Poland's potential to take a prominent place in the European Union and make the most of opportunities is at risk of being squandered.

The good news at the start of the new year is that after 2022, a dramatic year for the world, the probability of Polexit has fallen to almost zero in the foreseeable future. Polexit has always been a so-called minority scenario and a path Poland could find itself on as a result of the unforeseen consequences of contesting the EU and democratic rulebook by the current authorities in Warsaw. The bad news is that Poland is, and will continue to be, far from realising its full political and economic potential.
A revolt against Europe, grandly proclaimed as a 'cultural revolution' by Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orban seven years ago at the Economic Forum in Krynica, is dying before our eyes, having hit the wall of hard economic and political realities. The former includes slowing growth, low investment, the end of cheap money, high inflation, the energy crisis and increased defence spending. This is why the cocky declarations by Warsaw and Budapest that they would not succumb to the 'blackmail' of European money to abandon their quest to destroy the rule of law and break up Europe from within gave way to desperate attempts to make concessions, so that the funds would flow after all. Additionally, Brexit, previously feted by the ruling camp in Poland, turned out to be a very informative natural experiment. Instead of the promised economic paradise and increased role of the UK in global affairs, Brexit has plunged the country into an economic quagmire accompanied by social tensions; a challenge that the fifth consecutive prime minister since the Brexit referendum is unable to resolve. Instead of becoming a catalyst for the 'cultural revolution', Brexit has made it clear, even to Eurosceptics, how jumping into an empty pool ends.

A Chance to Regain Lost Ground

Geopolitical circumstances that have relegated the 'cultural revolution' to its rightful place in the museum of political delusions include primarily Russia's aggression against Ukraine and the defeat of autocratic populists in the USA and other countries. The democracies can mark 2022 as a success. Poland ruling camp's fascination with Trump, with his dislike of the European Union and NATO, was incomprehensible from the outset and detrimental to Poland, as were political alliances with fascist separatist movements in Europe. These movements, we should recall, had promoted Vladimir Putin's agenda of dividing the EU in the hope that this would allow Russia to seize Ukraine with impunity. This bubble burst with a bang; Ukraine heroically withstood the attack, while the United States led by President Joe Biden and the 'leftist' Europe ‒ united ‒ provided financial and military support to Ukraine. Putin's supporters in Europe vanished into thin air or took off their T-shirts with his portrait, while France and Germany ‒ advocates of seeking 'geopolitical realism' in relations with Russia ‒ had to confess to a sin of naïveté.
For Poland, which had been warning others against Russian neo-imperialism for decades, the events in Ukraine represented a golden opportunity to recapture its lost political position in Europe. Poland's reputation skyrocketed because it had been right and because of the massive humanitarian and military aid provided to Ukraine. Poland became an indispensable transit channel for getting American and European weapons to Kiev. Russia's attack and war atrocities have reminded everyone, Poland included, that peace is not to be taken for granted once and for all, and that the EU and NATO were not established for nothing.

Wasted Opportunities

Additionally, Ukraine's unequivocal pursuit of EU membership as the key to security and modernisation stands in stark contrast to the anti-EU narrative of the Polish ruling camp. Where the government in Warsaw sees a civilisational threat and a 'Brussels diktat', Ukraine sees hope for security and a civilisational leap.
Undaunted by the increasingly evident incoherence, the ruling camp in Poland has failed to seize the opportunity for adjustment, as it is hostage to its own narrative and the anti-EU sentiment it has fomented. One significant source of the rising tide of Euroscepticism is Kaczyński's deep-seated, obsessive dislike of the West, particularly Germany, and his belief that he is going to win parliamentary elections in the autumn riding the anti-German rhetoric (part of which is to portray the opposition as traitors at Berlin's service).
Let us start with the ideology. For Jarosław Kaczyński, as he himself stated in a last year's interview, the European Union is a construct through which Germany is building a “Fourth Reich” in Europe. The wording is offensive to all partners in the Union, which is obvious and intentional, but what is dramatically detrimental to Poland is the falsity of this statement. Precisely the opposite is true ‒ the European Union is a construct to curb Germany's hegemony in Europe. Kaczyński will not change the fact that Germany is a European economic powerhouse and as such has a considerable influence on EU policy, which does not at all imply a desire to run the Union. On the contrary, Germany is often accused of taking too little responsibility for the community. Germany's stubbornness and unilateralism on many issues of European importance, such as energy, security or relations with Russia, are frustrating not only for Poland. However, unlike Kaczyński's Poland, Germany's European partners focus their policy on managing the 'German issue'. It is by no means based on public slights and historical recriminations. Most European countries' policies towards Germany are based on three pillars: seeking influence in bilateral relations; building alliances of EU 'middleweights' capable of blocking or pushing through policies at the European level; and playing to the EU's multinational institutions and community decision-makingmechanisms.
Poland had also pursued such a policy until 2015. Kaczyński's rejection of it in all three aspects is a crime against Poland's raison d'état. As a result of the conflict with European institutions and deterioration of relations with fellow member states, Poland no longer plays an important, constructive role in the Union. This is a staggering opportunity loss ‒ after Brexit and at a time of crisis at the eastern flank of the EU, Poland could have positioned itself as a key playmaker and gained more clout than warranted solely by its economic strength and its position as a beneficiary of EU funds. Europe is ready for this: as Sylvie Kauffmann, an influential journalist at Le Monde, recently noted in the Financial Times:
“Not since it freed itself from Soviet domination in 1989 has Poland enjoyed such an opportunity to seize its rightful place in Europe. [...] Now could be Poland’s moment ‒ if only it decided to play by the rules. Two disputes overshadow Warsaw’s newly acquired clout: the assault on the rule of law by its Eurosceptic right-wing government and the shameful, relentless attacks waged on Germany by the leader of the Polish ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński, a bitter 73-year-old demagogue.”
The final phrase may seem overly harsh, but not when we remember to what extent Kaczyński has imposed his moral obsessions onto mainstream Polish politics. At every constituency meeting, the single, childless bachelor indulges in venting his frustrations about sexual minorities and the liberal attitude to social manners in the West. Kaczyński describes manifestations of excessive political correctness and left-wing radicalism, which is an inherent but nonetheless non-dominant element of discourse in Western democracies, as a threat to Poland and an assault on Christian values. At the same time, he ignores the excesses of right-wing extremism, equally if not more distant from the Christian ethos.
And here we come to the crux of the problem with Kaczyński and his camp's European policy ‒ obsession and harping on Polish complexes in order to stay in power aside, it is impossible to figure out what they really want for Poland. They don't have the fortitude, or the social consent, to leave the EU, but they don't accept it in its current, liberal form. This inevitably means going adrift. Tales of a “Europe of homelands” or the Three Seas alliance of central European states as an alternative European model are phantasies that nobody in Europe takes seriously, except in Poland. The messianism has reached such a scale that the authorities in Warsaw and a few think-tanks are now weaving a narrative that Ukraine, which is seeking EU membership, would lend support to Poland's Eurosceptic vision for Europe. In Kiev, they must be bursting with laughter listening to these ramblings, but those are actually detrimental to Ukraine. If the European community were to become convinced that Ukraine would join Poland in its mission to undermine the European order, its prospects of joining the Union would dwindle away, much as it happened with Turkey.

Below Potential

PM Morawiecki and Kaczyński himself already know that their European course has proved ineffective. Morawiecki, more so than Kaczyński, realises that Poland has backed itself into a corner and without billions from the EU’s Covid reconstruction fund and without constructive participation in European climate policy, the Polish economy would lose momentum. Inflation has undermined Polish competitiveness, and neglected infrastructure investments in energy and telecommunications sectors impede Poland's further development as Europe's industrial backbone. This is wasting opportunities, at a time when many companies perceive Poland as an attractive location amid the momentum-gaining retreat from China.
Morawiecki and his technocrats are therefore advocating an end to the dispute with the European Commission. They believe that this would also be a sensible electoral strategy, as unblocking EU funds would help avoid a recession. An agreement with the Commission would deprive the opposition of arguments, as they build their election campaign on the promise to restore Poland to its rightful place in Europe. Recent weeks, however, show that for Kaczyński the alternative electoral tactic of portraying Europe as the enemy and the opposition as collaborators is just as attractive or perhaps even more so. The portrayal of the opposition as Germany's fifth column fits perfectly with Kaczyński's obsession and resonates with a significant portion of the Polish electorate. Polish patriotism is deeply rooted in a sense of messianic exceptionalism, as well as the experience of being squeezed between two 'eternal' enemies. Russia's war against Ukraine and Germany's meandering on the issue of aid to Kiev perpetuate this perception. This will make it difficult to reframe Poland's policy in Europe, even if the opposition wins the elections in the autumn. Distrust of the West and the belief that EU equals Germany create a mental trap, in which a judicious and professional European policy would immediately be subject to accusations of betrayal. In such conditions, and in the absence of a decisive electoral victory, the new Polish government may lack the strength and courage to pursue an ambitious European policy, for example to adopt the euro in Poland or to embark on a bold energy transition. This means that the potential for Poland to take a prominent place in the Community and make the most of development opportunities may be wasted. ©℗