Soon after his election victory in May, British prime minister David Cameron toured Europe to discuss his plans to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. By making Warsaw one of the first stops on his trip Cameron hoped to improve relations with Poland, which deteriorated as his anti-migration rhetoric hardened. During his first term as prime minister, Cameron did not visit Warsaw at all.
But Cameron’s first meeting with prime minister Ewa Kopacz in Warsaw may well have been his last. The Civic Platform, which she runs and which has been in power for the last eight years (in coalition with the Polish Peasant Party), lost the presidential election on 24 May to the right-wing Law and Justice party. The victory of Andrzej Duda, who was sworn in on 6 August, has helped Law and Justice to catch the wind: it is now leading in the public opinion polls ahead of the October’s parliamentary elections, and stands a very good chance of winning them. If this is the case, Cameron will face a new prime minister at the renegotiation table.
What would this mean for Cameron’s EU reform agenda? Like the Conservatives, Law and Justice opposes transforming the EU into a fully-fledged political union, shares Cameron’s concerns about the current balance of power between member-states and EU’s institutions, and is wary of further eurozone integration and its impact on ‘euro-outs’. At first glance this makes the party a convenient partner for Cameron. But in the past, Law and Justice proved to be a difficult negotiating partner. During the 2007 negotiations on the Lisbon treaty, prime minister and party leader Jarosław Kaczyński opposed the new voting system in the Council of Ministers, which favoured the largest member-states. Kaczyński said that were it not for the Second World War Poland would now have a population of 66 million, and voting weights should reflect that. His comments caused bewilderment in Germany and elsewhere. The party is now positioning itself as more liberal, and nominated a woman, Beata Szydło, rather than Kaczyński, as its candidate for prime minister to appeal to more moderate voters. But Cameron has no guarantee that the party’s politics have changed. It could as easily confront Cameron as appease him.
Whether Cameron finds himself dealing with a prickly Law and Justice or a more emollient Civic Platform government after the elections, he will still need Poland (like all other member-states) to agree to his package of reforms. This insight sheds light on what Warsaw’s position might be on five issues Cameron has identified as central to the renegotiation.
First, Cameron wants to make the EU more competitive. He thinks that one way to do this is by cutting red tape and further liberalising the single market. This is one of the reform areas in which Cameron should find support in Warsaw. Poland is a clear beneficiary of the single market (between 2004 and 2013 its exports to the rest of the EU grew by almost three-fold, to reach a value of €114 billion in 2013). The current government shares Cameron’s view that the EU should serve its entrepreneurs and consumers. Law and Justice would probably also help Cameron on cutting red tape. The party wants to prevent the Commission from expanding its powers, and Cameron’s drive to reduce superfluous legislation fits this narrative neatly. But the party’s sympathy for deregulation does not mean that Law and Justice believes in Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ in all circumstances. It has promised to impose a special tax on large retail companies, many of which are foreign owned. In doing so, Law and Justice is copying the hostile approach to foreign investors of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban.
Second, Cameron wants to obtain an opt-out from the objective of ‘ever closer union’ set out in the Treaty on European Union. In June 2014 the European Council noted that the notion “allows for different paths of integration for different countries”, thereby leaning in Cameron’s direction. Poland did not oppose that wording. But what if Cameron demands that the treaty itself be amended to reflect the idea of “different paths”? Should the Civic Platform remain in power, it will probably oppose any immediate treaty change. If Law and Justice returns to power, it would perhaps be more sympathetic to Cameron’s arguments but the risk is that the party may use discussions on ‘ever closer union’ to argue for its own opt-outs. Its representatives have already hinted they would attempt to secure exemptions from the EU’s climate policy. If the party decides to use Cameron’s reform agenda to unpick what it does not like about the European project, other EU capitals will follow suit, delaying the renegotiation process.
Third, Cameron thinks that national parliaments should have a greater say in EU decision-making. Both Polish parties would show some understanding of Cameron’s concerns and might agree to a strengthening of the ‘yellow card’ procedure. But they would probably oppose collective veto rights for national parliaments. Ewa Kopacz is a former speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament and recognises the need to engage parliaments better in EU matters. In 2012 she proved to be a skilful negotiator and broke a two-year stalemate between MPs and MEPs to set up the inter-parliamentary conference on EU foreign policy issues. If she remains in office, she will try to convince Cameron that there are ways to connect parliaments to the EU without giving them veto powers and hence without changing the treaties. Law and Justice would support a stronger role for national parliaments too. In an interview with the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, Krzysztof Szczerski, the party’s leading expert on European affairs, complained that parliamentarians were not sufficiently involved in adopting EU laws and implementing measures. He acknowledged however that providing MPs with veto power would cause the EU’s institutional order to break down.
Fourth, Cameron wants to ask his partners for ‘safeguards’ for the single market. He worries that deeper eurozone integration in the area of financial services would damage Britain’s interests. This is one of the renegotiation areas where Civic Platform and Law and Justice are like to have completely different views. If Kopacz remains in power Cameron will find it difficult to convince her to help him negotiate more permanent safeguards for countries outside the eurozone. This is because Civic Platform want Poland to join the euro once it meets the convergence criteria and once the economic turmoil in the eurozone is over. In contrast with Britain, the Polish government has been more interested in participating in eurozone deliberations and its decision-making than in securing safeguards for ‘euro-outs’. The government has often pointed to Poland’s ‘pre-in’ status to justify being involved in talks about the eurozone’s future. In negotiations over the fiscal compact (the treaty introducing stricter eurozone budget rules) Warsaw won a provision giving not only ‘euro-ins’ but also other signatories of the compact the right to participate in euro summits whenever the architecture of eurozone or the implementation of the compact is discussed. For its part, Law and Justice dismissed this policy as too submissive to Brussels. Beata Szydło pledged that if she became prime minister she would put off any discussion of adopting the euro until the wages of Poles were similar to those of their Western European colleagues and she would abolish the post of the official in charge of euro adoption. Her mistrust of the euro makes her a natural ally of Cameron’s.
Cameron should realise that Poles see free movement as one of the EU's successes, not problemsFinally, in an attempt to please a more eurosceptic audience Cameron wants to limit access to unemployment and in-work benefits for EU citizens for the first four years after their arrival in the UK. But the British prime minister previously opted to discuss his concerns about the freedom of movement of people with Berlin rather than with Warsaw. He thought that putting his negotiation eggs in the Anglo-German basket would help him deliver reform - despite the fact that Poles are the largest group of EU migrants living in the UK (Poles constituted 8.7 per cent of all foreign citizens in Britain in 2013). This dismissive approach weakened Cameron’s hand in negotiations with Warsaw. As the elections near both parties are likely to harden their stance on Cameron’s free movement demands. In 2014, 80,000 Poles living in the UK registered to vote in the Polish presidential elections. This is not an enormous number, but if the parties are neck-and-neck, these votes will matter.
But Warsaw’s opposition to Cameron’s ideas is not merely a political calculation. He should realise that Poles see free movement of people as one of Europe’s greatest achievements, not a problem. The country was separated from Western Europe by the Iron Curtain for too long to sympathise with ideas putting freedom of movement at risk. If Cameron can focus on improving the EU for everyone, whether in Western or Central Europe, he may be able to get the support he needs from Warsaw, no matter which party forms the next government.
Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.