Five take-aways from the stunning victory of the democratic opposition
It may take a couple of months before a new Polish government, almost certainly led by Donald Tusk, will finally be able to take power in Warsaw. But it’s already clear that the change will have significant consequences for Europe as a whole, and not just Poland. Here’s how.
First, the anti-European rhetoric from the Polish government will stop. So will the non-stop tirade against Germany – its closest trading partner. That, along no doubt with a commitment to free the Polish judicial system, will lead to an early release of EU funds which are blocked as a result of concerns about the rule of law in Poland. The simple change in tone by itself will mightily improve relations between Poland and Germany, making it much easier to tackle any issues between those two countries – and that will shift the dynamic within wider EU decision-making, increasing the weight of the more liberal bloc within the EU.
Second, however, the election of a pro-European government in Poland will not mean that it will be a “push-over” in European negotiations. It will be very much aware that any apparent weakness in promoting Polish interests will be seized upon by Law and Justice (PiS), which will still have a large presence in parliament, and whose supporting voices in the media will jump upon any apparent weakness towards the EU. In particular, do not expect a sudden readiness to accept the transfer of substantial numbers of migrants from countries in southern Europe. There will, however, be a willingness to have serious discussions about a European-wide policy on migration, and a more humane approach without the demonisation of migrants which was the hallmark of the Law and Justice government.
Third, Poland will continue to be a strong supporter of Ukraine. Indeed, in some ways it might be an even more consistent supporter than the current Polish government, which recently moved to a more critical stance, no doubt because of its perception that some of its core supporters, particularly farmers, were now suffering from ‘Ukraine fatigue.’ However, here too, the new Polish government will have to move carefully, as one of the components of the likely new coalition has a support base in country areas. But as with relations with the EU, a change in tone and rhetoric by itself may make it easier to reach an agreement with Ukraine and the EU to deal with any difficulties arising from Ukrainian agricultural products impacting the Polish market.
Fourth, the very fact that Poland has shown that the drift towards right-wing populism, and the undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law, can be stopped will be a great encouragement and morale-booster for those in other European countries facing similar threats. Hungary (and unfortunately perhaps Slovakia) will lose potential allies in efforts to fend off EU criticism and sanctions. However, do not expect a new Polish government to act as a leader of a pan-European campaign against populism. It will have plenty to do at home. And anyway, the biggest lesson to be drawn from the Polish success is that the only way to fight off populism is for people to mobilise against it, continuously, and at all levels, from grass roots activism to effective political leadership from democratic opposition parties.
Fifth, the UK Conservative party will lose a friend in the defeat of Law and Justice, which it sought to use as a counter-weight against European institutions when the UK was still a member of the EU, and which it sought to use to undermine EU unity in the Brexit negotiations (without much success, it has to be conceded). However, the UK will gain a friend in Tusk, whose involvement in the Brexit negotiations will no doubt have given him an insight into the complexities of British politics. That could smooth the way for an incoming new UK government if it seeks to rebuild a closer relationship with the EU. However, Tusk, with his European experience in particular, can be expected to be vigilant against any attempts by the UK to obtain a new deal in which it gets all the benefits of greater access to European markets, without being a member. But I would expect him to realise the benefits to the whole of Europe, including Poland, of a closer relationship being rebuilt between the EU and the UK. However, the ball will be very much in the UK’s court – it will be up to a British government to come up with feasible proposals. For Poland, just as for the rest of the EU, there will be no appetite for having to devote, once more, vast amounts of time and resources to lengthy negotiations about future UK-EU relations.