Kamila Kwapińska sets out the challenges for the new pro-EU coalition in Poland and explores the implications of the likely change in government for UK-Polish relations.
The results of the October 2023 parliamentary elections have shaken up Polish politics. The opposition parties took a month to negotiate but have now signed an agreement which promises deep reforms. And the outcome will also have a considerable impact at EU level.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Poland has occupied an increasingly important strategic role. Donald Tusk – the man expected to be the next Prime Minister – has an established network in the EU and a pro-EU agenda, and will be looking to build Poland’s EU influence. However, for the UK, which built a close relationship with Poland under the previous Law and Justice (PiS) government, there is a risk that the relationship weakens.
A coalition has now been formed between the Civic Coalition, the main opposition party led by Tusk, the Third Way, a centrist-right grouping, and the Left. The incumbent PiS won the largest number of votes, but their divisive politics prompted a backlash and they became the winning loser, with nobody to form a coalition with. Their only viable coalition partner – the far-right Confederation party, which secured 18 seats – has chosen not to collaborate with them. Despite sharing an emphasis on conservative Catholic values with PiS, they have refused to compromise on their libertarian economic programme.
The coalition agreement is short, but ambitious. The number one priority is to maintain the security of Poland in the context of Russia’s aggression on neighbouring Ukraine. In this respect, it is no different to the outgoing government. But the rest of the programme aims to reverse much of the PiS legacy: depoliticise the judiciary, separate church from the state (theoretically Poland is a secular state but not in practice), raise wages in the public sector, fix the NFZ (the Polish NHS), educational reform, support women’s reproductive rights, support LGBTQ+ rights, build public housing, provide energy security, and more.
However, the coalition will be in a tough position to implement such deep reforms, and PiS will likely seek to slow them down. In a sign of things to come, the pro-PiS President has sworn in a new PiS government, even though its time in office is likely to only last for a maximum of two weeks before it fails to win the necessary vote of confidence. The Tusk-led coalition will be second in line to form the government. In the unlikely event that the coalition does not row in behind Tusk, the President will have to call for new parliamentary elections.
The new coalition, once in power, will still be under the pro-PiS President of Poland who enjoys a veto power (which can only be overturned with a 3/5 majority in the parliament). The President will be able to veto and slow down any reforms until at least 2025, when presidential elections are scheduled. And then there is the legacy of the politicised pro-PiS Constitutional Tribunal (the highest Polish court), TVP as a propaganda tool, and control over the central bank (insofar as the board members are political appointments).
What will the likely change in government mean for other European states who cooperate with Poland? The head of the coalition Donald Tusk is a former President of the European Council and former head of the European People’s Party, so inevitably brings with him a strong pro-EU agenda. This is a major shift from the radical Euroscepticism of PiS, who saw enemies in both the East and in the West (primarily Germany).
The number one priority in the coalition agreement of securing Polish national defence signals that this will be achieved by cooperating with the EU and NATO. Tusk will likely attempt to make Poland a leading country in Central and Eastern Europe by building up its position in key security organisations, such as the EU and NATO. That is only if the coalition can implement the promised democratic reforms.
Poland under PiS was consistently breaking EU law and championed a strong Eurosceptic agenda. In response, the EU imposed penalties on Poland for the politicisation of judiciary, and for violations of LGBTQ+ rights. Reversing these trends is necessary for Poland to become an influential actor in the EU. Still, PiS will most likely do everything they can to slow them down. Kaczyński has already stated that if Tusk forms the next government, Poland will be under German rule (via the EU) and Poland will be lost as a sovereign state.
Under PiS, UK-Poland relations have warmed considerably, due to shared Euroscepticism in foreign policy making, but also because of Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The relationship proved to be mutually beneficial. Poland was focused on improving its defence capabilities, and the UK was a willing partner.
In 2016, the UK and Poland issued a Joint Communique announcing that they will work towards strengthening bilateral relations and in 2018 they signed the Treaty on Defence and Security Cooperation. Shortly after the UK began arming Poland, they collaborated on multi-billion pound air defence systems, on the missile system Narew, and the UK deployed the Sky Sabre defence system in Poland.
After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the cooperation between British and Polish defence industry increased further still and in July 2023 they signed the 2030 Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration on foreign policy, security and defence.
With the pro-EU coalition taking over in Poland, and the expectation among voters that Tusk will mend relationships with the EU, the UK-Poland strategic partnership may suffer. On the one hand the coalition agreement already states that it will seek to build security within the EU rather than bilaterally with third European states. On the other hand, they also promise a professionalisation and depoliticization of security strategy. There seems to be nothing to gain by neglecting the 2030 Strategic Partnership with the UK, especially when one of its aims is to work towards strengthening NATO-EU cooperation.
Tusk’s priority is clearly the EU, and the UK will have to adjust to this new reality when working with Poland. Nevertheless, if the coalition delivers on its reforms, Poland will become a strong player in the EU and could again prove to be a useful ally for the UK. They share a similar outlook on the security strategy that is reflected in the Partnership. Poland could be a useful bridge for the UK in the process of warming up its relations with the EU.
By Kamila Kwapińska, PhD candidate and Research Assistant, University of Kent.