Ukraine in EU Path Threatened by Elections in Poland and Slovakia

Poland-Ukraine. Until elections do us part

23 August 2023

Adam Jasser and Wojciech Przybylski

Nationalism is on the march ahead of the Polish and Slovak elections, potentially ending unconditional support for Ukraine. Just as Ukraine’s EU membership hopes get traction among the traditional sceptics of enlargement, Kyiv’s ambitions run into trouble among CEE friends – write editors of the Visegrad Insight.

Parliamentary elections in Poland and Slovakia this autumn are threatening to weaken the pro-Ukrainian unity of European Union members and complicate Kyiv’s path towards membership in the bloc. If the nationalist agenda triumphs, Ukraine’s “best friends forever” are likely to demand new bilateral concessions that will chill EU membership ambitions.

If new governments emerge on the back of such an electoral agenda, the petty nationalist phobias will frame and set conditions for CEE countries’ future support of Ukraine’s integration into the EU. In other words, North Macedonia’s embittered pathway towards EU membership – hamstrung by Bulgaria’s conditions based on bilateral identity politics – would be a template for the other nationalists in CEE to exploit Ukraine’s membership bid, with much higher stakes for the West.

In Slovakia – a nation of 5.5 million – this comes as little surprise given the openly anti-Ukrainian stance of some of the leading contenders in the 30 September vote; however, the Polish government’s increasingly antagonistic approach to its beleaguered neighbour shows that much of its earlier posturing as Kyiv’s friend-in-chief in Europe should not be taken at face value.

Instead of holding on to its much-advertised vision of a “Polish-Ukrainian commonwealth” which could play a decisive role in Europe in this century, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) is pandering to the nationalist electorate by raising old historical grievances as well as economic self-interest as the guiding principles of its policies towards Kyiv.

Hyenas and jackals

The u-turn from being Ukraine’s most ardent advocate coincided with surveys showing the ruling party may struggle to win outright in the 15 October parliamentary elections, partly because PiS is losing the rural and nationalist electorate that is swaying towards extremists on the right, who have decried the “Ukrainisation of Poland”.

The country of 36 million people welcomed over six million refugees – who crossed through – and continues to host over a million Ukrainian refugees, primarily women and children. Since February 2022, the government handed over as much as 40 per cent of its weaponry to Ukraine, which proved crucial in bolstering Kyiv’s defences in the first months of the war.

Until February this year, the government was among the most vocal supporters of a speedy entry of Ukraine into the EU and NATO. The two countries’ presidents, Andrzej Duda and Volodymir Zelenskyy, had struck a genuine friendship and painted a vision of a new era in bilateral relations.

“You can always count on Poland,” Duda told Zelenskyy during the latter’s visit to Warsaw in April.

This moment was the high mark in the relationship, however. Almost on the same day, the government started openly complaining about Ukrainian grain crossing into Poland, and since then, matters have gone from bad to worse with astonishing speed.

It started with the Ukrainian grain exports, which contributed to a glut on the Polish market and angered farmers, but quickly spread over to Ukraine’s refusal to apologise for a World War Two massacre of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists.

Polish ministers and their media allies began to muse publicly about Ukrainian “ingratitude”, while in Kyiv, government officials expressed dismay that Poland was resorting to blackmail over old scores when Ukraine was fighting for its survival. Within six months, the two countries went from public manifestations of brotherhood in the face of the common enemy to calling in each other’s ambassadors for a dressing down by respective foreign ministries.

In place of manifestations of support for Kyiv’s speedy EU accession, Polish officials began to issue warnings that without a proper apology for the Volhynia massacres, Poland could veto Ukraine’s membership.

EU capitals were astonished at Poland’s apparent opportunism.

“There are countries strong like lions, there are countries sly like foxes, and there are countries like hyenas and jackals,” Jacek Czaputowicz, a retired PiS foreign minister in 2018-2020, said on a TV show. “And we are conducting a policy of hyenas and jackals.”

Ukraine in EU. Jacek Czaputowicz in Polsat News calls PiS governmnet hyenas and jackals
Ukraine in EU. Former Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said that in the context of Polish-Ukrainian relations, Poland pursues “a policy of hyenas and jackals”. Photo: Polsat News

Back to normal

Czpautowicz’s not-so-diplomatic outburst directed at his own country shocked the government, which accused him of a “betrayal”.

The inconvenient truth is that the grain issue and historical grievances resonate strongly among nationalist Polish voters, driving support for the extreme-right Confederation party, which may play king-maker after the election.

PiS may be forced into an alliance with the extreme right to stay in power, which would almost certainly mean a harsher tone towards Ukraine.

But short-term election considerations are not the only reason why Law and Justice so easily cast away its international image as a staunch ally of Ukraine — there are fundamental reasons why relations with Kyiv are bound to deteriorate if the party continues to govern.

It will be a return to form. Before Russia’s aggression, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and some of the party’s leading figures had mistrusted Ukraine. They perceived it as a potential rival for regional influence, foreign investment and, eventually, EU funds.

Backwards-looking historical grievances have formed the party’s core philosophy, which reduces all complexities to a black-and-white vision of Poland as a righteous victim of its evil neighbours. For example, anti-German sentiment is rife in its campaign rhetoric.

Even in terms of security, Law and Justice appears to have abandoned the traditional Polish approach that tying Ukraine into Western structures was in Poland’s national interest.

Conceived over a century ago, the concept that independent Ukraine is paramount for Poland’s independence has been espoused by Polish thinkers and political leaders, including the inter-war strongman Marshall Józef Piłsudski as well as, more contemporarily, the late President Lech Kaczyński, the twin brother of Jarosław, who perished in the 2010 air crash.

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Lech Kaczyński, like many leaders of the Solidarity movement, strongly backed the principle of self-determination of nations once trapped in the Russian empire. The Solidarity-led government was the first globally to recognise Ukraine’s independence during the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This line has guided Poland’s eastern policy ever since, but since coming to power in 2015, Law and Justice has taken a much more calculated approach, in which economic and historical considerations trumped others.

Warsaw’s massive support for Ukraine after the Russian aggression was, to an extent, opportunistic. Domestically, the unprecedented outpouring of support for Ukrainians by millions of average Poles forced the government’s hand.

Internationally, Warsaw spotted an opportunity to break out of a largely-self imposed political isolation and to turn the tables on France and Germany, as the two countries faced a backlash over their earlier appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the tacit acknowledgement of Russia’s claim to Ukraine as its “sphere of influence”.

Trading places

The paradox, which has caught many by surprise, is that with France and Germany no longer on the appeasement path and with support for Kyiv’s accession to the EU rising in the West, Poland and some other Central and Eastern European countries may be moving in the opposite direction.

In Slovakia, the outgoing government’s pro-Ukraine stance may also change after the September vote. Robert Fico, the leading candidate to become prime minister, has long criticised EU arms deliveries to Kyiv. While his return to power is not certain, Slovak society is among the least inclined to support Ukraine, according to surveys. Less than 40 per cent of Slovaks support arms deliveries to Ukraine compared to 93 per cent in Sweden.

In some ways, Fico’s equivocating attitude to Russia’s aggression resembles the attitude of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, who has become Russia’s chief advocate in the EU.

If Poland were to change tack on Ukraine permanently, it would leave only the Czech Republic and the Baltic states as all-in supporters.

Prague has refused to join Polish-led attempts to block Ukrainian grain, arguing that it was a small price to pay to help Kyiv.

Still, Slovakia is seen as a lesser obstacle. Fico’s previous stint in power had been marked by a combination of populist intransigence and pragmatism. The country’s economic dependence on the EU and Germany is a key factor. Fico’s alignment with the mainstream left in the European Parliament, which he has no intention of discarding, is another factor that could contribute to a moderation of his stance in real policy decisions.

Poland, however, is a much bigger player, and under PiS, it has become a disruptive force in EU affairs, questioning the very principles on which the Union was founded. Its European Conservatives and Reformers grouping in the European Parliament brings together the “anti-federalist” family of parties and leaders.

Just weeks before Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, an heir-apparent to Kaczyński, hosted a “congress” of Eurosceptic, nationalist and pro-Russian politicians such as Marine Le Pen, Orbán and Santiago Abascal of the Spanish Vox party, laying bare contradictions in PiS foreign policy.

Majority voting and EU funds

The inconsistency of PiS policy is likely to be an obstacle to Ukraine’s European path. A key issue is the internal EU governance. PiS insists that nation-states should be able to wield a veto and consider the growing momentum for majority decision-making as a threat to national sovereignty.

The party rejects the EU tradition of compromise and consensus-building to forge EU policies. It argues national interests must be defended fiercely inside the bloc, failing to realise that if every country applied the same approach, the EU would be paralysed and most likely disbanded.

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The inconsistency of this approach is most evident if Ukraine’s potential entry is considered. By the nature of Ukraine’s size, its weight in the EU council would surpass that of Poland. If Kyiv was tempted to play the same game as Kaczyński or Orbán, its potential to disrupt the bloc would be considerable.

Given that Poland may have legitimate conflicting interests with Kyiv on how EU funds are divided in the future or the impact of its entry into the EU agricultural market, a consensus-driven or majority decision-making could be in Poland’s favour.

Germany, France and other EU countries have clarified that majority voting is a critical next step in the EU set-up to allow for further enlargement.

The trouble is that PiS is trying to convince the Polish public that a policy of having the cake and eating it is possible – getting all Poland wants from the EU without respecting the rules and making any sacrifices towards other nations’ interests. This rhetoric is in the eternal argument that the West, particularly Germany, owes Poland special treatment due to the suffering Poles experienced during and after World War Two.

The refusal to compromise and standing up to Brussels are the bedrock of PiS’s election campaign, as is presenting anybody on the political spectrum who wants a return to more consensual policy in the EU as traitors. This puts enormous pressure on the opposition and may limit their ability to significantly alter Poland’s course even if they clinch a victory in October.

Led by ex-EU Council President Donald Tusk, the most significant opposition grouping, the Civic Coalition, has therefore focused the campaign on domestic issues such as corruption, abuse of power and the cost of living crisis rather than on foreign policy.

Tusk is berated daily by PiS politicians and its state television propaganda outlets as a stooge of Brussels and Berlin, allegedly tasked with overturning a patriotic government that looks after Poland’s national interest and security.

Any attempt to change course, including in Ukraine, is set to be exploited by PiS if it is forced into opposition.

Ukraine in EU – the tough road ahead

Poland’s unreliability regarding Ukraine’s EU aspirations seems to have taken Kyiv by surprise. There are signs it is adjusting its policy accordingly by seeking closer dialogue with France and Germany, in an ironic twist that flies in the face of PiS’s delusional narrative about becoming the EU’s new centre of gravity.

EU entry negotiations were never going to be easy for Kyiv due to the latent enlargement fatigue in the West, amplified by the hostile experience of dealing with Poland’s and Hungary’s turn towards autocracy and denial of the EU’s fundamental values.

Kyiv would be ill-advised to bypass Poland entirely in its efforts to secure EU entry. Disappointed as they rightly are, Ukrainian elites must do whatever is in their power to answer Polish sensitivities if only to display that they are taking a constructive approach to complex issues.

The Volhynia massacre is a good case in point. Undoubtedly, the atrocities committed by Ukrainians on their Polish neighbours in 1942-44 were crimes against humanity and should be univocally condemned by the Ukrainians. Refusal to do so is morally dubious and, perhaps more importantly, provides Polish opponents of Ukraine in the EU with an emotionally charged argument.

Suppose Ukraine is tempted to dismiss this as a side issue. In that case, they should examine how irrelevant historical grievances raised by Greece and Bulgaria hampered North Macedonia’s EU and NATO ambitions for over two decades.

The parallel is not lost on Visegrad Insight Fellow and leading Ukrainian intellectual Vitaly Portnikov. In an 8 August essay titled “No other neighbours“, Portnikov argued that Kyiv could not ignore the risk of Hungary and Poland teaming up to block the future of Ukraine in the EU.

“The experience of Northern Macedonia, which for many years could not even begin the process of negotiations on the EU accession without a historical and constitutional compromise, first with Greece and now with Bulgaria, is clear evidence of possible developments,” Portnikov wrote.

Ukraine must realise that the keys to its membership lay in the hands of the big EU states, primarily Germany and France. But he argued that it cannot neglect its immediate neighbours even if it comes at a cost to Ukrainian pride.

“I will immediately concede that any compromise (over history) will look like a national defeat for the Poles and the Ukrainians. It will destroy reputations, cause government crises, long parliamentary debates, (even) street clashes. It will be hot, very hot. But, unfortunately, Ukraine has no other way of European integration. As there are no other neighbours.”

Adam Jasser, Deputy Managing Editor
Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief

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