By Antonia Colibasanu

British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Warsaw to sign a new defense treaty between Britain and Poland. May called the deal a “powerful symbol” of the two countries’ close cooperation; however, the agreement speaks less to the cooperation between the two countries and more to Europe’s slow regression to pre-EU realities through the fragmentation of the European Union.

European member states increasingly prefer bilateral arrangements to multilateral cooperation as they pursue their national interests over multinational agendas. The new defense agreement between Britain and Poland is one example of this trend. The deal aims to increase cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. But cooperation between British and Polish armies is nothing new. (Britain already has deployments on NATO’s eastern flank, including in Poland.) What is new is the formation of an alliance along Europe’s periphery against Brussels.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (center) and Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki (right) take part in a welcoming ceremony in Warsaw on Dec. 21, 2017. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

As part of the defense agreement, the two countries will spend 10 million pounds – about $13 million (a small sum as far as defense deals go) – on strategic communication projects. The deal also calls for increased cybersecurity cooperation to counteract Russian “disinformation” across the region.

History reveals strong ties between the two countries. In August 1939, they formed the Anglo-Polish military alliance. In September the same year, Britain and France declared war against Germany after the Germans invaded Poland. Relations between Poland and Britain remained tense during the Cold War, since Poland was a Soviet satellite state. But once the Cold War ended, relations became stronger, both in defense and in EU matters. When Poland joined NATO and as the country’s relationship with the U.S. evolved into a strategic partnership, Britain also increased its defense ties with Poland. Within the EU, after Poland’s accession in 2004, the two countries supported each other, voting for or against the same policy proposals issued by Brussels.

This week, the EU Commission also invoked, for the first time, Article 7 against Poland for breaching European common values and the rule of law. This could lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the EU Council. It may also have its EU funding cut. But by signing a bilateral defense agreement, Britain is resisting the EU Commission in its attack on Poland at a time when London is also negotiating its own deal with Brussels on withdrawing from the union. Poland and Britain are already on Europe’s geographic periphery. Now they are both becoming part of its political periphery as well.

It’s no secret that the EU is bureaucratic; it operates by a complex set of rules and legislation. Even in its negotiations with Britain, where both parties need a resolution, Brussels’ mandate is rigid and marked by complexity. At the same time, Brussels has also been challenging Poland, as Warsaw has refused to go along with certain EU directives. It launched the rule of law procedure earlier this year, trying to push Poland to obey EU legislation. This all comes at a time when European economies are recovering from the 2008 economic crisis and are still facing social problems that need to be dealt with at the national level. The EU is under increasing pressure, and it is incapable of adapting because of the way it has been structured.

Since 2008, the EU’s fragmentation has accelerated. Recently there has been talk of Germany leading the way in forming a separate, enhanced union whose members – all members of the eurozone – would harmonize their fiscal and economic policies. This would permit them to not be responsible for poorly performing members. The formation of new alliance blocs in Europe should be expected, considering that all EU members don’t share the same interests. Germany and France have different views on key issues from Poland or Greece. Poland is wary of Russia, while Germany is focused on managing the refugee crisis and dealing with internal security threats.

Britain, because of its geography, has always been able to keep its options open. Since the end of World War II, Britain has changed its strategy from maintaining the balance of power on the Continent to maintaining its balance between the U.S. and Europe. It waited to see whether the EU would grow into a powerful entity capable of challenging the U.S., while maintaining its close relationship with the U.S. and hedging its bets. It joined the EU when the bloc became more united, but it kept its autonomy and refused to join the eurozone. It calculated that if European nation-states re-emerged as the primary political units in Europe and the EU failed, Britain would be in a position to exploit the fragmentation of Europe to its own economic and political advantage and have the United States available to support its strategy.

Now, the EU is under pressure from within. Multiple Europes are emerging. Britain’s strategy is to increase its autonomy and adapt to the new reality Europe finds itself in, while seeking to manipulate the EU’s breakdown for its benefit. It remains close to the U.S., not only in terms of their economies but also in terms of defense. Britain has supported many American military operations. With the EU slowly disintegrating, Britain may try to form its own alliance structure along the Continent’s periphery. A military alliance has already taken shape in the east, with U.S. support and British involvement. As Brexit negotiations continue, and as Britain seeks to deepen its cooperation with certain EU member states, the current free trade agreement within the EU may face new challenges. Whether other EU member states, particularly those in Eastern Europe, become interested in participating will be key to the way British alliances and the EU evolve.

Antonia Colibasanu
Antonia Colibasanu is Senior Geopolitical Analyst at Geopolitical Futures and Senior Fellow for Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. She has published several works on geopolitics and geoeconomics, including "Geopolitics, Geoeconomics and Borderlands: A Study of a Changing Eurasia and Its Implications for Europe" and "Contemporary Geopolitics and Geoeconomics". She is also lecturer on international relations at the Romanian National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. She is a senior expert associate with the Romanian New Strategy Center think tank and a member of the Scientific Council of Real Elcano Institute. Prior to Geopolitical Futures, Dr. Colibasanu spent more than 10 years with Stratfor in various positions, including as partner for Europe and vice president for international marketing. Prior to joining Stratfor in 2006, Dr. Colibasanu held a variety of roles with the World Trade Center Association in Bucharest. Dr. Colibasanu holds a master’s degree in International Project Management, and she is an alumna of the International Institute on Politics and Economics at Georgetown University. Her doctorate is in International Business and Economics from Bucharest’s Academy of Economic Studies, and her thesis focused on country-level risk analysis and investment decision-making processes by transnational companies.