What does Andrzej Duda’s victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak 

The right-wing challenger’s unexpected victory in last month’s presidential election has shaken up the Polish political scene but its impact on European politics more generally depends on the outcome of the autumn parliamentary poll. If the opposition wins then this could herald a major change in Poland’s European and foreign policy. If the current ruling party remains in office, the country faces a possibly turbulent period of cohabitation with conflicting foreign policy narratives coming from the two main state organs.

Mainstream or ‘own stream’? 

The shock victory of Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping – over incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, who was backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, in last month’s presidential election has led to speculation as to whether there will be a significant shift in Poland’s international relations. The Polish President is not simply a ceremonial figure and retains some important constitutional powers, notably the right to initiate and veto legislation. However, the President’s competencies are much more limited than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister, so Mr Duda’s victory will not result in any immediate change in Poland’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, if it is followed up by a change of government after autumn’s parliamentary election then there could be major implications for the country’s relationships with the rest of Europe.

The current Civic Platform-led government’s strategy has been to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. By locating Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core, the current government claims that it has, in contrast to its Law and Justice predecessor, been effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment last autumn of the then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the government’s strategy of positioning Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project. 

On the other hand, while it supports Polish EU membership Law and Justice is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) party committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty, especially in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust in advancing its national interests within the EU rather than simply following European mainstream politics which it sees as being driven by Germany. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis, the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of Civic Platform’s support for German-led closer European integration. 

Knowing that he was potentially at a disadvantage on foreign affairs against a more experienced incumbent, Mr Duda was wary of highlighting international issues during the presidential campaign. However, when he did address European and foreign policy Mr Duda also argued that Poland needed to be more assertive in promoting its interests and form its ‘own stream’ that could counter-balance the major EU powers. He called for Poland to ‘recalibrate’ its relationship with Germany which, he argued, should not be pursued at the expense of subordinating the country’s interests. Mr Duda also said that he wanted to revisit the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy, where he claimed EU policies were damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro 

Civic Platform and Law and Justice’s different approaches towards European integration can be seen in their attitudes towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the Civic Platform-led government has toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it does not have a target date and that this will not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remains committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as is realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core. For its part, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until its economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, given the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency.

During the presidential election Mr Duda tried to tap into strong public opposition to joining the eurozone – while there is still overwhelming public support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country adopting the single currency – and make this into a campaign issue. For example, he visited supermarkets on each side of the border between Poland and Slovakia to show that household groceries were considerably more expensive in its eurozone member neighbour. Mr Komorowski, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic supporter of the single currency who had previously urged the government to accelerate its preparations for eurozone accession; although, sensing his vulnerability, tried to downplay the issue during the election. 

However, although a Law and Justice-led administration will be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. In fact, although the issue of Polish-EU relations was highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such but were rather simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with the two parties treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. 

A more robust Russian policy? 

The difference between the two parties’ foreign policies can also be seen in their approach to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally they appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government has, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, been constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this has, it argues, been a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Mr Duda and Law and Justice want to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. They would like to use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. During the election campaign, Mr Duda also called for a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and indicated that he would consider providing military aid to Ukraine within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the ruling party’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, during the election campaign Mr Duda identified himself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – who was the Law and Justice-backed President between 2005-10, and in whose chancellery Mr Duda worked as a senior legal advisor – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. Mr Duda is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia. 

Conflicting foreign policy narratives? 

If Civic Platform wins the autumn election and remains in government, which is still a distinct possibility, then Poland faces a period of up to four years of political cohabitation. Although, according to the Polish Constitution, foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, it also gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role while failing to delineate the two state organs’ respective powers precisely. Moreover, the President can exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. He also ratifies international agreements, so can block treaties negotiated by the government, and is the country’s highest representative and can, for example, try and participate in meetings of the EU Council. So the government has to factor in his position and there is a danger of two conflicting European and foreign policy narratives coming from Warsaw.

Indeed, the previous period of cohabitation between the Civic Platform government and Mr Kaczyński in 2007-10 saw an ongoing power struggle between the government and President, with the former accusing the latter of attempting to pursue a parallel foreign policy. One of the most high profile disputes occurred in October 2008 when Mr Kaczyński and the government clashed bitterly over who had the right to determine the composition of the Polish delegation at that month’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. This ended as a major political embarrassment for Poland as Mr Kaczyński attended the summit against the wishes of the government, which even refused the President use of the official government aircraft forcing him to charter a private jet. Mr Kaczyński and the government also had a number of high-profile disputes over the substance of Poland’s EU policy, the most dramatic being when the President delayed Polish ratification of the Lisbon treaty for eighteen months in 2008-9.

The parliamentary election is the key

Mr Duda’s unexpected presidential election victory will certainly have an impact upon Poland’s relationships with its European partners but its full ramifications depend on the outcome of the parliamentary election. Experience suggests that Law and Justice is often more rhetorically than practically Eurosceptic and that foreign policy divisions between the two main parties are an extension of domestic politics by other means. Nonetheless, if Mr Duda finds himself working with a government with whom he shares a common programme then Poland will certainly be more assertive in pushing forward its interests at the international level independently of the major EU powers. If, on the other hand, we are in for re-run of cohabitation then there is a danger of ongoing clashes between a Law and Justice President and Civic Platform-led government over both their respective competencies and the substance of European and foreign policy.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com.

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