History was made when Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Bronisław Geremek signed an accession agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on March 12, 1999. Five years later, on May 1, 2004, the process of Poland’s “return to the West” was completed with its accession into the European Union (EU), accomplishing the second of Poland’s two main post-Cold War foreign policy goals. From then on, NATO membership—which Warsaw associated with U.S. security commitments to Europe—would guarantee Poland’s defense. EU membership, on the other hand, would serve to ensure the country’s economic prosperity and well-being.
Even as Poland celebrated the 20th anniversary of its accession to NATO last month, the assumptions Warsaw made in the 1990s are being tested by the recent onset of trans-Atlantic tensions. The growing rift between the United States and Western Europe is like nothing the continent has seen since the end of World War II, and is largely driven by the policies of an American president openly hostile to the EU’s core institutions and ambivalent about U.S. involvement in NATO. The Trump administration’s actions––including its decisions to impose tariffs on European allies and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, as well as its alleged threats to leave NATO while cozying up to authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un—will likely impact European confidence in U.S. leadership for decades. These actions have also raised questions about Europe’s ability to defend itself, and have sparked debate, primarily led by France and Germany, about the need to develop the EU’s defense capabilities. While Poland continues to believe in Washington’s unwavering commitment to European security and looks on with unease at the recent French and German push to significantly strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities, over time Warsaw may have to come to terms with this changed security environment.
Europe’s Need for Strategic Autonomy
Discussions about the EU’s common defense are not new, and can be traced to President De Gaulle’s 1961 Fouchet Plan. In the last six decades, however, attempts to reduce the EU’s security dependence on the United States have been largely unsuccessful, if not unwelcome. But never in the past has Europe seen as perfect an alignment of “push” and “pull” factors incentivizing security autonomy. On the “push” side, in addition to the Trump administration’s recklessness, the return of great-power competition reflects a growing need for joint European action on the world stage. The EU’s recent efforts to take a common stand on Iran, Libya, and sanctions against Russia reflect EU member-states’ growing foreign policy convergence. They also reveal, however, the EU’s inability to project power effectively without a military. On the “pull” side, there are growing expectations among European citizens regarding the EU’s role in the world. According to the 2018 Eurobarometer, 75 percent of EU citizens support “a common defense and security policy among EU Member States”—a figure which has remained largely unchanged in recent years. Finally, tensions surrounding discussions regarding the need for EU strategic autonomy have been eased by the imminent departure of one of the idea’s harshest critics, the United Kingdom, from the organization.
European leaders agree that the current EU security framework—the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), which is driven by unanimous voting—is neither adequate nor efficient for the continent’s growing security needs. As a result, in November 2016, twenty-five EU member-states announced a new permanent architecture for the CSDP’s policy of enhanced cooperation. Known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), this new framework is intended to gradually deepen defense cooperation within the EU. The difference between PESCO and other forms of cooperation is the legally binding nature of the commitments participating member-states undertake. PESCO's thirty-four projects in the areas of capability development and operational dimension include the establishment of a European Medical Command, Cyber Rapid Response Teams, and a joint EU Intelligence School. In addition to PESCO, progress has also been made in liberalizing the internal market for defense products, the European Defense Fund, in order to reduce duplication of capabilities and expenditures.
The political expectations remain considerable, however. Building on earlier calls from France’s President Emanuel Macron for the creation of a “European army,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recently proposed creating a European security council which would make unanimity obsolete and facilitate important decisions. However, Merkel has qualified that any European defense initiative should complement, rather than compete with, NATO.
Poland’s Ambivalence to European Defense Capabilities and the U.S. Factor
The Polish government has only reluctantly joined the PESCO framework and remains skeptical about the ambiguity surrounding the debate on “European strategic autonomy.” Like the United Kingdom before, Poland fears that such initiatives may weaken U.S. military engagement in Europe. Warsaw also doubts the sincerity of the initiative, underscoring how most European states, unlike Poland, have failed to even meet the minimum NATO defense spending requirement of 2 percent of GDP. In addition, the Polish government does not publicly share most Western European concerns about American isolationism and the Trump administration . Though similarly unreceptive to U.S. tariffs, Poland sees trade as a “technical” issue to be resolved by the European Commission. Poland may have been caught off guard by the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but here, likewise, it has refrained from any criticism that might jeopardize the U.S. military presence in the region. Finally, while Poland disapproves of Trump’s inexplicable affection for Putin, it has opted to focus more on actual U.S. actions in the region rather than rhetoric.
Indeed, even Polish experts who are the most bearish in regard to Trump will admit that his actions in Central and Eastern Europe speak louder than his words. Since 2014, Poland has continued to host a U.S.-led 1,000-soldier multinational NATO battlegroup near the so-called “Suwałki Gap,” as well as a 3,000-soldier U.S. Army combat brigade close to the German border. Although the troops arrived under President Obama’s watch, the current administration has not backed down on these commitments. On the contrary, it has displayed willingness to increase the overall U.S. military presence in Poland, short of Poland’s continuous request for a U.S. permanent military base—a so-called “Fort Trump”. (During his 2018 state visit to the United States, Polish President Andrzej Duda has lobbied hard for a permanent U.S. base and more ground troops, proposing a creation of such a “Fort Trump” and allegedly offering $2 billion to help fund the idea). The administration has also signed onto sanctions against Russia, which the U.S. Congress bolstered in 2017. Neither has it disengaged from supporting Ukraine; in contrast to the Obama administration, the Trump administration has agreed to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons. Finally, from Warsaw’s perspective, some of Trump’s criticism of Western European states seems well-founded. Poland, too, has long demanded that its fellow NATO members increase their defense spending to meet the stipulated 2 percent of GDP threshold, and Warsaw shares Trump’s negative view of the German-Russian Nord Stream II gas pipeline, seeing it as a project that undermines the EU’s energy security.
None of this, however, has changed Poland’s abject dismissal of the EU’s ambitions to strengthen its defense capabilities for the time being. Interestingly enough, even Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) and de facto leader of Poland, hinted in a 2017 interview that the EU should become a “superpower with an army of its own—much larger than the Russian army.” Yet Kaczyński’s support for European defense autonomy fails to account for the fact that security autonomy will require deeper integration and greater EU oversight, and, therefore, a further abrogation of member-state sovereignty. On this, the EU can expect no further agreement from Warsaw for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Katarzyna Pisarska is Founder and Director of the European Academy of Diplomacy in Poland, Program Director of the Warsaw Security Forum, an Associate Professor at the Warsaw School of Economics, and a Young Global Leader and Expert of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Dr. Pisarska specializes in EU foreign policy, Eastern Partnership, EU-Russia relations, and public diplomacy. Previously, Dr. Pisarska was a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, and a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the University of Oslo, and the Australian National University. She currently resides at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy in Los Angeles.