Why Poland’s ‘Return to Europe’ Won’t Be So Smooth


Donald Tusk and Radoslaw Sikorski have an ambitious agenda, but they still have to coordinate with a Euroskeptic president.

Since winning power in October 2023, Poland’s current (and former) prime minister, Donald Tusk, and his foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, have visited Paris and Berlin and sought a revival of the Weimar Triangle, a multilateral format once central to reconciling the western and eastern visions of European affairs, largely marginalized over the past decade due to the right-wing Law and Justice party’s antagonistic approach to Germany. And in late January, a trip to Kyiv—of vital symbolic importance—reassured Ukraine that Poland will continue to be its advocate in Europe, a job ever more burdensome given the waning resources and growing war fatigue among other allies.

Cynical observers might conclude that Tusk and Sikorski are simply wining and dining in other countries’ capitals rather than governing their own country. But that is not the case. The diplomatic offensive they have ushered in is, in fact, an integral part of their political mission: They campaigned under the promise of Poland returning to Europe after years of self-initiated conflict with Brussels.

Tusk and Sikorski have even buried the hatchet with Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president, backed by Law and Justice, their archenemy in domestic politics. On the occasion of visiting U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House to rally support for Ukraine (and to seal military deals for Poland along the way), they spoke in harmony.

Duda, a Euroskeptic, commenting on plans for Poland’s 2025 EU Council presidency, even concluded that “just as there is no strong NATO without Europe, there is no strong Europe without the United States and NATO.” Liberal internationalism seems to be spreading through osmosis in Polish politics.

Tusk has also become feisty on social media, bashing U.S. Republicans for withholding aid for Ukraine, with references to former President Ronald Reagan “turning in his grave,” as well as writing a powerful critique of Russian President Vladimir Putin after the death of Alexei Navalny.

A Christmas gift of unlocked EU funds arrived from Brussels in December, previously suspended due the European Commission objecting to Law and Justice’s reforms violating independence of the judiciary and state media, but now made available as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the EU just days after Tusk’s swearing-in. The second coming of Donald Tusk seems almost like a campaign for an unelected leader of Europe.

Except it is not—at least, not in a way in which most European commentators are hoping for it to be. Poland is back, no doubt. After years of self-proclaimed isolationism, when Law and Justice did not see any value even in being present at the continent’s most important negotiating tables, the surge in Warsaw’s international activity is impossible to miss.

Tusk, a figure of authority in European politics due to his tenures at the helm of the European Council and the European People’s Party, is not solely responsible for it, of course. Equally—and in some aspects, even more important is the role of Sikorski, returning to the foreign office just as Tusk comes back to lead the government. Sikorski, a University of Oxford graduate, is well-acquainted with Britain’s conservative elite and the high-profile figures in Washington but equally appreciated on the continent for his efforts to expand both EU and NATO influence eastward

He took his previous job as a member of the European Parliament extremely seriously, defying the commonplace perception of the parliament as a political retirement home. Even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, he campaigned heavily both for a more sober approach to Russia and a rapid increase in Europe’s defense capabilities—and both these efforts gave him enormous political clout. As a result, Sikorski is now a clear front-runner to become the EU’s first defense commissioner, should this post be eventually established after the June parliamentary elections, as proposed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

With such a pair of diplomatic heavyweights at the helm, Poland might appear to be a rising power, capable even of shifting the continent’s balance away from populism and authoritarianism and in favor of liberal multilateralism and cooperation, especially in the realm of geopolitics. And despite the fact that there is enormous hunger, both domestically and abroad, for that to happen, Tusk and his team might have neither the resources nor the energy to assume a long-term leading role in Europe.

And if they succeed, it might be different than many now imagine.

After the electoral victory of the liberal and progressive parties last October, when the self-proclaimed democratic opposition defeated Law and Justice after two terms in power, enthusiasm was palpable in Europe. Sandwiched between triumphs of the far-right in Slovakia and the Netherlands, Poland became almost automatically a beacon of hope for the left across the continent.

Defeating a modern-day populist incumbent through direct elections is no small win, and Tusk deserves credit for it, but expecting him to lead a Europe-wide charge of liberals against populists and far-right Euroskeptics is both naive and unrealistic. First, because he will continue to have his hands full at home. Second, because Poland under his leadership will not be the Poland that everybody in Europe remembers from more than a decade ago.

This was already apparent on his first visit to France. Widely criticized in the past for being Germany’s supposed puppets, both Tusk and Sikorski signaled decisively that Poland is ready and happy to talk—but as an equal, not as anyone’s patsy.

At a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Tusk said that while “it would be difficult to find a politician in Europe that would be more pro-Ukrainian than me,” the food security of both Europe and Poland needs to be taken into account. These comments, made with regard to a farmers blockade on the Polish-Ukrainian border and a crisis over the importation of Ukrainian grain to EU, were already a signal that being favorable to Kyiv does not mean bowing to all of its demands.

Similarly, in Berlin, Tusk made rather spiky remarks at a press conference with German officials when he reflected on complacency being a thing to be avoided in relationships—a multilayered comment that many in the room saw as both a criticism of Berlin’s policy toward Russia over recent decades as well as an announcement heralding change in Poland’s approach to Germany.

Weeks earlier, Sikorski touched a similar note by jokingly offering Germans a discount on war reparations (previously demanded by the Law and Justice government) “should they transfer the whole amount by year-end.” It was not so much the mischievous humor but the very fact that he did not dismiss the notion of reparations entirely that made the comment a focal point of his visit.

For the past decade, hunting for arguments to back up financial claims from Germany was the idée fixe of Law and Justice’s diplomacy—to the point to which some civil servants included it in their email signatures. While in opposition, the liberals and progressives many times labeled the idea as absurd and harmful for bilateral relations. Now it is an integral part of the bilateral conversation.

Sikorski’s stature and experience will be pivotal for Poland’s return to multilateral decision-making —and he needs to move fast. Domestically, he started his tenure short of experienced personnel, as Law and Justice purged the civil service and filled it with political loyalists and party members, the latter being forbidden before the party took over power.

It should come as no surprise that he appointed as many as seven deputies, a move that came under fire from the opposition as an unnecessary expansion of administration and political hirings. But a careful examination of the nominations shows that Sikorski is gearing up for battles on many fronts: Among the state secretaries are Marek Prawda, a former ambassador to Germany and head of Polish mission to the EU; Robert Kupiecki, an ex-ambassador to the United States, deputy ambassador to NATO, and deputy defense minister; and Anna Radwan-Rohrenschef, an experienced think-tanker and public policy expert, well-connected in Brussels and Paris.

It’s not all rosy, however, since Duda does not share all of the foreign-policy views that Tusk and Sikorski are trying to impose. Although legally, according to a 2009 ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal, it is the prime minister who decides the country’s foreign strategy, it still needs to be agreed on with the president. And Duda is, after all, a conservative politician, who famously refused to congratulate Biden on his electoral victory in November 2020. In the event of former President Donald Trump winning another term, more disagreements on the U.S. front will arise, as Tusk and Sikorski are clearly siding with Biden while Duda actively praises Trump for good, especially economic, relations during his first term.

Sikorski himself takes on the issues of rallying support for Ukraine—where he is remembered for his involvement in attempted peace talks after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea—as well as trying to control bilateral relations with the United States. Heavy criticism of Trump will not earn him many favors should the former president return to the White House, but Sikorski will not be entirely isolated. Good trade relations between Washington and Warsaw will help, even in the event of a Republican administration in 2025.

The biggest challenge, however, lies at home. Tusk’s government enjoys a stable majority in the parliament but needs to cohabit with a hostile Duda. Backed by Law and Justice, he will remain in office until mid-2025, and he is likely to try to influence Sikorski’s strategy. Duda and Tusk have already clashed multiple times over the new government’s attempts to restore the rule of law and remove the public broadcasters from political control, with the president even accusing the prime minister of creating the “first political prisoners” since the 1989 democratic transition. An already-strained relationship will be echoed in Poland’s diplomatic endeavors, as Duda is unlikely to back down.

In January 2025, Warsaw assumes the presidency of the European Union—and Law and Justice had passed a bill that compels the government to agree its priorities with the sitting president. On the basis of that, Duda already announced the pillars of Polish EU leadership, wanting to focus on relations with the United States, the proposed accession of Moldova and Ukraine, and Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction and energy transition. On paper, these do not appear too hard to swallow for Tusk, but it remains to be seen how the government will implement them and who will be the face of the EU presidency.

Duda will claim the right to represent Poland as head of state, but Tusk has a history of clashing with Law and Justice presidents; he was repeatedly challenged by the late President Lech Kaczynski over EU summit participation during his first tenure as prime minister. Tusk might have a stronger hand this time, which is also due to an instrumental role of Piotr Serafin, his former chief of staff during the European Council days, now Poland’s acting permanent representative to the EU. With Tusk’s man in Brussels, he will be more ambitious both at home and abroad.

On the other hand, Duda is also responsible for approving the government’s choices for ambassadorships. Back in January, he was expected to agree on the vast majority of replacements proposed by the foreign office, but now the presidential palace is objecting to the government’s plans. Sikorski wanted a swift and sizable turnaround, proposing to replace some 50 ambassadors in a very short time span—and Duda objected.

An unofficial stalemate continues, to the point that the presidency has reportedly threatened to block a potential nomination for Sikorski to become an EU commissioner if he does not bow to pressure. The Foreign Ministry plans to respond by recalling ambassadors and sending new chargés d’affaires in their place, a provisional solution at best. It could result in a severely polarized diplomatic corps, on the one side faithful to Law and Justice, on the other heavily pro-European.

Right now  there is certainly a lot of will in Warsaw to transform Poland’s role in Europe—but there might not be a way. Domestic struggles will consume time and energy, possibly at the expense of international aspirations.

Last year, during the Warsaw Security Forum, an annual geopolitical gathering, a senior foreign diplomat noted that Poland has become Europe’s center of attention, but not yet the center of its gravity. Tusk and Sikorski will want to change that.

Source: Foreignpolicy.com

Take the Survey at https://survey.energynewsbeat.com/

1031 Exchange E-Book

ENB Top News 
Energy Dashboard
ENB Podcast
ENB Substack


Verification: 7f1ceb4b4b21970d