Judy Asks: Is Poland Back?

Donald Tusk’s government is trying to restore Poland’s rule of law while reclaiming the country’s role as a major EU player. But divisions in Polish politics and society complicate reforms.

Tony Barber – European comment editor of the Financial Times

Not completely.

For the health of Polish democracy, and for the European Union’s well-being, it’s unquestionably positive that Donald Tusk’s coalition won last October’s election and formed a government.

On both counts, the Law and Justice (PiS) party caused serious damage during its eight years in power. It turned Poland from the star performer of the post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe into a prime example of illiberalism at home and trouble-making in the EU.

However, the Tusk coalition’s victory was narrow. Polish politics and society remain split between progressives and moderates on the one hand and the hardline right on the other. Dismantling the capture of state institutions after the PiS era is an immensely complicated task.

With regard to the EU, Poland under Tusk is a much more cooperative player. However, frictions persist over Ukrainian agricultural competition and climate change policies. Furthermore, the Tusk government is at odds with the hard-right forces which already rule or exercise considerable influence in some EU countries, and which may gain in strength after June’s European Parliament elections.

So, Poland is not entirely back, partly because of deep-seated domestic tensions and partly because of powerful political trends across the EU.

Stephen Bastos – Senior project manager at Stiftung Genshagen

It was the legendary leader of the Polish anti-communist Solidarność movement, Lech Wałęsa, who coined the popular saying “Jestem za, a nawet przeciw” (“I am for, and even against”). It’s a typical reflection of the paradoxical Polish mindset.

Applying this intellectual approach leads to a twofold answer. First and foremost, the answer must be a resounding yes! After years of self-inflicted marginalization and constant fights with nearly all its neighbors—except maybe with the Baltics—Poland is back at the center of European politics. And it comes back with an important message for Europe and the West: in the face of widespread populism, the decline of liberal democracy is not inevitable. It’s even possible to beat an illiberal government in an unfair election.

On the other hand, we are not talking about a simple return to a status quo ante. Both Poland and Europe have changed dramatically. Poland is a much more self-confident partner based on its impressive economic performance in the last years. And with Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, Europe is once again caught between two well-known specters of the past: an aggressive imperial Russia and a weakened U.S. commitment to Europe’s security. Poland is particulary exposed to both changes and, together with Germany and France, it is called upon to lead the way to reinvent Europe.

Krzysztof Błędowski – Visiting adjunct professor at the Rzeszów University of Information Technology and Management

Yes, it is—to the extent that it actively works with others in good faith to find solutions to EU challenges.

Notwithstanding Warsaw’s good intentions, its hands are tied. First, the new administration faces difficulties in implementing domestic reforms that undo the damage inflicted by PiS. Such efforts inevitably sap the government’s energy. Second, the EU now boasts an unusually fractious political architecture. Within the Weimar Triangle alone, Franco-German differences to common challenges such as climate, security, and trade remain huge. Third, Poland is still a middle-income country that cannot aspire to economic and political leadership in Europe. Its comparative advantage lies in catalyzing change, not leading the continent.

Yet Poland has cards to play. One is improving relations with Germany. Both countries should join forces to inject realism into the EU’s legislative agenda. Many EU Green Deal deadlines won’t be met, while pending tech regulation stands to styme innovation. Industrial competitiveness is on the line and both countries share similar concerns. Poland should also use its new political capital to nudge Germany toward walking the walk rather than talking the talk on security and defense. Not easy to do, but Washington and many European capitals would nod in agreement.

Magdalena Góra – Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University’s Institute of European Studies, Kraków

Poland is back, and loudly so.

Poland’s new government replaced the eight-year-long rule of PiS in December 2024. The issues to be solved for Prime Minister Donald Tusk were mounting. The first tasks focused on internal issues specifically focusing on judicial issues and solving the protracted rule of law conflict with the European Commission. This immediately resulted in heightened internal conflict with PiS and its President Andrzej Duda and captivated public opinion.

However, the new government also faced major challenges in the international arena. The most important was to reinvigorate the West’s attention and support for Ukraine. In this task—and even broader in foreign and security issues—the new government was able to agree with President Duda on priorities for the country. The diplomatic offensive of the Polish government to push for more support for Ukraine was visible in the EU, particularly early this year, when EU leaders were dealing with the Hungarian veto on Ukraine aid.

The new energy in Polish efforts may be best illustrated by Foreign Affairs Minister Radek Sikorski’s response to Russia’s ambassador at the UN Security Council on February 23, 2024. The clever, snappy, and direct response to Russian propaganda regarding its aggression against Ukraine and threats to the West were reported on across Europe and the world, demonstrating that the Polish voice is heard, and loudly so.

Daniel Hegedüs – Senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Poland is certainly back. But political trends are not necessarily conducive to Warsaw taking on a stronger leadership role.

Russia’s full-scale invasion and the first months of its war against Ukraine marked the high-water mark of Central European—and Polish—influence within the Western alliance system. This heightened influence was based not only on the fact that Warsaw and other Central European countries were right about the Kremlin’s true intentions, while their Western European partners were mostly wrong, but also on the impression that Poland and other Central Europeans represented the true Atlanticist breed in the EU at a time when Europe was once again heavily dependent on U.S. security guarantees.

Those days may soon be over. Much like 2022, Poland lacks the resources and capabilities to deliver on its own, while in a new Trump era, Poland’s traditional ties to the United States may be burdens that hinder, rather than assets that promote, its ability to influence, or even lead, strategic EU decisions.

Poland’s greater influence on EU policy may seem preordained by the lack of Franco-German leadership and internal differences in that famous tandem. However, the extent of Polish influence will also depend on whether stakeholders in Berlin and Paris see Poland as an important interlocutor in the transatlantic arena or as a European player with limited autonomy in shaping the future framework of European security and defense policy due to Warsaw’s transatlantic exposure. A conundrum that will ultimately be decided by the next U.S. election.

Alena Kudzko – Vice president for Policy and Programming at GLOBSEC

Though Poland appears poised to rise to a position of power in Europe, staying there will be no slam dunk.

Poland’s revived democratic credentials and steadfast support for Ukraine, coupled with Donald Tusk’s—and Radek Sikorski’s—international stature, have propelled the country to the center of EU decisionmaking, particularly in foreign and security policy.

As the largest defense spender in NATO (3.9 percent of GDP, ahead of the United States at 3.49 percent), Poland will settle for nothing less than the most coveted of EU portfolios, whether it be a new defense commissioner role or high representative for foreign affairs.

Warsaw is shunning the EU’s proposed veto for qualified majority voting in foreign and security policy, and is instead busy cultivating allies and devising formats, such as the Weimar Triangle and the Poland–Baltic–Nordic constellation.

And while relations with President Andrzej Duda are dicey at home, he is an asset the Tusk government can deploy to revive relations with the Donald Trump camp.

However, Poland’s mojo also faces headwinds, including managing domestic reforms in a deeply divided society. Tusk’s commitment to “good-natured assertiveness” when Polish interests are at stake also suggests that Warsaw will be a formidable negotiating partner. Its approach to issues QMV, the green deal, migration and industrial policy will not differ substantially from the previous administration.

Although Minister Sikorski quipped that Poles would “rather eat grass than become a Russian colony again,” the government is struggling to persuade Polish farmers to swallow Ukrainian grain imports, undermining Poland’s credibility.

Denis MacShane – Former UK minister for Europe

Poland never went away. The EU treated the elected Law and Justice party (PiS) government with something close to contempt by rejecting the wishes of Polish voters by naming Donald Tusk president of the European Council. It would be like naming Nicolas Sarkozy president of the European Council after he lost the French presidency to the socialist François Hollande.

Tusk’s Civic Platform Party is not liberal in the social sense—gay marriage is still outlawed in Poland—it is in the European People’s Party, which contains a number of conservative rightist parties.

PiS had won power by claiming to speak for forgotten workers, small farmers, Catholic Poland. As was said of post-communism, once you have made a fish soup, reconstituting the fish is quite a challenge.

The Polish election last year left a PiS puppet, President Andrzej Duda, in place for eighteen months. He is vetoing every law proposed by the new government even though opposition parties got 4 million more votes than PiS.

Unlike the roundtable model that managed the transition out of communism, Polish politics today is fueled by hate and populist passions we see all over Europe, from England and France to Spain and Northern Europe.

Compromise is now a dirty word in Poland and further West. The new Tusk government should not replace PiS placemen with its own cronies. Tusk should talk to Polish NGOs that have ideas on how to make reform work and maximize involvement of international jurists and editors to advise on fully restoring the rule of law and freedom in Poland.

Jacek Saryusz-Wolski – Member of European Parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists Group and of Poland’s Law and Justice Party

Firstly, Judy’s question is based on a wrong assumption that Poland’s international position deteriorated when Law and Justice governed.

Facts demonstrate that Poland under the Law and Justice party was a pioneering agenda-setter, and not a mere agenda-taker, in particular in foreign, security, and defense policy. This attitude was reflected in Warsaw’s approach to Russia, energy security, including Nord Stream, investments in defense, border protection, and leading by example on aid to Ukraine. Poland’s stance proved to be predictive and correct. In contrast, Berlin-Brussels policy of appeasing Russia—which Poland did challenge—turned out to be fundamentally mistaken.

The current Polish government just copies what is on the Berlin-Brussels agenda. Therefore, the slogan “Poland is back” is a synonym for “Poland is just an obedient follower.”

As for the EU, it’s clear that blocking due EU funds for Poland had nothing to do with fabricated rule-of-law accusations and it was just a “regime change” operation. The government of Law and Justice, harassed and disliked by EU, was vocal about the EU errors, including bypassing treaties and critical of the EU itself infringing on the rule of law.

The EU may one day regret replacing the forewarner with the follower.

Eugeniusz Smolar – Foreign and security policy analyst at the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw

The democratic opposition’s win in the October 2023 election was met with huge relief across Europe. Donald Tusk’s coalition was proof that the growing popularity of right-wing, populist, anti-EU and often pro-Russian parties in Europe need not win.

The coalition must remember that 7.5 million citizens voted for the Law and Justice (PiS) party and other right-wing groups. To prevent PiS from returning to power, the coalition has to regain the institutions of the state that PiS colonized. It has to convince more moderate right-wing supporters that there has been a normal democratic change of government and those in power are neither devils nor agents of Germany or Brussels. Such was the propaganda of the public media pumped out for eight years.

These anti-German and anti-EU perceptions tie the hands of Tusk and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. They must demonstrate that they are effectively defending Polish interests. While wanting a rapid improvement in relations with Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, the government has to distance itself from projects to change the treaties with regard to qualified majority voting on foreign and security policy issues or from more far-reaching climate and energy policy plans. This pro-EU government will not be an easy partner for the Commission.

Treaty-based relations in the EU also rely on trust. An expression of the Commission’s trust in the Tusk government was unlocking more than €120 billion ($130 billion) worth of funds previously blocked due to PiS’s violations of the independence of the judiciary.

Reviving the Weimar Triangle came first. But the imperative issue is stepping up military and financial aid to Ukraine. With Russia’s threat, Warsaw will support realistic projects to strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities, especially with the prospect of Donald Trump’s possible return to power in the United States.
Monika SusVisiting professor at the Hertie School’s Center for International Security at the Hertie School, Berlin

Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s recent speech at the UN General Assembly exposing the Russian ambassador’s lies resonated loudly on social media, showing not only that Poland is back, but also that such a clear narrative with regard to Russia is still very much needed in Europe.

So yes, Poland is back. But it is not the Poland of 2015 and it is not back in the EU of 2015. Three aspects stand out. First, Poland has returned to the EU battered by the PiS government and the deterioration of the rule of law, combined with a growing hostility toward its neighbors caused by PiS. Tusk faces difficult tasks of bringing the rule of law back on track and preventing a rise in social polarization.

Secondly, the post-2015 migration crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the security crisis caused by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have changed the EU. Unity has become more important than ever, which is why Poland’s return to the path of liberal democracy is so significant. It shows that the democratic backlash is not a one-way street. It is an encouraging sign for many societies across the EU.

Thirdly, while the PiS government has failed to fully capitalize on the increased geopolitical importance of the Eastern Flank, the Tusk government wants to reclaim its role as a key player in both the EU and NATO, bringing new dynamics to relations among European states, most notably between Germany and France. The latter has just gained a rather unexpected ally in urging the German chancellor to take an even tougher stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Ivan Vejvoda – Permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna

Poland is most certainly back. This is a more-than-welcome and much needed positive development in a Europe and in a European Union confronting multiple geopolitical and other challenges, of which Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its third year, is the most notable.

The October 2023 electoral victory of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party dispelled the various all-out political doom and gloom scenarios. After the victory of Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party in Slovakia in September 2023, punditry had it that the rise of the far right in Central and Eastern Europe as well as a number of other EU member states was pointing to an uncertain and volatile political future.

Domestically, the huge task of undoing the damage done to Polish democracy is being tackled head on and will serve as a manual for those that will confront similar situations in countries breaking free from the stronghold of autocratic leaders and parties.

Poland as the biggest member state on the Eastern flank of the EU—and now with the strongest army—will surely play a key role in defining and developing the EU’s defense strategy. It already is engaged in an important revitalization of the Weimar Triangle with France and Germany. Relation with Ukraine will be fundamental in so many different ways and contentious issues will hopefully be resolved to mutual satisfaction.

Barbara von Ow-Freytag – Prague Civil Society Center

Poland is back. Not only in Europe, but on the international stage, for all to see in the forceful speech of Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski at the UN Security Council.

In office for just over two months, the new Tusk government is performing an impressive double act—restoring the rule of law at home while reclaiming Poland’s stature as a key European actor.

The new dynamics in Warsaw inject a double dose of leadership into the EU at a time of multiple crises. For one, it shows a way to overcome the fatal surge of right-wing, anti-EU forces in Europe. With its robust military spending and pledge to ramp up joint European defense, Poland is now also a key driver to “Trump-proof” the EU ahead of the U.S. election.

But this week has unveiled worrying alarm signs: in Poland, the farmers’ protests are fueling anti-EU and, increasingly, anti-Ukrainian sentiments. At the same time, the fatal rift between France and Germany over support for Ukraine casts a dark shadow over the Weimar Triangle just after it was relaunched to become a new capstone for European security.

Can Warsaw lead the way between German paralysis and maverick French “strategic ambiguity”? Poland’s new clout in Europe is tested over this challenge. The fate of Ukraine’s and Europe’s security depend on the outcome.

Katarzyna Zielińska – Assistant professor at the Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Sociology, Kraków

Among the major damage caused by Law and Justice, women’s rights were particularly affected. Their restoration, especially in the field of reproductive health, seems high on the new government’s agenda. The recent legislative initiatives—such as ensuring easy access to emergency contraception and the liberalization of restrictive abortion law—illustrate the urge of the majority in the ruling coalition to deliver on electoral promises and pay back to women who supported them.

However, the ruling coalition is divided on the issue. Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform position liberalized to attract female and more liberal voters and now, along with the leftist parties, supports access to abortion on demand.

The coalition’s more conservative fringe of Poland 2050 and the Polish Peasant Party resists the idea and proposes a referendum on the matter. In the background, the Catholic Church, still an important social and political actor, firmly opposes any liberalization of access to legal abortion.

It remains to be seen whether the European standards for protecting women’s rights will be implemented in Poland or if, as has happened many times in the past, political games within the coalition and with the Catholic Church will lead to sacrificing women’s rights.

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