twins will attack the government for going soft on the Russians.