Poland’s New Government Looks to Adapt Foreign Policy Approach

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 190

(Source: President of Poland)

On October 15, after eight years in power, the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland lost its absolute parliamentary majority. While PiS technically won a plurality of the vote, it was unable to form a coalition government. On December 11, the Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament) appointed Donald Tusk as the new prime minister, who was successful in forming a government from the broad coalition that, together, received a majority of votes in the October elections (Euractiv, December 12). The transfer of power marks Tusk’s return to Polish politics after he served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014 before stepping down to become European Council president. The new government plans to address a number of immediate issues, including the direction of the country’s foreign policy. On December 12, Tusk announced his government’s intentions to “demand full mobilization” of the West in supporting Ukraine as the war enters a critical phase (Kyiv Independent, December 12).

The strategic objectives of Polish foreign policy had traditionally lingered outside mainstream political debates and had rarely been contested by major political parties. Official discussions, nevertheless, have increasingly focused on how to achieve Warsaw’s strategic goals. With the new government, foreign policy will likely shy away from some of the patterns of the PiS government, though it is unlikely to be wholly revolutionized. In his December 12 exposé, Tusk accurately commented on the lack of unity within Polish society (Newsweek.pl, December 12). This in fact makes the country vulnerable to external interference. Polarization is a major issue and addressing societal divides remains a key objective in fighting foreign meddling, especially from Russia.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has greatly influenced changes to Poland’s defense and security priorities. The European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continue to be pillars of Polish foreign policy. The new government’s European policy, however, may be subject to slight modifications. For years, the PiS government was locked in a political struggle with Brussels over constitutional and rule-of-law changes in Poland. Tusk, who has strong personal relations with the EU elite, will seek to ease the ongoing disputes between Warsaw and Brussels, though this new agenda may take some time to implement.

Tusk’s stance on the European Union and possible reforms is complex and does not necessary reflect absolute support. In November, members of the European Parliament from his party voted against proposals to amend the treaties (European Parliament, November 22). Tusk stated that he would not accept any reforms that could hurt Poland’s national interests and would not allow any EU officials to “play him out” (Newsweek.pl, December 12). Domestic political considerations may be driving the prime minister’s more hawkish narrative on the European Union, as the PiS government regularly accused him of being a puppet of Berlin. Yet, Tusk did express Warsaw’s ambition to become less isolated within the European Union and “regain” Poland’s leadership position in the 27-member bloc.

After his appointment, Tusk announced his government’s intentions to lead a thaw in relations with Germany. The two countries had regularly been at odds under the PiS government over issues such as German war reparations to Poland (Notes From Poland, January 3) or Berlin’s ambiguous policy on the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Berlin has been wary of Warsaw increasingly taking the lead on European defense matters. Nonetheless, the complexity of Polish-German relations effectively imposes at least some level of bilateral cooperation. This is particularly important from the US perspective, as Germany and Poland are two central players in maintaining the West’s support for Ukraine.

The new Polish government may also adjust relations with the United States. The previous government’s policy was unambiguously pro-American, which led to accusations of Poland becoming a “vassal” of Washington. To avoid this perception, the Tusk government may adopt a more assertive policy toward the United States, which may include renegotiating arms cooperation agreements.

The war in Ukraine re-emphasized the importance of US-Polish cooperation for European security. Tusk’s trustees became aware of this in April 2014, when, shortly after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski called for the deployment of two NATO heavy brigades in Poland (TVN24.pl April 1, 2014). More recently, Tusk announced that Poland will remain a “stable and loyal ally of the United States” but will also need to be “convinced of the validity” of Washington’s suggestions for European security (Notes From Poland, December 12). The outcome of the 2024 US presidential election will play a significant role in determining the future of US-Polish relations.

The Tusk government will presumably seek to revamp Poland’s image as a democratic country to create fresh opportunities for cooperation with fellow EU members. This will likely hurt regional cooperation between the Visegrad-4 (Hungary, Czechia, Poland, and Slovakia), given Bratislava and Budapest’s seemingly undemocratic policies and the Hungarian government’s reluctance to support Ukraine (see EDM, December 11). That will likely push Warsaw to work more closely with the Scandinavian countries and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on defense and security matters.

Warsaw can be expected to maintain the same level of vigilance toward potential threats emanating from Russia as under the previous government. Poland will likely continue to assert its commitment to European stability as a defense donor, especially for the highly vulnerable Baltic states. Implementing that policy will necessitate the development of new capabilities and a comprehensive build-up of the Polish Armed Forces. Representatives of the new government have not disputed the overall direction of militarization in Poland. Arms procurement contracts, such as those with South Korea (see EDM, January 23), have raised some concerns, though Tusk declared that all contracts signed by the PiS government would still be honored.

The new government’s main objective toward Ukraine remains the need to maintain and expand Western military support to Kyiv (Kyiv Independent, December 12). For many years, Poland has played the role of “ambassador” in lobbying for Ukraine’s security needs at an EU level. This is anticipated to continue, as Tusk has been vocally supportive of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for EU member states to continue their military support. The recent conflicts between Poland and Ukraine, such as the grain dispute (see EDM September 27, 2023) and border blockade, resulted from objective differences of interests. The PiS government failed to anticipate the consequences of opening the EU market to Ukrainian goods and services and neglected to call for EU intervention in providing compensation for losses. It is unlikely that the new government will make grand concessions on this issue. Due to the European Union’s exclusive competence over agricultural policies, this dispute will have to be resolved through Brussels.

Four main priorities look to shape the future of Polish foreign policy under the Tusk government: revamping prospects for EU cooperation, strengthening transatlantic relations, opening new regional opportunities, and securing full support for Ukraine. These policies are interrelated and will presumably result in a number of course corrections from the previous government’s policies. However, that will not bring any revolutionary changes. Since the end of Tusk’s second cabinet in 2014, Europe’s security architecture has significantly changed. Thus, Poland’s foreign and security policy cannot completely mirror the pre-2014 approach. The new Polish government will be left to decide on the proper balance between maintaining its previous policies and implementing fresh initiatives.