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In Trump, Poland Finds Reason to Reset EU Relations

Posted by hkarner - 6. Februar 2017

Date: 06-02-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal By SIMON NIXON

It is in Warsaw’s interests to mend fences with European allies better placed to exercise leverage on the U.S. president and his Russia policy, Simon Nixon writes

WARSAW—German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Poland this week is an important moment for both sides—and for all of Europe. Since Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party took office in October 2015, the Polish government has been a persistent thorn in the side of the European Union.

Whereas its predecessor prioritized building a network of alliances across the continent and establishing a reputation as a reliable partner, the current government has adopted a more confrontational approach, not least over the question of EU asylum reform, where it has blocked proposals for the mandatory redistribution of refugees across the European bloc.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has accused Warsaw of undermining the rule of law, criticizing changes to Poland’s constitutional court that Brussels says weaken an important check on executive power, and threatened reprisals.

But Poland has good reasons to want to reset its relationship with the rest of the EU. The first concerns national security since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. What Polish ministers and officials fear most is a deal between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine that forces the government in Kiev to take back the Donbas region on terms that will give Moscow sway over the country’s politics, creating instability along Poland’s eastern border. They fear that the latest upsurge in violence in eastern Ukraine is a ploy by Mr. Putin to bring Mr. Trump to the negotiating table.

There is also growing concern in Warsaw that Russia is attempting to extend its soft power in Belarus, another of Poland’s eastern neighbors, as well anxiety that Moscow might try to use its influence over Russian minorities in the Baltic states to further destabilize the region. Polish ministers have been trying to establish—so far without success—where Mr. Trump intends to draw the border of U.S. influence in region and whether this includes Poland.

Warsaw has no intention of being drawn into any European anti-Trump front, says one senior official. Nonetheless, in the face of such strategic uncertainty, it is clearly in Warsaw’s interests to repair its relations with other EU members who might be better placed to exercise leverage on Mr. Trump.

Poland also has economic reasons to want to reset its relationship with the EU. The government has embarked on a substantial program of social spending, including generous monthly payments of 500 zlotys ($125) per child for every family with more than one child, and a reduction in the retirement age. That has raised questions about how it will fund these handouts, particularly after a substantial fall in the rate of growth in 2016 to 2.7%, compared with expectations of 3.5%, in large part because of a slowdown in investment. How much of this slowdown reflects concerns over the government’s actions, including concerns over the rule of law, is unclear.

The government says that foreign investment remains robust and that the shortfall instead reflects lower spending by local councils and slower deployment of EU funds. Opponents blame the government for firing officials with relevant technical and financial expertise and replacing them with incompetent party hacks.

Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker, has ambitious plans to boost long-term potential growth and enable Poland to escape its middle-income trap through increased support for domestic small and middle-sized businesses, paid for in part by demanding foreign investors pay more tax in Poland. But in the absence of deep domestic capital markets, he also knows that Poland remains heavily reliant on foreign investment, which in turn hinges on the country restoring its reputation for strong institutions and predictable decision-making.

Ms. Merkel’s visit offers an opportunity for Poland to begin the process of resetting its relationship with the EU. Germany is by the far the biggest investor in Poland and a crucial ally in Polish attempts to persuade the U.S. and other European partners to take a hard line against Russian revisionism in Western Europe. That said, there is little evidence that Warsaw is ready to back down on the two major outstanding points of conflict. Opposition to mandatory resettlement of refugees remains resolute across the Polish political spectrum.

Nor does Warsaw have any intention of backing down in its dispute with Brussels over the rule of law, believing that the commission overreached by intervening in what was a domestic political dispute. Ministers concede that the government might have been clumsy in the way it has driven through its overhauls, but it has done nothing illegal or that isn’t common practice in other Western democracies. Even some critics acknowledge that while the government’s agenda adds up to a radical change and that some of its steps have indeed weakened checks and balances, Polish democracy remains alive and well.

In any case, Warsaw will be hoping that Ms. Merkel may be willing to play down both issues in the interests of wider strategic priorities. Whether other EU partners are willing to do so is another matter.

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