Still Too Early to Sing the Praises of a 'Polish Spring'

Donald Tusk seems to have given Poland a more modern and friendlier face. (Photo: Dominique Faget / AFP-Getty Images)

"Poland should join the euro as soon as possible," Donald Tusk stated during his first speech as Poland's new prime minister in parliament on Nov. 23. Two weeks prior to his maiden speech, Tusk, whose Civic Platform had just won the elections, pledged that "one can be certain that the government will take a strong pro-European direction, and that European relations will be intensified." José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, was standing next to him. Like so many other enlightened policymakers in Brussels, Barroso hardly concealed his joy about the defeat of paranoid, reactionary, Germany and Russian phobic Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who, together with his brother President Lech Kaczynski, didn't leave an opportunity untouched to thwart all the "foreign conspiracies" aimed at undermining Poland's national sovereignty and roman catholic culture. Contemplating the re-introduction of the death penalty and tracking down gay teachers at schools were given priority to playing a positive and active role in the European Union.

We can assume that those primitive, medieval convulsions definitively belong to the past now. But are the prospects of Poland returning to the European family that favorable indeed? Two factors might spoil the revelry in the longer run. Firstly, a constitutional problem might loom up. With Finland, Poland is sharing the fate that the definition of the competences of the head of state and the government on the field of foreign policy is not very clear. During his term in office, Prime Minister Kaczynski mainly left "Europe" to his twin brother. Will President Kaczynski really be willing to let a more progressive government carry through a radical change of direction and relinquish his hawkish attainments? The president has repeatedly threatened to employ his right to veto bills ratified by the Sejm (parliament), in case a government of a different political color would take over power. According to the Polish constitution, parliament can only torpedo this veto by a three-fifth majority. The small majority of Civic Platform and its coalition partner, the agricultural Polish People's Party of incumbent minister of economy and former Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak, will not be enough. President Kaczynski will also be vigilant not to be overshadowed by Radek Sikorski, the intellectual-cosmopolitan foreign minister. Sikorski, married to American publicist Anne Applebaum, left President Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party and joined Tusk's Civic Platform only shortly before the elections—surely an unforgivable sin in Kaczynski's rancorous mind.

Secondly, the historically rooted distrust against the outside world, especially the neighboring great powers, is not unique for the Kaczynski brothers and their followers. They only disseminated this Weltanschauung in the most radical manner. Prime Minister Leszek Miller, a social democrat, manifested himself as a hard and adamant negotiator during the Nice summit (December 2000). Miller succeeded in raking in 27 votes for the European Council, the European Union's main decision-making institution, two less than Germany, while that country has nearly twice as much inhabitants. Tusk and Sikorski will undoubtedly operate in a more charming, tactful-pragmatic way, but they will never dare to venture Poland's acquisitions. At the European Union Summit in Berlin last June, President Kaczynski achieved a considerable success by getting the reassurance that the European Union's new voting procedure ("qualified majority voting": a proposal will be adopted, if 55 percent of the European Union member states and 65 percent of the total population support it) will only come into force in 2014. Even after that date, Poland will be allowed to appeal to its vital national interests. Both stipulations were taken over in the Lisbon Treaty that was signed on Dec. 13. Tusk simply cannot afford to give them up again. His refusal to sign the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights is an indication that he will present himself as a tough negotiator as well.

It also unthinkable that the Tusk government will display more flexibility with regard to the notorious North European Gas Pipeline project on the bed of the Baltic Sea. The pipeline no longer is an exclusive German-Russian project, now that Nederlandse Gasunie stepped in as well—henceforth, it will be an "Old European" (to use former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's term) project. Will Tusk really embrace the pilgrimages of German, Dutch and Italian politicians and business leaders to Moscow? Out of the question: on Nov. 6—ironically the same day that the heads of Gasunie and Russia's Gazprom put their signatures under the contract—he called on Germany and Russia to abandon the entire project. During his visit to Berlin (Dec. 11), Tusk characterized the pipeline as "not rational." The new prime minister didn't make any promises to Lithuania, the first country he visited, either—the Baltic neighbor still can't rely on a speedy connection to the Polish electricity network, and will thus remain an "energy island."

At first glance, Tusk has given Poland a more modern and friendlier face. Yet it remains to be seen whether this new appearance will translate itself in a new substance. Tusk too will see it as his holy duty to safeguard Poland's national interests—and if the old European Union member states won't unlearn their unpleasant habit of blindly concluding bilateral (business) deals with the Kremlin, he will end up as a sour, obstinate, and suspicious "Kaczynski" one day. Therefore, it's still too early to sing the praises of a "Polish Spring."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jeroen Bult.