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Poland’s relationship with the Eastern Partnership: strengths and weaknesses

Poland hoped that the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit would finally encourage a more decisive response to Russian activities in the area. Warsaw also wanted the EU to respond to rapidly changing regional realities by providing certain Eastern Partnership countries with a long term membership perspective. However, this vision of the EU as a more assertive player in the East may ultimately be nothing more than wishful thinking.

December 22, 2021 - Adam Balcer - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Government of Latvia flickr.com

In mid-December, the sixth summit of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, which represents an essential part of the EU’s neighbourhood policy, took place in Brussels. Participating states include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The last summit took place four years ago, suggesting that the EaP has lost significance within the EU in recent years. Previously, these leaders’ summits were held every two years. This lack of interest can be further seen in the fact that, with the exception of the Brussels Summit in 2017, all the remaining meetings have taken place in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Warsaw, Prague, Vilnius and Riga). Naturally, these states are more closely linked with the EaP countries.

The most important topic in the region currently is Russia, with its increasingly aggressive policies contrasting with its declining economic, political and social influence. At the same time, the EU, China and Turkey are all gaining more importance in the region. The more Moscow’s soft power decreases in the region, the more it resorts to hard power actions and threats. For more than a year now, the Kremlin has been expanding its control over Belarus. This is clearly damaging the security situation in Poland, the Baltic countries and, above all, Ukraine, which now finds itself increasingly encircled by Russia. Consequences of this process include the current migration and refugee crisis artificially stirred up by Minsk on the Belarusian border with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Of course, Moscow has offered Belarus its tacit support for these actions. The second key issue regarding a renewed EU Eastern policy is the deep division of the Eastern Partnership countries. Whilst some are closely involved in European integration (comprehensive association agreements, visa liberalisation and interest in membership), others are distancing themselves from the EU to a lesser (Armenia under pressure from Russia) or greater extent (Azerbaijan). Belarus has rejected the idea altogether, having officially suspended its participation in the EaP in June 2021.

In contrast, May 2021 saw Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine establish the so-called Associated Trio, a new format of cooperation on the road to EU accession. This clear diversity in the outlooks of the Eastern Partnership countries is largely the result of their political systems (unconsolidated “hybrid” democracies versus authoritarian regimes). Cooperation between the Associated Trio and the EU is already so advanced that any further steps may likely require the EU to guarantee the three states the possibility of membership in the long term. These countries, like the Western Balkan states, should therefore be recognised as potential candidates, subject to certain criteria being met. This decision would be justified given the many similarities in the levels of modernisation and democratisation that exist between the trio and the Western Balkans. In fact, reforms in the three countries have often had even better results than in some Balkan states. Unfortunately, however, due to Russia’s greater involvement in the EaP region, the EU is not prepared to treat the countries of these two different regions in the same way.

Indeed, the Joint Declaration of the EaP summit confirmed that the EU is failing to respond adequately to the changing situation in Eastern Europe. On the one hand, the summit acknowledged „the European aspirations and the European choice of the partners concerned, as stated in the Association Agreements.” However, the EU implicite suggested that the EaP countries should not count on the membership by stating that “The agreements provide for accelerating political association and economic integration with the European Union.”

Russia is not directly named in the document as a country that poses a major threat to the Eastern Partnership countries. Instead, many euphemisms are used in the text, The aforementioned text also does not take into account the growing importance of China and Turkey in the area.

Neighbourhood ties

Poland, which hosts the longest EU border with the EaP countries after Romania, is clearly the member state most interested in the region. This is partly the result of the country’s close historical connections with the area. Today, Poland perceives Eastern Europe as a major challenge to its own security. This is due to Russia’s increasingly expansive policy in the region (aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014) and its growing control over Belarus. Poland also has significant influence in the region given its highly developed economic, social, political and security relations with Ukraine. Kyiv is clearly the most important capital in the region. Its population (over 40 million people) represents almost sixty per cent of the population of the original Eastern Partnership (including Belarus). Ukraine’s gross domestic product measured in purchasing power parity (PPP) – almost 580 billion US dollars – accounts for 55 per cent of the region’s entire GDP. Looked at from a broader perspective, Ukraine is a populous state with a large economy present between the EU, Russia, China and the Middle East.

Poland clearly has the most intense ties with Ukraine of any EU state. In 2021 it became Ukraine’s second largest trading partner (about eight per cent of trade), overtaking both Russia and Germany. Polish companies are now key direct investors in Ukraine. Poland has also become a major destination for Ukrainian migrant labour (currently more than 600,000 people from Ukraine are legally employed in the country). Moreover, around 40,000 Ukrainians are now studying at Polish universities, which is significantly more than in other foreign countries, including Russia. Polish tourists are the most frequent foreign visitors to Ukraine. Poland is now also a major donor of development aid to the country. All of this does not mean that there are no problems in Polish-Ukrainian bilateral relations. Disputes concerning complex historical issues are of great consequence to the rather ethnic character of Poland’s current national identity. In contrast, Ukrainian society has adopted a more civic outlook. It should be remembered that it has been six years since a Polish prime minister last visited Kyiv. This was before the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power.

Poland is, alongside Germany and Lithuania, also the most important EU actor with regards to Belarus. Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Lukashenka regime and the democratic awakening of Belarusian society, Poland’s overall relations with the country’s population are extremely important. Links have intensified significantly in recent years, especially after the mass protests that erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020 following rigged presidential elections. During 2018 and 2019 Poland supported the Belarusian opposition, independent media and civil society to the tune of 75 million US dollars. As a result, more than twenty per cent of all development aid going to the country came from Poland. Moreover, Warsaw significantly increased this aid to Belarus last year. Poland has also become the most popular foreign destination for Belarusian students in recent years, alongside Russia. Their number (ten thousand people) has increased several times over in recent years, suggesting that Poland may soon overtake Russia in this regard. The number of Belarusians working legally in Poland has also increased significantly in recent years to more than 60,000 today. Until 2020, Belarusians often visited Poland as tourists, while after the crackdown on democratic protests it became a safe haven for the largest number of Belarusian political refugees in the entire EU. Despite very poor bilateral relations, Poland remains, together with Germany, Belarus’s most important EU trading partner (around a four per cent share of trade).

In comparison to Belarus and Ukraine, Poland’s relations with other Eastern Partnership countries are significantly weaker and there is much room for improvement here. Moldova has relatively stronger relations with Warsaw due to its geographical proximity. For example, in terms of Moldova’s foreign trade, Poland ranks fourth among EU members, with a share close to four per cent. Poland is also beginning to become a more attractive destination for Georgian labour migration.

Domestic politics as a weakness

The long-term strategic goals of Poland’s Eastern policy involve the eventual accession of the region’s countries to the EU. Nowadays, Warsaw at least hopes to see these states granted official candidate status. The prevention of Russian domination through its efforts to reintegrate the post-Soviet space is also an important goal for the country. Poland’s approach to the Eastern Partnership is very similar to the views of the Baltic states, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, the Scandinavian countries and Slovakia. For most member states, however, the Eastern Partnershipis of secondary importance. Some members want to avoid conflict with Russia even at the cost of ignoring its expansion in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Relations with Germany are of key importance to Warsaw’s policy towards the East, as Berlin is the only major EU government that is more engaged in the region. German foreign policy shows common interests with Warsaw, including unequivocal support for sanctions against Russia and the promotion of democratisation and modernisation in the EaP countries. Despite this, the two countries still have fundamental differences. For example, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline built in collaboration with Russia has clearly had a negative impact on the energy security of the countries in the region. Germany has also avoided openly supporting these countries’ accession to the EU.

Moreover, it is now much more difficult for Poland to bring other EU states around to its own position on Eastern affairs. The Polish government’s position in the EU and its ability to form coalitions have been significantly weakened by its internal politics. It has been repeatedly criticised by EU institutions and many member states for its efforts to dismantle the rule of law, curtail civil society and call into question fundamental rights such as media freedom. The government in Warsaw has ignored the rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU, according to which Poland’s judicial ‘reforms’ are in conflict with EU law. The Polish cabinet has also taken the most sceptical stance on the Green Deal out of all member states. Above all, Warsaw’s course on these fundamental issues contrasts starkly with the ideas promoted in the Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit. This document identifies the reform of the judicial systems in participating countries as a top priority. These reforms are intended to ensure that these states can effectively fight corruption. The document also declares that the EU will support independent media, civil society, inclusive democracy and a green energy transition in the region. If Poland – a key EU player in the EaP – continues with its current domestic policies, the contradictions between its domestic agenda and the EU’s strategic objectives in the region will become increasingly apparent. This will threaten both the credibility of EU efforts and Poland’s fundamental interests in the East.

Translated from Polish by Anna Plasová.

Adam Balcer is the Program Director at the Jan Nowak Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe.

This article is supported by the Czech-Polish Forum of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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