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Poland and the European Union

Summary and Keywords

Multifaceted in its character, the relationship between Poland and the European Union is now more than a quarter of a century old. After the breakdown of the Eastern bloc, Poland signed the Association Agreement with the then European Communities in December 1991, which led up to an EU membership application three years later. Not yet a member, the country had some impact on the Union in the Nice Treaty negotiations (2000–2001), as well as on the European Constitutional Convention proceedings (2001–2003). After a successful EU membership referendum in 2003, reflecting a great deal of societal support, Poland, along with nine other newcomers, became a fully-fledged member of the EU. Once within the bloc, Warsaw was at pains to develop a more coherent EU policy, as it often changed its positions between more collaborative approaches and veto threats, but also absolving a successful rotating EU Council presidency in 2011. The country collaborated with other member states in Central and Eastern Europe—in the Visegrád framework and with the older member states—through the Weimar Triangle, for example, however with sometimes mixed results. Poland has prioritized a number of issues in the EU such as the energy sector, security and defense, and the Eastern partnership, the latter focusing on the EU Eastern neighbors, including Ukraine and Belarus. In particular, during the Ukraine-Russia conflict of 2014–2015, Poland was one of most active actors in the EU foreign policy. However, since 2015 Poland has become a subject of controversy within the EU, regarding the rule of law standards that were criticized by the European Commission and Warsaw’s rejection of a relocation scheme in the EU refugee and migrant policy.

Keywords: Poland, accession to the EU, Nice Treaty, Lisbon Treaty, Polish EU presidency, EU power sharing, rule of law controversies, European Union politics, EU


This article presents Poland and its relationship with the European Union (EU) in a quasi-historical and issue-orientated perspective. It takes a look at Poland’s political activities in the process of its integration into the EU, and it looks at a number of issues and controversies that emerged in this relationship more recently. The article takes stock of Poland’s activities in the period of entering and later within the European Union, as the membership negotiation process largely defined Poland’s relation with the EU. While the more chronological and treaty-focused approach in the first part reflects the phase-orientated logic of accession and the EU’s attempts to introduce sequences of reforms into new treaties preparing the bloc for the greatest enlargement in its history, the issue-accentuated part is more selective and focuses on the most salient and controversial aspects of Poland’s relation with the EU.

The first section, “From Accession to Full Membership,” offers a short historical review of the relationship between Poland and the European Union, starting from the break-up of the Communist regime up until today. More precisely, as the section presents the pre-accession period, it takes up the negotiations of the Nice Treaty (NT) and its results. A presentation of the Polish accession negotiations follows, with the veto of the then Polish government, and illustrating the issues at stake during the period of the Lisbon Treaty (LT) negotiations. A short presentation of Poland’s EU Council presidency from 2011 concludes the section. The goal is to show to what extent the accession negotiations affected Poland’s relationship with the EU and to point out the growing controversies surrounding the role of Poland in the EU decision-making system, in particular. Regardless of its limited negotiation power, Poland turned out to be, at times, a rather conflict-embracing EU member state, both during the accession negotiations and afterwards. This was the case despite numerous changes in the domestic political configuration in Poland, as both social democratic and conservative governments did not avoid conflicts within the EU.

The second section, “New and Recurrent Controversies between Poland and the EU,” takes up a number of new and recurrent issues as well as controversies that have defined the nature and quality of the relation between Poland and the European Union. Presented here are Poland’s core areas of activity, Poland’s interests, as well as the constraints with which Poland and the European Union were confronted. While there are a few more issues, the Energy Security, the Common Security and Defence Policy, the Eastern Partnership, and the refugee and migrant crisis have been highlighted and analyzed. Last, but not least, the political collaboration patterns of Poland in the EU and the rule of law controversies in the relations between Poland and the EU are presented and discussed. In particular, these have been accompanied by serious tensions between the national conservative government in Warsaw and the European Commission, putting Poland, together with Hungary, into the group of the most criticized EU member states.

From Accession to Full Membership

Pre-Accession Period (1991–1999)

Poland, like other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, entered a political and economic transformation in 1990. Internally, it was propelled by peaceful revolutions in these countries, which took place with strong reference to the aim of “returning to Europe,” highlighting the sense of belonging to the Western European civilization and being interrupted for few decades by communism (Novotná, 2015, p. 95). One of the major goals was not only getting rid of the authoritarian communist system, but also ending the influence of the Soviet Union and regaining sovereignty in international affairs (Kuźniar, 2009, p. 43ff).

Externally, it was the German unification of 1990 that led to the first enlargement of both the then European Communities (EC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by incorporating the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). This established a precedence of integrating a former communist country into Western institutions, as there were also debates about the neutrality of CEE, modelled after Finland and Austria. It also made Poland a direct neighbour of the EC, thus supporting increased political and economic interactions between states and societies of Western Europe and CEE.

For Poland, the integration with Western organizations such as the EC/EU, NATO, Council of Europe, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization (GATT/WTO) was viewed as the way to achieve the goal of regaining sovereignty and transforming its economic system into a market economy. The government of Jan Olszewski (1991–1992) was the first to officially call for Poland’s membership in the European Communities and to define it as a goal in the Polish foreign policy (Relations International, 1991).

Occasionally, there were alternative integration concepts, such as the so-called NATO-bis and EC-bis, formulated by the then President Lech Wałęsa. However, they were dropped quickly (Latawski, 1993), literarily along with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

In December 1991, Poland signed an Association Agreement with the European Communities, which aimed mainly for trade liberalization. Still, the interest in joining the EU was stronger on the part of Poland than the EU itself. Because some of the EU member states were more enthusiastic about the Eastern enlargement than others, it took three years for the EU to find a common position towards the integration aspirations of the CEE countries, including Poland. For instance, Great Britain and Denmark were supportive of the EU Eastern enlargement from the very beginning, while France and Italy were major skeptics, and Germany has shifted back and forth. The relationship between the so-called “drivers” and “brakemen” can explain, to some extent, why the integration was a rather rocky process in the 1990’s (Schimmelfennig, 2003, p. 178; also Morcavcsik & Vachudova, 2003). A number of explanations point to vast interest and benefit asymmetries between the willing CEE countries and the reluctant EU member states, which prolonged the process (Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier, 2005).

Finally, in 1993, in Copenhagen, the EU presented a list of criteria that the CEE countries had to fulfill in order to qualify for membership. As some authors suggested (see Novotná, 2015, p. 108), it might have been the civil war in Yugoslavia that propelled this decision, as the EU began worrying about possible political instability in CEE. The Copenhagen list included the criterion of stable democratic institutions (rule of law, human rights, and minority protection), market economy (ability to cope with competitive pressure within the EU), legislative capacity (ability to assume obligations of membership), and administrative capability (adjustment of public administration in accordance with the EU’s set of rules and regulations).

The salience of the membership criteria introduced a new dynamic as both the candidates and member states could use the Copenhagen criteria to measure the progress of accession. Still, the European Commission, headed by Jacques Delors, assumed that it would take a couple of decades for the CEE countries to fulfil them (Novotná, 2015, p. 104); and even if they were close, the EU might still decide, in accordance with the conclusions of the Copenhagen summit, that its own capacity to absorb new member states is not a given, thus delaying the Eastern enlargement.

Poland submitted its application for EU membership on April 5, 1994, and introduced a number of economic and legislative changes, mainly based on the implementation of the Association Agreement of 1991. In 1995, the European Commission published a white paper with guidelines specified for the integration into the EU’s internal market and set up the Technical Assistance and Information Exchange Office (TAIEX) to provide focused technical and legal support to all candidate states.

Then in 1997, the European Commission presented “Agenda 2000: For a Stronger and Wider Union,” the final part of which dealt with the pre-accession process but also voiced the idea that the EU enlargement could be viewed as a strengthening of the EU. The appendix to the “Agenda 2000” included opinions on the progress of the applicant states with regard to the Copenhagen criteria. Poland was evaluated positively as being on the way into a stable democracy with a functioning market economy, as a result of which the Commission recommended opening the accession negotiations with the country (European Commission, 1997).

The next phase of accession was initiated when the Luxembourg Council, in December 1997, decided to open accession negotiation with some CEE countries, including Poland. This was based on the progress of development reports, which were less positive for countries such as Slovakia given its trouble with rule of law at that time. Afterwards, the Helsinki Summit in 1999 decided to open negotiations with other remaining candidates, after which the idea of a “big bang” enlargement, with ten or more countries, began to grow. A further factor was the German EU presidency in 1999, as the foreign policy of a new German government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green party fostered a double strategy of deepening the EU with the Constitutional Treaty and a simultaneous EU enlargement.

Despite some acceleration in 1997 and in 1999, the bulk of the pre-accession phase could be characterised by reluctance on the part of the EU and the maximisation of the benefits for the EU from the Association Agreements. The Association Agreement essentially protected the EU’s key sensitive sectors (for instance agriculture, textiles, and coal and steel industry), while the markets of the CEE were opened wide, leading to a highly asymmetrical balance of payments, to the detriment of the CEE countries, and disproportionate profits for the EU member states (Grabbe & Hughes, 1998, p. 18; Mehlhausen, 2016, p. 42).

Formally, the Association Agreements were supposed to be advantageous to CEE, but in reality, they introduced transition periods for CEE goods and anti-dumping provisions, which discouraged direct foreign investments and thus inhibited exports from CEE (Mehlhausen, 2016, p. 52). At the same time, the association agreements were likely to have diverting effects on trade between the CEE countries (Baldwin, 1995). This is relevant, since a bulk of the public debate in the old EU member states assumed a normative position pointing to the an almost selfless support of the EU for the CEE, whereas the EU policies were actually strongly interest-driven.

While the EU committed sizable funds to the CEE countries, through such programs as the PHARE (Poland and Hungary: Assistance for Restructuring their Economies), the impact of these funds remains controversial. The PHARE program was created in 1989 to help Poland and Hungary liberalize their political and economic systems. It was later modified towards infrastructure and public administration reforms. According to the European Commission’s data, Poland received €1.4 billion ($1.57 billion) in total, in 1990–1996. However, as some scholars pointed out (e.g., Grabbe & Hughes, 1998; Mehlhausen, 2016, p. 58), massive amounts of the program resources were spent on the advice of Western consultancies, which caused observers to conclude that the actual financial support of the EU to CEE, given the considerable return flow, was rather lackluster, if not marginal.

Nice Treaty (2000–2002)

The key element in the final phase of the pre-accession period was the start of the Nice Treaty negotiations, to which Poland and other CEE countries were officially invited. It was a long-awaited moment for Poland, symbolizing finally the end of, and overcoming, Yalta and Potsdam decisions (Parzymies, 2002, p. 1). The Nice Treaty itself had been negotiated during the 2000 Intergovernmental Conference (2000 IGC) with the Portuguese and French presidencies, from February 14 until December 11, 2000.

Although with only an observer status, Poland could directly get involved in discussions on the so called “leftovers” from the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) with the Portuguese and French presidencies and influence to some extent the final negotiation outcomes of the Nice Treaty during the 2000 IGC.

Poland and other CEE countries from the so-called Luxemburg group (Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia) emphasized that the reforms to be decided upon in Nice should help “improve the efficiency of functioning of the EU institutions through their internal reform and strengthening of the decision-making process” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2000, p. 5). Economic stability and political security were named among the more general objectives to be achieved. Poland also demanded that the Union be based on solidarity if it was to remain a collective Pan-European project.

The then Polish foreign minister Bronisław Geremek formally conveyed all the Polish objectives in a letter addressed to the Portuguese presidency. He informed Portuguese Prime Minister Jaine Gama that Poland was “interested in conclusion of the institutional reform in the year 2000, so that the process of enlargement is not delayed” (Poland, 2000, p. 2). In general, the Polish government expressed the desire that the Union should ultimately emerge in a new shape that would allow it, first, to embrace new members, second, to act as a cohesive body capable of decisive and coherent action, and third, to demonstrate the necessary transparency for its citizens to understand its stakes, responsibilities, and duties (Poland, 2000).

The agenda of the Millennium IGC as some called it (Wessels, 2001), was simple and clear: settlement of the principal questions not resolved in the 1996 IGC, as they were the conditions sine qua non for enlargement to successfully take place. The three key “leftovers” to be tackled first were (a) the reform of the voting system in the Council of Ministers, (b) the question of qualified majority voting, and (c) the composition of the European Commission and the European Parliament. These objectives were set out respectively in the Cologne and Helsinki European Councils in 1999.

The Cologne European summit conclusions stipulated that “[i]n accordance with the Amsterdam Protocol on the institutions with the prospect of enlargement of the European Union and the declarations made with regard to it, the brief of the Intergovernmental Conference will cover the following topics: (1) size and composition of the Commission; (2) weighting of votes in the Council (re-weighting, introduction of a dual majority and threshold for qualified-majority decision-making); and (3) possible extension of qualified-majority voting in the Council” (Cologne European Council, 1999). All of this was confirmed in the final conclusion of the Helsinki European Council.

Just before the Nice summit, Poland did not specify its preferences concerning the weighting of votes in the Council, the number of votes in Council, nor the number of its members in the European Parliament. Regarding the weighting of votes, the demographic criterion was suggested as a basis for reform, although no specific calculations were proposed. In general, the positions of Poland were transparent and to some extent even realistic, as Poland showed good knowledge about the issues under negotiations.

Most relevant in the 2000 IGC were the negotiation days during the Nice summit in France. One of the main Polish dailies, Rzeczpospolita, reported that the task of the Polish negotiators in Nice was to follow, observe, and if necessary, intervene in the negotiations. The Polish Premier Minister, Jerzy Buzek, called upon all the EU Member States to show the necessary commitment and to prepare the Union for enlargement, respecting at the same time the requests and efforts made by the Polish society (Rzeczpospolita, 2000a).

As expected, the newly negotiated Treaty of Nice changed the numbers of votes in the Council allocated to each EU Member State. Poland had first been ascribed 26 votes, later, during negotiations on the second day, 28 votes. Although the negotiations did not come about as smoothly as expected, on the last day of the Nice summit the EU Member States finally agreed to accord Poland the same number of votes as Spain, namely 27, despite its slightly smaller population size. The Polish chief negotiator, Jan Kułakowski, supported Spain as he knew that “what Madrid gains will be given to us” (Rzeczpospolita, 2000b). As regards the qualified majority voting, the Union’s Member States agreed to modify the system after January 1, 2005. As for the qualified majority threshold, the EU Member States decided that it would be at 255 votes out of 345.

Concerning the size and composition of the Commission, the heads of governments of the EU Member States postponed establishing a Commission with a number of its members fewer than the number of the EU members until the Union would comprise 27 states. Should the number of EU members go beyond 27, the number of commissioners would necessarily have to be fewer; at that point, it would be up to the Council, acting unanimously, to determine the exact number of commissioners. Thus, after accession, Poland would accordingly be given one commissioner.

Because Poland requested that the issue of Commissioners’ individual political responsibility be regulated (the collective responsibility of the entire Commission was hitherto the case), the Nice Treaty made some reference to this issue by stipulating that “[a] Member of the Commission shall resign if the President so requests, after obtaining the approval of the College” (Art. 217(4), European Union, 2001, p. 22).

Furthermore, the 2000 IGC decided to change the number of seats in the European Parliament. Albeit the ceiling was fixed at 700 by the Amsterdam Treaty, the 2000 IGC increased this number to 732 seats. Since the principle of equality with the demographic criterion was applied, the number of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) accorded to Poland was exactly the same as that of Spain.

All in all, there was no reason for Poland to be unsatisfied with the results of the 2000 IGC finalized in the Nice European Council. Not only did the Union prove institutionally capable of managing the enlargement to include new countries, which was the most vital issue, but many of the Polish positions materialized in the final deal as well. The country received 27 votes in the Council of Ministers, 50 seats for its representatives in the European Parliament, and one Commissioner. Poland had also all reason to be satisfied, as the results were identical to those of Spain and close to those of Germany, which had only two votes more in the Council than Poland while its population was double of the size.

Be it as it may, despite good results in the 2000 IGC, the public debates in the country were not so much concerned with the issues of the Nice Treaty agenda (Baun & Marek, 2001, p. 17). Rather, the key question concerning the European debate domestically was the membership itself, that is, the accession negotiations and the EU membership conditions.

Polish Accession Negotiations and the Veto of the Miller Government (2003–2004)

The Nice Treaty boosted the conviction of consecutive Polish governments that Poland could play a serious role in the European Union. With 27 votes in the qualified decision-making system of the EU, compared to only 29 votes of Germany and other large countries, Eastern enlargement seemed to weaken large states of the EU and promote middle-sized ones like Poland, Spain, and Romania (Raunio & Wiberg, 1998).

Prior to the decision of the Luxembourg Council in 1997 to open accession negotiations with Poland and other candidate countries, Poland had already established the Committee for European Integration, which was in charge of coordinating all the legal and institutional changes necessary for Poland’s EU membership. The institution was granted the status of a central government body and was formally headed by the Prime Minister and comprised all ministers relevant for the accession talks. The secretariat of the Committee (UKIE) coordinated the negotiations and oversaw the entire process of legal adaptation.

In 1998, the government additionally established a body with 18 experts to coordinate the negotiation process and to assist the Chief Negotiator. While the central government bodies were endowed with many experts on European issues, lower levels of the public administration were often lacking specialists, which negatively affected the ability of the government to absorb some of EU financial funds (Stawarska, 1999).

In 1998, Poland and the EU also signed the so-called Accession Partnership that identified key priority areas, in which Poland (as other candidate countries) needed to make progress, as well as defined the framework of the accession process. At the same time, Poland was expected to draw up a national program for the adaptation of the acquis, which would also set up a timetable for putting the partnership into effect.

Some authors argued that the Accession Partnership was used to put pressure on Poland to do what the country could not achieve in negotiations with the EU (Mayhew, 1997, p. 66). In addition, it has been claimed that the European Commission might have used the Accession Partnership to define priority areas for funding that were in tune with Commission’s preferences, rather than with Polish ones (Stawarska, 1999, p. 829), all of which would question the fairness and openness of the negotiations.

In 1998, Jan Kułakowski, a former Polish ambassador to the European Union in 1990–1996, was appointed as Chief Negotiator. Given the complexity of the issues involved in 31 chapters of the EU’s acquis, the role of the Chief Negotiator was essential but not exclusive. The accession talks took place at two levels: the upper level was the Minister of Foreign Affairs with his or her counterpart from the member state holding the EU rotating presidency. The final deals and decisions would take place at this level. The lower working level included member states’ ambassadors from the COREPER (Committee of Permanent Representatives) and the negotiating team from the candidate countries headed by the Chief Negotiator (Novotná, 2015, p. 124). At this level, all technical and legal issues were discussed, while the upper level signed the final deal on each chapter.

The European Commission began the negotiation by opening each chapter, after which a draft EU common position was submitted to the EU member states for further discussion. Normally, the member states would suggest amendments based on their diverging interests. As a consequence, the COREPER (a lower level meeting of the member states) would negotiate a compromise between the member states, which in turn became the basis for the proper negotiation with the candidate states (Novotná, 2015, p. 124).

Milestone decisions were taken during the EU summits with regard to the EU rotating presidency, though there were limitations to what the EU presidency could achieve within the Roadmap devised by the Commission at the Nice Summit in 1999, introducing certain structure for negotiations. For the Eastern enlargement in 2004, the Danish presidency held in the second half of 2002 was the most significant one as its explicit goal was to conclude negotiations on all chapters by December 2002. This gave the negotiation process a final dynamic, even though the Swedish EU presidency in the first half of the 2001 was also responsible for speeding up the process considerably (Novotná, 2015, p. 124).

The final enlargement deal in Copenhagen, in 2002, included a number of financial solutions, transition periods, and institutional compromises for all participants. Some commentators highlighted the EU’s lack of generosity regarding the financial aspects (Grabbe, 2002), since the EU decided to shift money around within its budget rather than increase its volume, which used to be the case with previous enlargements. To overcome the clinch between the old members and the newcomers on financial aid, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pledged in Copenhagen to put an additional €1 billion at the disposal of the candidates. Still, Germany did not offer any new funds from its own budget but made a gesture with a re-definition of €1 billion from regional aid of the EU to a cash transfer facility, which would go directly to the newcomers’ national budgets. The total amount of financial aid under the 2000–2006 budget equaled €40.8 billion.

However, the net amount was much smaller, since the candidate states would also start paying contributions to the EU budget (about €15 billion in 2004–2006) and would not be able to use all the allocated funds by 2006. As a result, the estimated net cost of the EU enlargement for the old member states was only €10.3 billion, about one thousand of the EU’s GDP (Grabbe, 2002). The deal of €40.8 billion was even less than agreed to by the Berlin Summit in 1999—€42 billion, which in a sense exemplifies that the Eastern EU enlargement did not necessarily overstretch the EU financial capacity. At the same time, some EU countries, mainly Germany, struck a deal to establish transition periods for the access of the CEE workers to their labor markets, while many CEE countries were able to have transition periods introduced for the purchase of real estate in their countries, favoring nationals rather than other EU citizens.

Poland was able to strike a better deal than other candidates, probably as a result of its tough bargaining position, which led to Warsaw being granted about 50% of the total funds allocated to all candidates. A large proportion of it was distributed to Polish farmers who represented the majority of the Eurosceptic electorate in Poland at that time. Nonetheless, farmers in the CEE would receive considerably less financial aid than their counterparts in the old member states, for instance, only 25% in 2004.

On June 7–8, 2003, an accession referendum took place in Poland, in which Poles voted overwhelmingly, 77.45% to 22.55%, to join the EU (Wilga, 2004a). Even the 50% turnout required to make the referendum constitutionally valid was reached comfortably, with 58.85% of Poles voting.

At Copenhagen, the newcomer countries were able to obtain a highly relevant political concession, which produced a bone of contention between Poland and mainly Germany and France in 2003. There, it was also decided that the newcomers would be fully represented at the next Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) to start in 2003, even though they would officially join the EU only on 1 May 2004. The new Treaty of the European Union, which was negotiated in parallel to the accession negotiations, would also be signed after the formal enlargement in 2004, thus granting the new members a say in the content of the new treaty.

In addition to a number of irrelevant changes, this decision had political consequences concerning the Constitutional Treaty of the EU that was to modify the EU decision-making system. It was to abolish the hitherto valid decision-making system and to introduce the so-called double majority of 50% of members and 60% of the EU total population.

The social democratic government of Poland under Leszek Miller (and the majority of the Polish parties) was against this change as it felt that a double majority would strip Poland and other countries of similar size of their relatively powerful status, gained in 2000 IGC. As a consequence, Poland (supported by Spain) vetoed the double majority, which brought about the failure of the IGC summit in December 2003. Afterwards, Germany and France were quick to announce a closer collaboration with all like-minded countries in an attempt to put pressure on Poland. The issue was temporarily sorted out with a new compromise of double majority (55% of member states and 65% of the total EU population) reached with Poland and Spain. With that, and based on a draft Constitutional Treaty, the IGC could be brought to successful conclusion in June 2004. However, the issue of a power shift to the detriment of Poland would reappear in the negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 and become one of the most controversial aspects of Poland’s EU membership (Karolewski, 2007). One of the key arguments in this regard was that the Polish accession referendum of June 2003 was based on Poland’s power position in the EU as defined by the Nice Treaty, whereas the IGC changes so detrimental to Poland were negotiated afterwards.

There was a further major controversy, on how large was the asymmetry in negotiations between the candidate countries and the EU. Some authors stressed that the candidates were pressured into accepting conditions often favorable to the member states. As Heather Grabbe argues, “[t]he pressures on CEE for adaptation and policy convergence are considerably greater than those on previous applicants, owing to the Union’s much more advanced state of policy development—because of the completion of the single market in 1992, the integration of the Schengen area of passport-free movement into the EU treaty framework in 1997, and the launch of the single currency in 1999” (Heather Grabbe, 2003, p. 305).

Others though pointed out that there was room for maneuver during the accession negotiations, as specific negotiation tactics played a significant role. For instance, small countries like Slovenia were more interested in quick conclusion of each chapter, due to the fear of being left out of the first enlargement wave, while Poland—as the biggest candidate country—played a rather hard bargaining game, underpinned by its conviction that an Eastern enlargement cannot take place without Poland, even though Warsaw did not belong to the forerunners of the accession progress.

In contrast, the Czech negotiation team travelled incessantly to the EU member states’ capitals in order to lobby for the Czech position on many issues, thereby developing bilateral credibility and generating arguments with which Prague could affect the negotiations in Brussels (Novotná, 2015, p. 130). By and large, while occasionally countering the interests of France and Germany and forging alliances with Great Britain and other CEE countries, Poland remained one of the hard-bargaining countries, which was also confirmed during the IGC in 2007.

Lisbon Treaty Negotiations (2007)

With the German EU presidency releasing a draft IGC mandate submitted to the European Council, the 2007 IGC was launched on July 23, 2007 and then continued under the Portuguese presidency. Already before opening the IGC, the Jarosław Kaczyński-led national conservative Polish government articulated a preference for the renegotiation of the voting system. Although Germany tried to silence the Polish demands by threatening to isolate Poland, the issue remained on the table. At the same time, domestic political turbulences and instabilities in Poland, due to two important ministers leaving the government, diminished Warsaw’s position in the struggle for a more advantageous weighting of votes in the Council.

Those political turbulences eventually led to new parliamentary elections taking place on October 21, 2007, which in turn brought about a new centrist Civil Platform government under Donald Tusk, with immediate consequences for the controversies in the EU. As the initial statements of Civil Platform politicians suggested, the party was willing to accept most of the German proposals on the table. It also largely gave up its own previous proposals, most of all the square root formula (Wilga, 2008).

However, even though Polish policies towards Europe were much less confrontational under the new government, Poland’s policy towards EU institutions, and particularly the voting system in the Council, was still not entirely resolved, partly due to the fact that, after elections, both leaders from the two rival parties, respectively President Lech Kaczyński (of the Law and Justice Pary [PiS]) and Prime Minster Donald Tusk (Civic Platform), insisted on representing Poland during the IGC negotiations, thus introducing some contradictions into the Polish position.

The 2007 IGC had the ambition to negotiate the new Reform Treaty and to finish its work by October 2007, preferably before the European Parliament elections in June 2009 (Council of the European Union, 2007). The issues on the table were the abolition of the pillar structure, the symbols of the EU, the so called citizens’ initiative—which would allow EU citizens to launch a legislative process in the EU—stronger involvement of national parliaments, a permanent European Council president, a European Commission president elected by the majority of the EP, a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, enhanced cooperation, the European External Action Service (EEAS), permanent structured cooperation on defence matters, the voluntary withdrawal clause, and the ordinary legislative procedure.

Talks over the controversial issues were carried out between June 21 and 23, 2007, during which the Member States agreed to a draft treaty presented by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. During these talks, Poland—along with the United Kingdom—was the hardest partner, especially concerning the double majority voting system of the Union, the issue of the safeguard clause in the form of the Ioannina compromise (prolonging the application of the Nice Treaty voting system under certain circumstances), and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (CHFR), in particular its reference to Christianity. Other issues from the Polish perspective were not contentious.

At the beginning of the 2007 IGC, Poland did not want to accept any loss of national influence within the EU, in particular vis-à-vis Germany. According to the new treaty and the new double majority voting system, Poland’s political power in the Council would go down enormously to about 46% of Germany’s votes. Consequently, Warsaw did not want to accept any change from a system of weighted votes (Nice Treaty) towards the double majority voting (Lisbon Treaty).

To address this problem, the Polish government first proposed a new system based on the square root formula, calculated by the number of inhabitants for each member state (Der Spiegel, June 18, 2007). The Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński was serious about the proposal saying: “We are prepared to die for the square root,” curiously enough as a similar proposal originally came from the rival political party, the Civic Platform. Although the proposal was rejected on June 21, 2007, President Lech Kaczyński, the prime minister’s twin brother, reaffirmed Warsaw’s opposition on the issue of double majority, but started to sway between veto threat and signals to compromise on a system that would not sharply lower Poland’s position in the EU.

Trying for some time to resist the political pressure from other EU countries, Poland eventually had to cede to the heavyweight, Germany, and to the principle of double majority voting. In response, the Polish government got a concession in the form of postponing the activation of the new voting system until 2017, instead 2014, as originally negotiated.

The situation with the Ioannina compromise was somewhat similar. After the Brussels summit, where the PiS-led government lost the battle for the square root, it quickly decided to fight for the Ioannina compromise. The voices from Brussels, however, were clear to these Polish demands as well. The then EP president, Hans-Gert Pöttering, informed the country’s representatives that no one among the heads of state of the EU member states would agree to postpone decisions taken in the Council for two years. Such a de facto two-years veto in the Council was never, as Pöttering underlined, the meaning of the Ioannina compromise.

While this request was rejected, Poland was compensated with a few smaller concessions. One was the reinforced solidarity clause, which established that the EU “shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity” (Article 222 of the Lisbon Treaty) if any of its members is a victim of a natural or man-made disaster. Another, which came little later, was the post of an advocate-general in the European Court of Justice. Poland was also to receive stronger representation in the European Investment Bank.

Another stumbling block in the 2007 IGC was the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As the European Convention included the CHFR in the new treaty, it codified principles and rules resulting from “[the] spiritual and moral heritage [of] the European Union [. . .] founded on the indivisible, fundamental values [and] contribut[ing] to the preservation and to the development of these common values while respecting the diversity of the cultures and traditions of the peoples of Europe [. . .]” (Charter of Fundamental Rights, 2010). Poland was alerted, however, to a number of articles in the CHFR, to which the Catholic Church in Poland was strongly opposed.

After the 2007 parliamentary election, the new Prime Minister Tusk quickly underlined that he would go to Brussels and Lisbon to sign the new treaty without the CHFR included. The Polish representatives intended to negotiate an opt-out or a clause excluding Poland from the CHFR eventual application, especially in cases of conflict with Polish national law. With support of the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, Warsaw succeeded in excluding the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in Poland.

The situation with the reference to Christianity was not different. Earlier, during the European Convention on the Future of Europe (2001–2003) and the negotiations on the Constitutional Treaty, Poland had been keen on introducing explicit references to Christianity into the European treaties. Again, more or less following the position of the Catholic church, the governments of Poland favored some codification of Christian values, trying time and again to re-interpret EU treaties in favor of the values present in the conservative part of the Polish society. However, although these positions were well-defined, Poland did not succeed here, due mainly to the adamant laicity of France and other countries’ opposition.

Last but not least, concerning the European External Action Service, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the permanent council president, and the permanent structured cooperation or strengthening national parliaments, Poland chose to follow the mainstream, in line with its European partners. Less controversial was the withdrawal clause allowing any member state to leave the EU.

Beyond the more or less controversial issues, Poland was also negotiating a better representation in the old and new EU institutions; for instance, for its candidate, Jerzy Buzek—the Polish ex-Prime Minister and MEP—to become president of the EP, or for the Polish diplomat Maciej Popowski to receive one of the three deputies or general secretaries’ positions to the High Representative Ashton.

All in all, the new Polish government was pleased with the new treaty, because the state symbolism of the EU—the term constitution, the references to a European anthem and flag—as well as the inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as a part of the treaty text were dropped. The Lisbon Treaty also introduced the establishment of the permanent president of the European Council (a position assumed by Donald Tusk in 2014), reformed the Commission’s composition, strengthened the structured cooperation in security and defence policy, and, finally, enhanced the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy through the appointment of a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. All these changes were supported by Poland. However, while negotiating the Lisbon Treaty, the country only confirmed its image as a difficult and conflictive partner in the EU (Carbone, 2009), one that could be improved, as Poland was soon to hold the EU presidency.

Poland’s EU Council Presidency (2011)

The Lisbon Treaty curtailed the role of the rotating EU Council presidency considerably (Kaczyński, 2011). The shift of responsibilities, from the rotating presidency to the non-rotating President of the European Council and to the High Representative (HR) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (with regard to external representation, Common Foreign and Security Policy, and coordination of national foreign policies), deprived the rotating presidency of its hitherto existing channels of influence (Karolewski, Mehlhausen, & Sus, 2014a).

Despite its substantial downgrading, the rotating EU Council presidency could still retain a number of functions: some agenda-setting power (ordering of the issues proposed by the Commission), brokering of inter-institutional compromises (between Commission, Parliament, and the Council), coordinating national policies of the member states (the “confessional” system—bilateral compromise-seeking between the Council presidency and one member state), and administrative management of the Council (including both the internal and external representation).

During the presidency, the country at helm was expected to act as a neutral and honest broker, rather than push through its national interests, even though there might be some scope to stress regional interests the country represents (Crum, 2009). As the political functions of the rotating EU Council presidencies largely vanished, they were mainly charged with administrative management rather than with political leadership. Therefore, the fulfilment of the management function has proved to be decisive for an overall satisfactory EU Council presidency. However, its performance is always dependent on both domestic and external factors.

When Poland took over the helm from the Hungarian Council presidency, in July 2011, it faced numerous uncertainties. It was only the fourth presidency to operate under the newly enacted Lisbon Treaty, with little knowledge available as to how far the new institutional design of the EU would constrain the rotating presidency’s scope of action. Furthermore, Poland held a presidency for the very first time, and it had no previously accumulated administrative experience. In addition, the Arab Spring and the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone threatened to overshadow the entire presidency term. It was also an open question as to whether Poland, as a non-Euro member and with its clear Eastern Neighbourhood Policy preference, would be credible to handle the challenges (Karolewski, Mehlhausen, & Sus, 2015).

Poland held the EU Council presidency from July 1 to December 31, 2011; and from the very beginning, it was viewed by the Polish government as an opportunity to exert some influence and to improve its reputation within the European Union. Following several less-than-successful EU Council presidencies by CEE countries (in particular, an erratic Czech presidency and the controversial Hungarian presidency), expectations for the impending Polish presidency were running high, both domestically and in the EU (Czachór & Tomaszyk, 2009).

As the largest of the new member states to head the EU Council presidency, Poland hoped that its tenure would advance its regional leadership ambitions. Furthermore, the Polish EU Council presidency took place amidst the new EU financial framework 2014–2020 negotiations, which were of vital importance to the EU. For instance, among the issues at stake during the budget negotiations was the appropriation of billions of euros in EU structural aid. While the United Kingdom wished to drastically reduce or even abolish cohesion funds, the former communist countries were determined to preserve them. The Council presidency thus offered Warsaw an opportunity to build upon its role as mediator between old and new member states and thus to become, for six months, one of key players in the EU (Karolewski & Sus, 2011).

The Polish government initially formulated six priorities for its presidency: the further advancement of the European single market; intensification of relations with the Eastern neighbors of the EU; strengthening of EU external energy policy; further development of European foreign and security policy; negotiations on the new financial framework; and full utilization of Europe’s intellectual capital. Subsequently, these six goals were bundled into three over-arching priorities: European integration as a source of economic growth, secure Europe, and Europe benefiting from openness (cf. Czachór & Szymczyński, 2011). Still, some observers argued that realizing such a large number of challenging goals would be a daunting task, all the more so since, with the summer holiday period taking place in July and August, Poland would effectively hold the reigns for just four months (Karolewski & Sus, 2011).

The Polish government made careful preparations for the EU Council presidency prior to July 2011. While the entire Polish government met with the College of European Commissioners in Brussels 12 months before the presidency, Poland had already collaborated very closely, since February 2008, with its partners in the Trio presidency—Denmark and Cyprus, the countries slated to hold the EU presidency during the first and second halves of 2012, respectively. This cooperation involved skill-sharing, consultations on a plan of action, and development of the Joint 18-month Program of the Trio, to be introduced at the end of June 2011.

The overall performance of the Polish EU Council presidency has been assessed by observers as satisfactory and mature, but with a limited impact (Kaczyński, 2011; Pomorska & Vanhoonacker, 2012). Poland’s agenda-setting power was highly limited as the items discussed by the European Council in the second half of 2011 overlapped with the priorities of the Polish presidency rather coincidently (Karolewski, Mehlhausen, & Sus, 2014b).

While economic growth was part of the Polish presidency’s program, the main initiatives came either from the EU Council President Van Rompuy, the EU institutions, or Germany and France, including the banking package and the establishment of the European Fiscal Compact. In contrast, the initiatives brought forward by the Polish presidency, the external energy policy, were of minor political importance (Karolewski et al., 2014b).

More successful examples of agenda setting were the Polish initiatives on the Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Partnership summit in September 2011 in Warsaw not only raised the general profile of the Polish EU Council presidency but also reflected its determination to keep this issue at the top of the EU agenda, despite pressures from the Mediterranean EU member states to deal instead with the Arab Spring (cf. Vandecasteele, Bossuyt, & Orbie, 2013).

Furthermore, Poland was more successful with regard to brokering deals and ensuring intra-institutional cooperation. Warsaw was able to successfully mediate the negotiations on the so-called Sixpack (a package of regulations and directives promoting economic governance in the EU and the Eurozone). Also, concerning the delicate issue of the budget for 2014–2020, the Polish presidency kept close ties with the European Commission and the European Parliament, which paved the way for the upcoming bargaining (Karolewski et al., 2014b).

In the realm of EU external relations, the Polish government finalized the work on the text of the accession treaty with Croatia and brought about the signing of the treaty on December 9, 2011. It also pushed forward with the procedures leading to Serbia being granted a candidate country status, although this eventually happened after the conclusion of the Polish presidency in 2012 (Węc, 2014).

By and large, the Polish government successfully met the major functional demands stipulated by the Lisbon Treaty, in particular through an efficient management, a consensus-driven brokerage, and intense cooperation with other EU institutions (Karolewski et al., 2015). Not only was Poland’s public administration capable of coping with the complexities of the European politics during its presidency, but also the government emphatically demonstrated that an inclusive and transparent strategy was reconcilable with its national goals (Karolewski et al., 2015). It pursued a proactive agenda while avoiding the impression that it might exploit its term for its own national interests.

Only pertaining to some issues of particular national concern such as energy and climate policy did the Polish government deviate from the overall pattern of an honest broker. Some other achievements celebrated in the media may not primarily be attributed to the Polish negotiation skills but rather to timing, such as the signing of the accession treaty with Croatia. In contrast, truly difficult compromises may not be duly praised as the achievement of the Polish presidency, as the final agreement of the Sixpack illustrates.

New and Recurrent Controversies Between Poland and the EU

Poland’s Areas of Activity and Constraints in the European Union

From the very beginning of its EU membership in 2004, Poland has largely had clear national preferences that translated into initiatives, activities, and constraints. The bulk of these preferences were embedded in a series of regional or EU-wide initiatives, leading sometimes to new forms of institutionalized collaboration, although at other times to conflicts with other EU member states.

One such activity of various Polish governments after the EU enlargement was Polish energy security in the context of the EU. As opposed to Belgium, Denmark, Spain, or the United Kingdom, Poland—like other CEE countries—has been largely dependent on Russian gas for its energy security. As a result of various Polish initiatives, this dependence has been decreasing but it is still vast (in 2013, Poland imported 60% of its gas from Russia).

Warsaw has always categorized its own dependence—and that of other countries, above all of the Baltic EU member states—on Russian energy supplies as a serious security threat, allowing Russia to use the “energy weapon” (Smith Stegen, 2011). The 2009 gas-pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to serious interruptions in gas supplies to the EU, which accelerated Polish decisions in this field. One such measure was the construction of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Świnoujście, which has been operational since 2015. Also in 2015, Poland signed a deal to build the first gas pipeline connecting the Baltic states to the EU energy market as a measure of reducing their dependence on Russian gas.

Furthermore, since Poland possesses Europe’s largest coal reserves, generating roughly 90% of its electricity, Warsaw has lobbied for rehabilitation of coal as a way to improve energy security. Coal, however, is one of the most polluting energy sources, which counters the very idea of turning the EU into a green energy vanguard, supported vigorously by Berlin.

The increasing role of green energy sources was on the agenda of the Polish governments from the beginning of the 1990s. However, with an increasing focus of the EU on climate policy and growing EU ambitions to reach new emission targets, Poland’s readiness to accept “Green Europe” unconditionally has been decreasing, and was not even changed during the Polish EU Council presidency (cf. Wyciszkiewicz, 2014). Thus, on the one hand, Poland has pushed with its energy solidarity agenda within the EU, often against Germany’s plans to extend economic cooperation in the energy sector with Russia. On the other hand, it has attempted to revive the debate on legitimacy of coal.

In 2014, then-Prime Minister of Poland Tusk circulated a non-paper, “Roadmap Towards an Energy Union for Europe” (Tusk, 2014) across EU capital cities and within the European Commission. It consisted of six points, two of which reflected the Polish national and regional preferences. The first one stressed the need for rehabilitation of fossil fuels and produced protest from “green” EU member states such as Germany and Austria. The second highlighted the need to strengthen the EU’s bargaining power vis-à-vis external suppliers, for instance in form of the EU jointly purchasing its energy from Russia to provide the Union with more negotiation muscle. Nonetheless, the idea of the European Energy Union was to have both an energy security and a climate pillar, with Warsaw highlighting the former without questioning the latter. In the end, the Energy Union concept found enough support in the EU, as the newly elected European Parliament in 2014 and the Juncker Commission took it over and propelled further work on it.

A serious bone of contention regarding the energy security in the EU has been the Nord Stream pipeline, transporting gas from Russia via the Baltic Sea to Germany. Despite protests of Poland, Baltic States, and Sweden, Berlin started operating the first line of the pipeline in 2011, while the second line has been in preparation since 2015. While Poland keeps arguing that the project runs radically against the European energy solidarity by enhancing dependence on Russian gas and by allowing the hitherto transit countries such as Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia to be blackmailed by Russia (as it can cut off gas supplies via pipelines going through their territory, without endangering their supplies to Germany), Germany’s subsequent governments have been intransigent in defining the project as commercial, rather than related to security.

The role of German-Russian energy cooperation has always been a controversial issue in the EU, not just in German-Polish relations. For instance, the European Commission initiated an antitrust procedure against the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom, in 2012, in close connection to the company’s expansion on the European energy market.

In contrast to a rather stable perception of EU energy security, Poland’s involvement in EU security and defence dimension has changed considerably. The EU developed an increased interest in security and defence policy in the beginning of the 1990s, which progressed in the following years, for instance by incorporating the Petersberg tasks into in the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 (Howorth & Keeler, 2003) and the creation of the European Defence Agency (EDA) in 2004. However, Warsaw viewed this development as only complementary to its NATO membership for a long time, with the latter as the main pillar of Poland’s national security.

In addition, Warsaw was concerned that the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) might present a form of competition to NATO, not only by draining its resources but also by its being used as an instrument of France’s foreign policy to reduce U.S. military involvement in Europe (cf. Osica, 2004). Nevertheless, Warsaw engaged with the activities of the CSDP (or ESDP, as it was known until 2009). For instance, it participated in creating the “European Security Strategy,” mainly to make sure that the security and defense tasks of the EU do not question the role of NATO in Europe.

A major controversy surrounded the participation of Polish troops in the Iraq invasion in 2003, which led some European allies to question Poland’s loyalty to Europe. Also, the purchase of U.S. F-16 fighters, in a $3.5 billion deal in 2003, rather than Eurofighters, hardened suspicions of some critics that Poland might be a “Trojan Horse” of the United States in Europe (cf. Longhurst, 2002).

Since 2004, Poland has focused mainly on collaboration with the European Defence Agency, which coordinates military capabilities of the member states. Warsaw became one of the biggest participants of the first research program of the EDA “Defence Research and Technology Joint Investment Program on Force Protection.” However, after the presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the subsequent U.S. pivot to Asia and the Pacific, as well as the financial crisis in the United States, Poland reappraised its stronger involvement in the CSDP.

Furthermore, the Russian-Georgian War in 2008 led Warsaw to an assumption about the necessity to invest in both NATO and the CSDP. Within a decade, Poland moved from being a lukewarm participant to being one of the biggest supporters of the Common Security and Defence Policy (cf. Chappell, 2012). Warsaw started to participate in both military and civilian missions of the EU, including those clearly outside of its area of national interest, such as in Chad and Mali.

For instance, Warsaw contributed a considerable number of troops to the operation EUFOR Tchad/RCA in 2008–2009. Moreover, Poland has been actively involved in creating EU Battlegroups, the aim of which is to facilitate actions of EU rapid reaction in crisis situations. There have been various EU Battlegroups interchangeably on standby in the EU, representing diverse constellations of the EU member states and their interests.

In the first half of 2010, Poland had the so-called framing role for a Battlegroup (Battlegroup I-2010), created together with Germany, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia, to which Warsaw contributed half of the personnel. In 2013, Poland was a leader in the Weimar Battlegroup comprising Poland, Germany, and France. In 2015, the Visegrád Battlegroup was built and was on standby in the first half of 2016. Additionally, the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2014–2015 propelled Warsaw to acquire better military technology on its own and to also support the development of the European defense sector as a collective task for the EU, with balanced participation of all EU member states. And, Warsaw considered joining the Letter of Intent Framework Agreement Treaty, which was signed in 2000 by six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). The letter’s aim was to devise steps and measures facilitating industrial restructuring to promote a more competitive and robust European Defence Technological and Industrial Base in the European defense industry (cf. Masson, 2013).

Another major area of Poland’s activity in the EU has been the Eastern Policy of the EU. Poland has been on the forefront of creating structured relations with Eastern EU neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In 2009, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was inaugurated, based on Poland’s initiative and Polish-Swedish cooperation. It was created as a platform for trade talks, visa agreements, and strategic partnership agreements. While the EaP offered no EU membership perspective, its aim was to politically liberalize the countries in question and to stimulate reforms of their public administrations (Whitman & Wolff, 2010). In this sense, EaP was part of EU’s external governance, which in turn was seen by the Russian Federation as intervention in its traditional sphere of influence.

Poland has been very active in supporting the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet countries. While Warsaw and other CEE countries explicitly welcomed the future EU membership perspective of the EaP countries, France and Germany questioned it and blocked any substantive reference to EU membership in the EaP documents. The actual impact of the EaP (as of the entire European Neighbourhood Policy for that matter) has been controversially discussed by some authors pointing to ineffectiveness of the EaP instruments, as they failed to liberalize some of the countries such as Belarus, or produced “Potemkin” democratization, as in Ukraine (cf. Freyburg, Lavenex, Schimmelfennig, Skripka, & Wetzel, 2015; Kuzio, 2016).

When then-President of Ukraine Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU, prompting the Ukrainian people to take to the streets in 2013 and 2014, Poland played an active role in shaping the EU’s policy towards the Ukrainian crisis and then the Russia-Ukraine war. Shortly after the civil unrest and violent clashes broke out in Kiev, the Polish, German, and French ministers of foreign affairs traveled in February 2014 to Kiev to work on a deal between the opposition and the government there.

When Russian soldiers launched their military operation on February 27, 2014, resulting in the occupation and annexation of Crimea, Warsaw supported imposing increasingly restrictive measures against the Russian Federation, first by symbolic ones (for instance cancelling the EU–Russia Summit in 2014) and then by introducing economic sanctions, the latter taking effect after the downing of the MH-17 plane by Russian separatists in July 2014.

Since then, Poland has been a vocal supporter of maintaining the sanction regime against Russia, as opposed to the more cautious approach of Italy, Cyprus, or Hungary. All sanctions have been reviewed every six months since their initial implementation.

Poland is also one of the most vocal supporters of military and civilian aid to Ukraine (Cross & Karolewski, 2016). In addition to the EU’s financial support for Ukraine (for instance, the macro-financial assistance up to €1.8 billion in medium-term loans since January 2015), the Polish government offered Kiev a credit facility of around €900 million in December 2015. Moreover, Poland participates in the CSDP mission (EUAM) to Ukraine, which was established in July 2014 to assist Ukraine in the reform of its security sector.

Warsaw has also played a constraining role in the EU. A recent case of such constraining policy is the refugee crisis in the EU. The refugee crisis has been hitherto one of the most divisive political issues in Europe. The crisis started in 2011, as a result of the Arab Spring, and arrived in the heart of Europe in 2015, as more than 1,300,000 refugees came to Hungary, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Since September 2015, about 1,000,000 refugees have arrived in Germany, where the borders were opened to refugees stuck in Hungary in September 2015, and German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that there would be no limit to the number of refugees Germany can accept. While some German and European politicians declared it to be a great humanitarian gesture, others saw it as an enlightened political choice serving German interests, given the German labor force shortages, historically low unemployment, and rising tax revenues.

In September 2015, the majority of the EU member states voted on a refugee relocation plan across the EU, with a goal to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers stranded in Greece and Italy to 22 other EU countries. While Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic voted against the proposals, Poland accepted a small quota of around 7,000 refugees under the provision that their identity would be checked first, so they do not pose any terrorist threat (Duszczyk, 2016).

While Britain, Denmark, and Ireland are exempt from the relocation regime as they previously negotiated their way out of the EU asylum system, the remaining opposing EU countries could be forced to take asylum seekers against their will. Meanwhile, Poland also rejects participation in the relocation scheme, arguing that terrorists in attacks on Paris in 2015, Brussels in 2016, and Germany had migration and refugee backgrounds, which would shed an entirely different light on the EU reallocation policy. Poland belongs to the core group of naysayers, which has crystallized around the Visegrád Group, which now includes Romania and Bulgaria (Sobják, 2015). In December 2015, Slovakia and Hungary filed separate lawsuits at the Court of Justice of the EU against EU’s refugee relocation regime. The lawsuits have been supported by the Polish government since 2016. Warsaw has become an adamant critic of the relocation scheme, arguing that it has a repressive nature, especially given the facts that, first, migration policy is still a prerogative of the member states; second, the redistribution mechanism is a way to attract more migrants; and, last, after numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, refugees pose a potential terrorist threat to the countries they reside in.

In July 2017, a general advocate of the Court of Justice of the European Union issued an opinion on the Slovak and Hungarian lawsuits. The opinion recommends that the Court dismiss the lawsuit by Slovakia and Hungary and rejects all the procedural and formal points brought by Slovakia and Hungary. Moreover, it says “the mechanism is actually a proportionate means of enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis” (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2017). This opinion signaled the direction, in which the EJC would lean, as the Court in fact did in its final ruling on September 6, 2017.

In June 2017, the European Commission initiated legal action against three of the V4 countries, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland for refusing to take their share of refugees based on the controversial relocation scheme decided by the Council on September 22, 2015 (European Commission, 2017). While almost all of the EU countries failed to fulfill the agreed targets (with only Malta accepting its entire share so far), the three Central and Eastern European countries rejected the quota entirely. Simultaneously, Austria has not accepted any refugees in the framework of the plan but has pledged to do so in the future, and Slovakia accepted about 100 refugees from Greece and Italy together, with moves of both Vienna and Bratislava aimed at avoiding the infringement procedure, rather than wholeheartedly supporting the relocation plan. In contrast, Hungary has never made a pledge, Poland made one pledge in December 2015 (but changed its position as a result of terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin), and the Czech Republic has not made any new pledges since May 2016.

Political Collaboration Patters of Poland in the EU

Since its accession to the EU, Poland has participated in various cooperation arrangements within the bloc, both bilateral and multilateral ones. From 1991 onward, Poland has closely cooperated with consecutive German governments. In 1991, the Polish and German governments signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, which stipulated the goal of integration of Poland with the European Communities. Germany’s support was also pivotal for the Nice Treaty negotiations and the extension of the voting system to newcomers, with Poland receiving 27 votes in contrast to 29 votes of Germany. The support of Germany was also essential in making the Eastern enlargement possible in 2004 against resistance from, for instance, France (Mehlhausen, 2016; Schimmelfennig, 2003).

Since 2004, Poland and Germany have been closely collaborating at many levels and in many policy fields, for instance on defense and security issues (Chappell, 2012). As a result of German-Polish collaboration during the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the EU was also able to carry out reverse gas flows to Ukraine, which resulted from earlier experience of Berlin and Warsaw with Russian pressure on Ukraine (Karolewski & Cross, 2017). Nevertheless, the relationship between Warsaw and Berlin tends sometimes to be rocky, for instance, over the decision making system in the EU, the North Stream pipeline (and more generally the German-Russian collaboration in the energy sector), and recently on the refugee relocation regime, as well as historic issues related to the Nazi rule in Poland (Wood, 2002).

This ambivalence of the Polish position vis-à-vis Germany occasionally takes quite radical forms. In 2008, the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski accused Germany of being a Russian Trojan Horse in Europe: “They’ll play with Russia, and in return, German companies will get hundreds of billions of euros of business there, a pretty good deal” (Rettman, 2011). This confidential comment to U.S. officials came after Berlin blocked the NATO enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008. However, in 2011, Sikorski held a speech in Berlin praising the German leadership in the EU: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity” (Sikorski, 2011), interpreted by some as a plea for German hegemony. While policy changes and lack of policy coherence over time are nothing unusual, this example might reflect a deeper ambivalence towards Germany, at least on the part of the Polish political elites.

In comparison to close Polish-German collaboration, the relationship between Warsaw and Paris has remained distanced. Oftentimes, French ideas about the EU’s future development, France’s harsh critique of the CEE countries after the Iraq intervention in 2003, and more general disinterest of France in CEE in contrast to the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), have clashed with the Polish understanding of how the EU should function. The relationship was considerably soured during President Chirac’s term, the peak of which was the visit of the French defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie in Warsaw, in May 2003, and her less than diplomatically acceptable critique of Poland’s participation in the Iraq intervention (Wilga, 2004b, p. 49). Yet, even under President Sarkozy, the relationship between Warsaw and Paris was rather taciturn, exemplified by the serious difficulty both countries had in creating a sensible agenda for their strategic partnership, which was signed at last in 2008 (Kaca & Soloch, 2012).

Beyond bilateral ties, Poland has engaged in a number of multilateral collaborative arrangements. One example is the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland), which formally is not an institution of the EU. It was established in 1991, with the goal of helping Poland and other CEE countries integrate with Western institutions. The collaboration between the three member countries was expanded in the 1990s, and from 1998 on, meetings of the Weimar Triangle take place not only between the head of states, but also at the minister level and the level of civil society. However, the interest in the institution on the part of the individual members has strongly fluctuated since 2000.

Since 2003, France has not been very enthusiastic about developing cooperation through the Weimar Triangle, with the official argument that the institution fulfilled its task, as Poland and other CEE countries became both NATO and EU members. In 2006, the then-President of Poland Lech Kaczyński cancelled an envisaged meeting of the Triangle due to some diplomatic irritation with Germany. Even though the meeting was shifted to December 2006, it was no secret that Poland doubted the very sense of engaging its efforts in the Triangle due to its mainly symbolic relevance. The Weimar Triangle has not proven to be very effective in dealing with conflicts between its members. Neither was it used to discuss the Iraq intervention controversy nor the conflict over the double majority during the Lisbon Treaty negotiations (Lang & Schwarzer, 2011).

Yet, since 2013 there have been several attempts by Poland and Germany to revive the Weimar Triangle. Its first geopolitical relevancy came to the fore again, when the Polish, German, and French foreign ministers visited Kiev in February 2014, to broker a deal between the Ukraine opposition and the Yanukovych regime. The mission failed because Yanukovych fled the country, and Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. Then, shortly after the controversial referendum on the status of Crimea on March 16, 2014, the heads of the Weimar Triangle parliamentary committees on foreign affairs visited Kiev and expressed their support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Equally, in January 2016, there was a meeting of the Polish Finance minister with his Triangle counterparts in Berlin, interpreted by optimists as possible signs of a revival.

On August 28, 2016, the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France met in Weimar to celebrate 25 years of the Weimar Triangle. They declared that the institution would be reinvigorated and the group would meet for a summit in France in November 2016. The official argument was the concern of the three countries with Brexit and with the refugee crisis. Still, newer controversies over the cancellation of the sale of French Caracal helicopters to the Polish army soured the relations between Paris and Warsaw in October 2016, which was a new damper to the Weimar Triangle revival. Since then, the Weimar Triangle has remained largely marginal, hampered as well by the critique of Paris and Berlin on the rule of law controversies in Poland. In 2017, the German-Polish relations experienced a further downturn, mainly in the context of the new WWII reparations debate in Poland.

In addition to the Weimar Triangle, Poland engaged in the creation of the Visegrád Group (V4) in 1991. The institution had been established to promote collaboration between former Eastern Bloc countries in the fields of trade, culture, and national minorities (Fawn, 2001). As all member states of the V4 were candidates to join the EU and NATO, their mutual cooperation was seriously sidelined in 1990s. They also developed a sort of competition with each other causing trade diversion effects on their way into the EU (Baldwin, 1995). Finally, in 1998, the V4 agreed to meet every 6 months, and they created the International Visegrád Fund for V4 cultural and scholarly projects in 1999. However, because of the high variety of members, the V4 Group was rather inactive throughout the 2000s (cf. Dangerfield, 2008).

As the group is comprised of countries of various size and economic potential (Poland with 38 million on the one hand, and Slovakia with 5.5 million on the other), varying grades of integration within the EU (Slovakia adopted the Euro, but other members did not) and also largely diverging trade policies (high dependence on trade with Russia for Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and much less in the case of Poland), the V4’s cohesion is a serious issue.

Moreover, the relationship with Russia is not a unifying factor in the V4. Poland is one of the most fervent critics of the Kremlin, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, while the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is a frequent guest in Moscow, and Hungary has been described by some authors as the “Trojan horse” of Russia in the EU (Orenstein & Keleman, 2016). Furthermore, regarding the Eastern Policy of the EU, the V4 has not played any relevant role; the key initiatives came either from larger states, including Germany, or from intra-EU alliances, such as Poland and Sweden (Dangerfield, 2009).

However, from 2011 on, there has been a certain reactivation of V4. First, Poland initiated creation of the Visegrád Battlegroup within the CSDP, which was on standby in the first half of 2016 and will be again in the second half of 2019. In addition to the troops of the V4, Ukraine has been invited to participate in the scheme, in particular in the context of the 2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine. In 2015, the V4 signed an agreement to establish a Visegrád Patent Institute. The most recent sign of revival of the Visegrád Group took place in relation to the refugee relocation controversy in the EU in 2015. In August 2016, the V4 met in Warsaw with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the refugee policy of the EU. During the press conference, the V4 heads of state and governments stressed their resistance to the refugee relocation.

Rule of Law Controversies (2015–2016)

The rule of law controversy is the most recent and most serious bone of contention between the national conservative government of Poland and the EU. The European Commission started a formal investigation into the rule of law in Poland in January 2016. Such a procedure is provided for in the Lisbon Treaty (Article 7), in case there are signs of rule of law violations in a member state. The procedure might lead to EU sanctions against a member country such as a loss of voting rights in the EU. It was the first time in the EU history that such a probe was introduced against one of its members; although a similar probe has been discussed with regard to Hungary since 2010 (cf. Müller, 2015).

Concerning Poland, the procedure related initially to the changes in the law stipulating the functioning of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which had been made by the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) after the party won elections in October in 2015 and formed a government. Meanwhile, the European Commission has widened its critique to include the newer laws aiming at the changes of the functioning of the Supreme Court and other courts in Poland. The main thrust of criticism is that the ruling PiS party attempted to reform the functioning of the entire legal system in order to acquire power in an unprecedented way in the country’s recent history and in a way very similar to what happened in Hungary in 2010–2104. By doing this, the government has endangered the separation of power and thus the functioning of democracy in Poland.

The controversy had already begun in June 2015, when the former government of the PO-PSL (Civic Platform-Peasants’ Party) passed a new law on the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal, with one regulation becoming particularly controversial. It would allow the government (with the support of the parliamentary majority) to install new judges long before the term of the current judges expired. In this way, the critics say, the then-government wanted to manipulate the set-up of the Constitutional Tribunal with their friendly judges, as the defeat of PO and PSL in the upcoming October elections became probable. In August 2015, shortly before the parliamentary elections, such new judges were in fact elected by the Parliament.

After the national conservative PiS party came to power in October 2015, the new government and the parliamentary majority amended the law by stipulating that the Tribunal will have now to use a two-thirds majority out of 15 judges in the presence of at least 11 of them, and to address constitutional issues chronologically, rather than based on their relevance, which would equal a paralysis of the Tribunal. Additionally, the newly elected President Andrzej Duda, who won presidential election as a PiS candidate in May 2015, refused to swear in the judges elected in August, while he decided to accept the oaths of new judges elected by the PiS. In March 2016, the Tribunal itself rejected the PiS amendments to the law regulating the work of the Constitutional Tribunal as unconstitutional, with the argument that they hindered the very functioning of the Tribunal, making it dysfunctional. The PiS government, in turn, has refused to recognize the rejection by the Tribunal, claiming that its ruling was invalid because it was based on an unconstitutional change of the Tribunal personnel.

The series of mutual accusations by the parliamentary majority, the government, and the President on the one hand, and the Constitutional Tribunal and opposition parties on the other, produced a constitutional stalemate for a while, which amounted to two legal systems in Poland: one backed by the Constitutional Tribunal—whose personnel structure was largely determined by today’s parliamentary opposition—and the other supported by the PiS government (Karolewski & Benedikter, 2016). The PiS government continued to reject some of the rulings of the Tribunal, arguing that the Tribunal cannot decide on its own about its personnel and the decision-making mode. In contrast, the critics of the PiS argued that the PiS-backed changes were deliberately designed to paralyse the Tribunal (Sadurski, 2016). The government had invited the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to explore the constitutional crisis in December 2015. The March 2016 opinion of the Venice Commission pointed to an “ongoing constitutional crisis in Poland [posing] a danger to the rule of law, democracy, and human rights” and criticized the changes to the law on the Constitutional Tribunal envisaged by the PiS (Bilkova, Cleveland, Frendo, Grabenwarter, Scholsem, & Tuori, 2016).

With the end of the term of some judges of the Tribunal in 2016 and 2017, and the new president of the Tribunal elected by the PiS, as well as the effective removal from proceedings of some previously elected judges, the institution came under full control of the ruling party. This ended the political stalemate over the Tribunal but also disempowered it as an independent institution of judicial review.

The European Commission was engaged in solving the rule of law crisis in Poland from the very beginning. For instance, Frans Timmermans, the EU Commissioner in charge of the rule of law, visited Poland in May 2016 and met with Polish prime minister Szydło, later also with the head of the Constitutional Tribunal as well as with representatives of the opposition parties. Shortly after, President Andrzej Duda signed the new law on the Constitutional Tribunal in July 2016, and the European Commission made public that the new law does not solve the main problems and challenges to the rule of law in Poland. Afterwards, the European Commission formulated a number of recommendations and put a deadline of three months, within which the Polish government was expected to deal with the problems. Among others, the Commission had doubts about the blocking minority of four judges and the necessary presence of the prosecutor general, without which the Tribunal could not proceed (European Commission, 2016a). It also recommended that the Polish government accept the judges elected by the previous government while withdrawing those elected by the current Parliament. These recommendations initiated the next phase of the rule of law procedure.

In October 2016, the Commission received the response of the Polish government, in which the government in Warsaw rejected the recommendations as based on biased analysis and on misconceptions about the Polish legal system. It also argued that the implementation of the recommendations would result in violation of the Polish Constitution (TVN24, 2016; Wprost, 2016). Should the European Commission view the response of the Polish government as insufficient, as it did, it can invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which in turn can lead to sanctions against Poland. The problem with the Article 7 is that it requires unanimity of all member states (minus the country to be sanctioned) to enforce and Hungary has already declared that Budapest would block it. That is why Article 7 seems to be self-defeating at the moment, even though in July 2017 the European Commission expressed further doubts about the violation of the rule of law with regard to the planned judicial reform in Poland. If signed by the President, the reform would allow the government, among other things, to remove the current Supreme Court judges.

As a consequence, the rule of law probe of the EU has turned out to be of limited efficiency so far. This raises a number of questions including the issue of the “other democratic deficit” of the EU (Kelemen, 2017), that is, the democratic deficit of the member states as opposed to the often-debated democratic deficit of the EU itself.

Poland and Euroscepticism

The rule of law probe and the refugee and migrant crisis left the Polish government and the EU in a state of conflict. The question remains how far these conflicts can be attributed to an innate Euroscepticism of the PiS. While the PiS is not a hard-Eurosceptic party comparable to the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) or Front National (both proclaiming the exit of their respective countries from the EU), it does espouse soft Eurosceptic positions (on soft and hard Euroscepticism, see e.g. Szczerbiak, 2001; Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2004; Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2013), which have become centered on the conflict areas with the EU.

According to Szczerbiak and Taggart (2008, p. 2) soft Euroscepticism occurs: “[w]here there is not a principled objection to European integration or EU membership, but where concerns on one (or a number) of policy areas leads to the expression of qualified opposition to the EU, or where there is a sense that ‘national interest’ is currently at odds with the EU trajectory.”

While the PiS government is far from declaring an exit of Poland from the EU, it remains defiant concerning the EU refugee policy. There are a number of arguments presented by Warsaw (and other CEE governments, with Austria and Romania often supporting these positions) in favor of their skeptical position. First, the dominant one is that the EU relocation scheme remains illegal under the EU law and that it lacks proper political legitimacy. Warsaw (along with Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague) argues that the EU decision on forced refugee quota from September 2015 was illegal in the first place, as, for instance, the Council applied a majority decision instead of unanimity, which was originally proposed by the Commission. Once the relocation scheme was decided upon, Warsaw and other CEE governments began speaking of the “EU dictating,” as the bloc was pushing through with a decision with limited legitimacy, as a large group of countries have been forced to accept a decision they were adamantly against.

For years now, the EU has applied a rule according to which, in highly controversial issues, unanimity was sought among the member states, even though formally a majority decision was possible. If, however, a controversial majority decision was enforced on others, it would equal “a tyranny of majority,” given that the EU is not a democratic nation-state. In addition, Warsaw argued that the “open arms policy” of Germany equaled legal infringement in the EU, as Berlin suspended the Dublin convention by itself in September 2015, thus forcing the hand of other countries to reintroduce border controls and build fences.

Second, Warsaw pointed out that the EU’s relocation scheme would represent a pull factor, encouraging more migrants to come to Europe, rather than a solution to the refugee influx. The Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said: “We think that in September 2015, the European Union made the wrong decision when it qualified all immigrants as refugees” (Radio Poland, 2017b). Waszczykowski argued that the majority of the people who came to Europe in 2015 and 2016 were actually economic migrants targeting the wealthy welfare states of the EU, such as Germany and Sweden, rather than the poorer ones such as Poland and Hungary.

In the same vein, Warsaw stressed that the relocation scheme was doomed to fail, since the relocated refugees will leave the CEE anyway and move to wealthier EU member states. This has been a recurring theme in Poland, as indeed the bulk of asylum seekers arriving in Poland through the Eastern EU border leave the country even before their asylum application has been processed. Waszczykowski argued on several occasions that most of the economic immigrants did not want to live in Poland. “We would have [to relocate them] by force,” he said. “Then in Poland, we would have to keep them in camps as well” (Foster & Day, 2017).

Third, the Polish conservative politicians point out that the refugees pose a potential terrorist threat to the countries they reside in. As the conservative Polish Member of the European Parliament Jacek Saryusz-Wolski stressed: “If we are talking about the phenomena of migration and terrorism, there is a clear link between the first and the second. The fact is often denied in the name of political correctness, especially by the Western left-wing liberal elite, politicians, and media. At the same time, head of intelligence services in Germany and other countries openly speak about it. They name the percentage of jihadists among of the flow of migrants” (UAWIRE, 2017).

Equally, the Polish government officials have highlighted the security aspects of the migration crisis. “Until we have a mechanism to verify people who can settle in Poland, we will not accept them,” said Deputy Defense Minister Michał Dworczyk (Radio Poland, 2017b). In the same vein, the Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak stressed that the refugee crisis is to be seen as a security policy that has consequences for the division of competences between the EU and the member states, since “security policy is a national, not European, competence” (Garcia, 2017).

That even mainstream parties tend to toy with Euroscepticism to mobilize their political support is not a new insight, as there is enough research on Germany (Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2013, pp. 23–24), for instance, or other old member states. However, the question remains whether Poland is part of a larger European trend or rather an exception in this regard. While the popular support for the EU membership of Poland is still high, amounting to about 70–75% (e.g., Radio Poland, 2017a), the picture changes when it comes to the refugee policy of the EU. The CBOS (Public Opinion Research Center) polling agency conducted a survey in April 2017, which found that 70% were against accepting refugees from Muslim countries and only 25% were in favor; with 65% still opposed even if Poland was threatened with financial penalties (CBOS, 2017). According to an IBRIS opinion poll from July 2017, 57% of Poles would give up the EU’s financial support or even leave the bloc, should the EU enforce the relocation of Muslim refugees (Strzelecki, 2017). On the one hand, some observers argue that the dramatic drop in the readiness of Poles to accept refugees since 2015 has been caused by the anti-refugee rhetoric of the PiS government (Strzelecki, 2017), which has become the main element of the soft Euroscepticism of the ruling party.

On the other hand, there are arguments about the potential Euroscepticism in the Polish society that cannot be reduced to political manipulation. It has been often argued that Poland, as a largely Catholic country with only few and historically established minorities, has produced a society that is quite skeptical regarding large-scale immigration of Muslims. This is mainly in terms of avoiding cultural and security problems that many Poles believe West European countries brought upon themselves by accepting large numbers of Muslim migrants. In this perspective, the newcomers are difficult to assimilate and their isolated communities generate violent extremists. Against this backdrop, the ruling PiS can rely on anti-immigration sentiments in the Polish societies. Should the latter hold true, this could also mean that any form of punishment of Poland by the EU is likely to produce a popular backlash against the EU, making things even worse, that is potentially turning the current soft Euroscepticism into its hard version.

Concluding Remarks

The main task of this article has been to present an overview of relations between Poland and the European Union. The article took a look at Poland’s political behavior in the process of its integration into the EU as well as within the EU after the country’s accession highlighting a number of issues and controversies that have emerged over time in this relationship.

We established that, after the breakdown of communism, Poland’s integration with the EU went through various phases that largely determined the nature and scope of the relationship. The pre-accession phase could be characterized by reluctance on the part of the EU and the maximisation of benefits for the EU from the Association Agreement, while Poland gradually modified its legal and economic system with the expectations formulated by the EU.

The decisive turning point in the relationship between the EU and Poland (and other CEE countries) was the 2000 IGC, finalized in the Nice European Council. In Nice, the Union did not only prove to be institutionally capable of managing the enlargement to include new countries but also many of the Polish positions materialised in the final deal as well, which in turn paradoxically laid ground for future controversies. While Poland received 27 votes in the Council of Ministers, identical to the votes of Spain and close to those of Germany, its enhanced power position determined the status-quo orientation of Poland vis-à-vis any changes in the EU’s decision-making system for years to come.

As a consequence, Warsaw vetoed the double majority proposal, which brought about the failure of the IGC summit in December 2003. For some observers, this also marked the symbolic beginning of an “emancipatory process” in Warsaw, which would produce a more confrontational behavior of the country against large EU member states, mainly Germany and France, on various occasions. This was particularly the case with the negotiation of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, during which Poland tried to push through the square root solution as a basis for a new decision-making system in the EU.

While Poland was unsuccessful at preventing the double majority in 2007, it gained a reputation of being both a troublemaker and a country inclined to punch above its own weight. Still, Warsaw also showed that it was able to fulfil more demanding tasks in the EU. The Polish government finalized successfully its rotating EU Council Presidency in 2011, in particular through efficient management, consensus-driven brokerage, and close cooperation with other EU institutions.

Since its EU membership in 2004, Poland has been both collaborating with some and in opposition to other EU members. One major bone of contention regarding the energy security in the EU has been the Nord Stream pipeline, transporting gas from Russia via the Baltic Sea to Germany. On the other hand, Poland has been highly active in the Eastern Policy of the EU, as Warsaw was on the forefront of creating structured relations with the Eastern EU neighbours such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In 2009, based on Poland’s initiative and Polish-Swedish cooperation, the Eastern Partnership was inaugurated. In addition, Poland has also been one of the most vocal supporters of military and civilian aid to Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Some of Poland’s positions within the EU were subject to change. While initially skeptical with regard to the advancement of the Common Security and Defence Policy, Warsaw reconsidered its position and started investing in the CSDP. Within a decade Poland has moved from being a lukewarm participant to being one of the biggest supporters of the CSDP. Nonetheless, Warsaw has played a constraining role in the EU on various occasions. A recent case of such constraining policy is the refugee crisis in the EU, with Poland belonging to the core group of naysayers concerning the relocation of refugees across the EU, a case of soft Euroscepticism to some observers.

Beyond bilateral ties, Warsaw has engaged in a number of multilateral collaborative arrangements, such as the Weimar Triangle and the V4. Both organizations were neither part of the EU institutional structure nor particularly active in the last 15 years. Since 2013 though, there have been several attempts by Poland and Germany to revive the Weimar Triangle. However, newer controversies over the cancellation of the sale of French Caracal helicopters for the Polish army are likely to put a new damper on the Weimar Triangle revival. While the V4 seems to have entered a new phase of activity, organized around the rejection of the relocation of refugees in the EU, its stability might not be of long duration, as CEE countries espouse essential differences concerning for instance the V4 relations with Russia.

Still, the most serious controversy with the involvement of Warsaw is the formal investigation of the European Commission into the rule of law in Poland, initiated in January 2016. Such a procedure is provided for by the Lisbon Treaty (Article 7), in case there are signs of rule of law violations in a member state. Currently, it seems that the rule of law probe will remain one of the main areas of conflict, whereas as for now, the jury is still out on how far the rule of law probe will change the relations between Warsaw and Brussels.


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