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Poland is back on the map

Poland is back on the map

Conservative victory seminal moment for Europe

by David Marsh

Mon 26 Oct 2015

The victory of Poland’s conservatives in Sunday’s general election marks a seminal moment in post-cold war Europe. Poland is Europe’s ‘swing player’. No other important European country – Poland is a little ahead of Belgium, but behind Switzerland and Sweden, in the GDP rankings – has over the past 200 years been obliterated from the map by its neighbours, and then reforged with, and in, a new European identity. This gives the Poles some legitimacy to act as a barometer of the continent’s mood.

The return to government of nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS) will significantly influence three interlinked developments guiding Europe’s future. Across all these questions, Kaczynski adds to the problems facing Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose status within and outside her Christian Democrat party has been weakened by widespread German divisions over mass immigration from conflict-ravaged regions.

PiS, a heady Polish mix of conservatism, populism and nationalism, is estimated to have won 38% of the vote, and may be able to rule without coalition partners. The centrist pro-European Union PO party conceded defeat after estimates gave it around 24%.

The first set of issues where Kaczynski will make his mark will be over relations with Russia. Kaczynski was Polish prime minister in 2006-07. He nominated Beata Szydlo as his party’s candidate for the premiership, partly because he realised that his frequently brusque style displayed a decade ago could discomfort Polish voters concerned about good relations with the rest of Europe.

He may use the return to the front line to proclaim that he habitually warned the West against Russian aggression, hampering President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to project a more statesmanlike image on the world stage. Kaczynski detected Russia’s hand behind the disastrous plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother Lech, then Polish president, approaching an airfield in Smolensk, Russia. Long-running conspiracy theories may now be reignited.

The second field of potential skirmishes is over the euro. For years, Poland – the seventh biggest economy out of the 28 in the EU – has been seen as a prize candidate to join the European single currency. The three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have all become members in the past few years, as did Slovakia and Slovenia earlier on – steps hailed as evidence that the euro bloc was integrating parts of Europe previously behind the ‘iron curtain’.

Poland’s qualms have however grown about tying itself to a low growth currency area beset by tension over debt accumulated by poorer countries and owed to rich ones. Marek Belka, the caustic governor of the National Bank of Poland, whose term ends next year, is unlikely to be displeased that the political impetus for euro membership has been ebbing fast - and, under Kaczynski is likely to be snuffed out altogether.

The third area is immigration. Poland will go to the vanguard of central and eastern European countries insisting that national borders are sacrosanct and refusing to join German-led action to agree immigration quotas based on Germany’s own generous treatment of asylum-seekers. Kaczynski, who has warned that people fleeing Syria could bring diseases to Europe, will make an unpredictable bedfellow for other more moderate leaders. His visceral distrust of both Berlin and Brussels may make him somewhat too polarising an ally for David Cameron, the British prime minister, as he seeks continental partners for EU reforms ahead of the British referendum on Europe to be held in 2016-17.

But, whether in foreign, economic or social policies, Kaczynski cannot be ignored. In abrasive and sometimes uncompromising form, Poland is back on the map.

David Marsh is managing director of OMFIF.

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