The UK’s decision to leave the EU is expected to have an impact not only on British domestic politics, but on politics across Europe. Aleks Szczerbiak writes that Poland’s government, for whom Brexit means the loss of its main EU ally, blames the crisis on over-reach by the Union’s political elites, while the liberal and centrist opposition has argued that the country needs to re-join the European ‘mainstream’ and re-build its alliance with Germany. Although Poles appear to be taking an increasingly instrumental approach towards the EU, no mainstream political party has questioned continued Polish membership and a post-Brexit upsurge in Euroscepticism appears very unlikely.
The prospect of British withdrawal from the EU means that Poland is losing a key ally on a number of important policy issues. As the largest non-Eurozone EU member, the UK government played a pivotal role in preventing the development of a two-speed Europe with the locus of Union decision making shifting to those states that were part of the single currency area. The prospect of Brexit, therefore, raises concerns that further European integration will hasten the process of building a hard core based on the Eurozone, potentially leaving Poland marginalised on the EU’s periphery. Warsaw also saw the UK as a close ally in developing a tough EU response to Russia, fearing that France and Germany were too inclined to strike up cosy bilateral deals with Moscow that side-lined post-communist states such as Poland.
Moreover, the current Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has particular reasons for being concerned about Brexit as it will be losing its main supporter among the large EU member states. The Law and Justice government moved away from the strategy pursued by its predecessor, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, of trying to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project and prioritising the development of close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland needs to be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests, re-calibrating its relationships with the major EU powers and forming its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence, identifying Britain’s Conservative government as its main strategic partner in this project.
Although Law and Justice supports EU membership, like the British Conservatives it is also an anti-federalist grouping committed to defending Polish sovereignty, and in recent years has articulated an increasingly fundamental and principled critique of further European integration. It is also a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping, the third largest in the European Parliament (EP), 21 of whose 73 members are British Conservatives. This will almost certainly cease to function after Brexit and if this occurs before the end of the current EP’s term in 2019 then its 18 Polish members, mostly from Law and Justice, will have to join another grouping or sit as independents.
British Conservative MEPs defended the Law and Justice government in EP debates on its dispute with the European Commission, which in January launched an investigation into whether Poland had breached the rule of law following domestic political and legal controversies over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal.
It was also expected that the British government would oppose any attempts to introduce sanctions against Poland if the Commission referred the issue to the European Council. So Brexit will leave Law and Justice without its most significant ally in the EU institutions. On the other hand, the Brexit imbroglio will also relieve some of the pressure on Law and Justice as the Commission will now be completely absorbed in trying to deal with the crisis and the EP has already postponed a debate on the state of democracy and human rights in Poland scheduled for its next plenary session in July.
Who is to blame and how should Poland respond?
Law and Justice responded to the Brexit vote by arguing that it was a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite who they say have precipitated mounting Euroscepticism by over-centralising and trying to force their vision of deeper European integration against the popular will. They cited the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation into Poland and plan to impose migrant relocation quotas on member states as examples of such over-reach. Law and Justice called upon the leaders of the EU institutions – notably European Council President Donald Tusk, Law and Justice’s political nemesis who was Poland’s Civic Platform prime minister in 2007-14 – to take political responsibility for the Brexit crisis and resign.