The Dismantling of Alliances

Since 2004, there have only been two issues all four countries from the Visegrad Group have agreed on

Michał Kokot
21 February 2017

Visegrad Insight in partnership with Eastern Europe Network of Fellows of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation is pleased to present articles by Jörg WinterbauerZsuzsanna Végh and Vít Dostál created on the occasion of ‘Germany and the Visegrad States: Potentials and Challenges of Cooperation’ conference in Warsaw, 25-27 November 2016. 

One year after the victory of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in the parliamentary elections, Poland is facing a multitude of problems many of which stem from the incoherent foreign policy of the ruling party. Whether it be attempting to forge stronger ties with neighbours in the region or trying to assert its “growing” power in Europe, the Polish government seems to be misstepping in every direction. All this has led to the loss of one of Poland’s greatest assets: the perception that it could develop into a political and cultural bridge between the East and West.

Tensions with two of Europe’s biggest powerhouses came to a head in April when the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, declared the Weimar Triangle – a cooperation between Poland, France and Germany – to be “dead”. He went on further to rule out any close or permanent alliance with Berlin or Paris in the future. Then, four months later, he retracted the statement reversing his position completely, proclaiming a great “need” for the Weimar Triangle to continue; of course, the damage had already been done.

Contrary to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (Warsaw’s greatest allies) are not interested in ruining their relationships with Germany. They are too dependent on the German economy to afford a political fight with Berlin, and they don’t understand what the Polish officials are trying to accomplish when they declare a need to “counterbalance” Germany. The political approach of PiS appears to be keeping both their friends and foes alike guessing what their next move might be.

Case Studies of Mismanagement

So far, these tactics have not been very effective. Firstly, let us examine the short-lived partnership with Great Britain. London was meant to be a Polish ally who would support Warsaw’s desire to pressure Brussels in loosening governmental control and return some powers of sovereignty back to the nation states. Evidently, the Eurosceptic British decided to leave the EU outright, angering many of the “old guard” and leaving Poland ally-less once again in their cause.

Secondly, and of far more importance, the recent troubles with France over a reneged military contract which caused President Francois Hollande and the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayraul, to postpone their long-planned visits to Poland.

Here, the details are rather straight-forward. In October, Poland halted talks with the French company Airbus to buy 50 of its Caracal helicopters at a price totalling more than 3 billion euros. Officially, the Polish Development Ministry rejected Airbus’ offer because it found the deal had little value for Poland. But there were numerous indications that the current Polish government was against this contract from the very beginning. While in opposition, many senior politicians of PiS, including the now Minister of National Defence, Antoni Macierewicz, demanded that Poland withdraw from the talks with Airbus. Alternatively, they favoured an American competitor – Sikorsky Aircraft, a subsidiary of Lockheed-Martin – who offered Black Hawks helicopters and which were meant to be produced in Mielec, Poland. While the circumstances leading up to the troubles are rather clear, it seems the repercussions of the government’s decision was obvious to all except them.

(Un)Foreseen Consequences

For years, Poland has been clamouring to become a larger voice in the region, specifically with regards to the on-going Ukrainian Crisis. However, to achieve this they need help from their estranged fellow member states, France and Germany, as Poland’s attempts to get involved into the negotiations have failed mainly due to Russian hesitancy. With their current relationship status, it is hard to expect any support coming from Paris or Berlin to bring Poland in on the talks.

Worse still, the rejection of Airbus may threaten Poland’s position in the wide-ranging plan to create a common defence system. Similar to the Sikorsky bid, Airbus was to relocate a meaningful share of its Caracal production to Poland, which would have remained operational even after finishing the contract with the Polish Ministry of National Defence. This factory was meant to become one of the main links in a chain comprising the European defence system.

Needless to say, choosing the American offer may turn out to have unpredictable outcomes as well, given Donald Trump’s views on the North Atlantic Alliance. Mr. Trump sees NATO as a “relict of the cold war” and has hinted at the possibility of America not fulfilling its obligations to defend some nations would they be attacked by Russia. For almost every Polish government, including the current members of the PiS cabinet, the possibility of Russian aggression has always been a feasible scenario to be avoided if possible through the development of a strong national defence and meaningful alliances, both of which have been put into question by the recent foreign policy decisions.

Closer to Home

This threat from the east is another situation where Poland finds itself surrounded by many opposing views in Central and Eastern Europe; only Romania is convinced Russian aggression is just a matter of time and has urged Bulgaria, together with Ukraine and Turkey, to create a common defence system in the Black Sea basin. But the cooperation has never been set in motion due to Bulgaria’s reluctance to provoke the Russians.

A similar situation can be seen among the V4 countries. Poland and Hungary were in favour of having additional NATO troops – the so-called rapid response force – on their territory, but even in Budapest there has been controversy about establishing a NATO command centre in the country. More definitively, the Czechs and Slovaks immediately rejected the offer, arguing their citizens still have negative connotations from the housing of foreign troops in the past, meaning the bloody Soviet invasion of 1968.

These disagreements are hardly surprising. Since 2004, there have only been two issues all four countries from the Visegrad Group have agreed on: first, to put more pressure on the Western European members of the EU to increase structural funds for those in more need; and second, to garner support for their migration policies which involve a rejection of the refugee quota system. Apart from these matters, the Visegrad Group does not hold any geopolitical role. Regardless that all the countries are EU and NATO members, there are several issues (e.g., Russian sanctions, energy policies and an increased military cooperation) which make a stronger regional coalition impossible.

With their divisive and unpredictable policies, Warsaw has strained their alliances and put into doubt their future role in the continent. Their actions have created a political vacuum between the Western and Eastern parts of the Europe, and it cannot be ruled out that another V4 country will step in and build the bridge Poland tried so long and hard to assemble.

Michał Kokot, Gazeta Wyborcza

The publication of the article was possible thanks to financial support from the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.

This article was published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017.