The victory of Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party (also known by the acronym PiS) in the general elections on 25 October marks a milestone in the country’s post-communist political history. For the first time in 26 years, a party could form a government without coalition partners, simultaneously creating Europe’s most right-wing parliament with no seats for the left. The sweeping victory of prime minister Beata Szydlo will likely lead to a more confrontational rhetoric against the EU as well as increased tensions with Russia. However, it can be contested whether a highly unusual foreign policy alienating both Brussels and Moscow will change the current direction of Polish foreign policy in practice.
Regarding Poland’s ties with Brussels, the preceding centre-right Civic Platform (PO) government was able to make the country a respected and important player in the EU, an achievement crowned by party founder Donald Tusk’s election as president of the European Council in 2014. Tusk’s presidency in itself would be enough to build tensions between the Council and the new government; apart from their political differences, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski still blames Tusk for the death of his late brother and former Polish president Lech, killed in a plane crash on Russian territory in 2010. To understand the significance of this personal conflict, it should be noted that Kaczynski’s influence on the current government and its foreign policy is vital. His decision to not run for prime minister was a merely strategic step; having already served in the role in 2006-2007, he became one of the most controversial figures of Polish politics, contesting the European Commission over environmental issues and calling for a stronger Polish vote in the EU based on the number of Poles killed in World War II. Knowing that his party could not win another election with him, he selected the more moderate (and relatively unknown) Szydlo to be its public face. As the real control remains in his hands, however, it can be expected that his visions on foreign policy will be determining in the following years. Along with conflicts with Tusk, this also means going against a unified response to the refugee crisis by opposing EU quotas. Kaczynski has claimed that migrants carry ‘dangerous diseases’, exhibiting a tone similar to that of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán and Czech president Milos Zeman. In order to effectively promote their converging political interests, Law and Justice seeks to establish a regionally-focused cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe which transcends the EU, includes members of the Visegrád group as well as certain states from the Balkans and Ukraine. The project is inspired by the belief that such a partnership would strengthen Poland’s status against Germany, allowing it to have an even stronger voice in Brussels.
The shift from envisioning Poland as an integral part of Europe as a whole to firmly standing up against Germany would normally be in Russia’s interest, creating more divisions within the Union. However, it is unlikely to be the case now. One of Kaczynski’s main criticisms of the previous government and the EU was aimed at their lack of decisiveness when it came to opposing Russia, specifically in the Ukrainian crisis. When Ukraine decided to abandon trade ties with the EU at the end of 2013, it went against the Polish government’s central foreign policy goal of expanding the Union to the east and the subsequent conflict weakened Poland’s security as well. A poll from the beginning of 2014 showed that 80 per cent of Poles saw Russia as a threat to the country. Law and Justice MPs have claimed that they aim to set up a NATO military base in Poland to ensure national security, denying Germany’s argument that such a base would only provoke the Russians.
It should be noted, however, that this idea does not come from the current government; Civic Platform also pushed Germany to allow the installation of this base. Law and Justice may use a more powerful lobby, but their objectives remain the same. This, therefore, is not a complete turn in foreign policy. Furthermore, despite passionately arguing for the necessity of an enhanced defence strategy, Witold Waszcykowski, an MP from PiS claimed that his party does not intend to escalate existing tensions between his country and Russia, supporting the assumption that there will not be a significant change.
The shift to the right will likely have a greater effect on relations with the EU, but Kaczynski’s Euroscepticism should be viewed in light of his actions as a prime minister in 2006-2007. Despite his criticisms against Germany, he helped to negotiate the Lisbon treaty, which was then ratified by his late brother during his presidential term. Another example showing the gap between PiS’ rhetoric and actual policies concerns the adoption of the Euro. While President Andrzej Duda, one of Kaczynski’s loyal supporters, claimed that the country will not start using the currency during his mandate (fearing the inflation it may cause), currently the constitution does not grant him the powers to make this decision.
In conclusion, while Law and Justice’s rhetoric is unusual in Europe in its hostility towards both the EU and Russia, it will not necessarily lead to a radical shift in Poland’s foreign policy. Since relations with Moscow are already tense, the party’s policies will only potentially reinforce existing conflicts. Regarding the EU, it is likely that Euroscepticism will be on the rise, but in practice, based on past examples of PiS governance and the constitutional limits of opposing Brussels, this will not automatically mean a change towards opposing the European project itself.