By Jacob L. Shapiro
The staring contest between Poland and the European Union continues. The issue now appears to be over the appropriate response to the U.S. termination of the Iran nuclear deal. The EU has remained a steadfast supporter of the deal, officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Earlier this month, Brussels committed to continuing implementation of the JCPOA and even launched a process to activate a never-before-used EU statute that would, in the European Commission’s words, “forbid EU persons from complying with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions.” The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy doubled down on this stance on May 21, responding directly to a strident speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by insisting that, for the EU, there is “no alternative.” For once, it seemed the EU’s position was unambiguously unanimous.
The first sign of trouble came May 21 when Poland’s foreign minister, during a visit to Washington, said that although Poland was in favor of EU moves to protect member states from the ill effects of U.S. sanctions, it “understood U.S. concerns.” The following day, Poland’s prime minister went a step further, saying Poland would seek to serve as a mediator between the EU and the U.S. to resolve the impasse. This is something of an about-face for Polish foreign policy. After all, it was just last week that Poland went along with the European Commission’s decision to reactivate the so-called blocking statute designed to shield EU affiliates from the negative effects of sanctions. For the EU, Poland’s move is an ill-timed, high-profile crack in the bloc’s condemnation of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
It also stands in contrast to Germany’s recent moves. Germany’s foreign minister met May 22 with U.S. officials to continue lobbying against new American anti-Iran sanctions. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling to China to talk trade and the Iran deal. Even without Germany’s criticism of the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, this would have been a difficult trip abroad for Merkel – China and Germany are increasingly competing with each other on the global market, even if they are united in their opposition to U.S. protectionism. But now Merkel must decide whether to align Germany with China on the Iran nuclear deal in the same week that China is landing strategic bombers on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The timing is coincidental, but in effect, Berlin is cozying up with Beijing while Warsaw is kowtowing to Washington.
That Poland would be more amenable to the U.S. on this issue – and for that matter, on any issue – fits with the general trend of the U.S.-Poland relationship. The U.S. has made significant military deployments in Poland and offered ironclad promises of support in the event of Russian aggression. And the U.S. represents one of Poland’s few viable options for reducing its economic dependence on German trade. After all, Poland remains a key cog in the German supply chain, and an economic break with Germany is a bigger threat to Poland than any Russian moves against Warsaw. It also costs Poland little to voice support for the U.S. on Iran. In doing so, Poland gets to flatter the U.S. while in practice still supporting EU moves to limit the threat of U.S. sanctions on the Continent.
Despite the low-cost and relatively meaningless implications of the Polish gesture, it will have ramifications for Poland’s already strained relationship with the EU. In March, Poland made important concessions to the EU when it modified controversial domestic judicial reforms. Just a few weeks after the changes were passed, however, the European Commission insisted that Poland had not gone far enough. Additional concessions will be difficult, as Poland’s foreign minister warned. Earlier this month, the lower house passed new measures limiting the ability of the Supreme Court to overturn past verdicts, but the changes must still be approved by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda – hardly a foregone conclusion considering Duda has already come under criticism from his own political party for vetoing key party projects and entertaining EU concessions in the first place.
Looming over all this are upcoming European budget negotiations – talks that the European Commission has used in the past to threaten Poland into submission. Though Poland has shown that it is willing to make some compromises ahead of the predictably contentious budgeting process, it has yet to see the same from the EU’s western heavyweights, Germany and France. At a time when Berlin and Paris are seeking to increase the EU’s authority, Poland is looking to be treated as a partner with an equal voice in making EU rules. If this cannot be achieved, Poland will pursue a more flexible relationship with Brussels, whereby the economic benefits of EU membership continue while leaving space for countries to pursue independent foreign policies more consistent with their national interests rather than with European unanimity.
It would be an exaggeration to describe this as a Polish break with the EU, as most Western media headlines have done. When it comes to the JCPOA, Poland is offering the U.S. words of support, but it is still backing the EU when it comes to actions. But there is indeed a serious rift between Poland on the one hand and Germany and France on the other when it comes to dealing with the United States. Just as Germany and France are looking to reimagine the EU to serve their own national interests, in part by strengthening the bloc and pushing back against the U.S., Poland is seeking a more independent foreign policy, one whose ultimate goal is protecting Warsaw’s, not Brussels’, interests. Still, it is not yet clear whether Poland’s interests are best served by breaking with the EU, just that Poland is preparing for the contingency.