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Poland’s red lines for Britain in the EU

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decisive win in the general elections, writes Michal Baranowski,  was seen in Warsaw as both surprising and largely welcome — as well as reason for caution. Britain’s EU membership is important for Poland for security and strategic reasons. At the same time, Poland is not willing to give Cameron whatever he wants in order to keep Britain in. Specifically, scaling back the free movement of people is going to be a red line for the Polish government, given that over 1 million Polish voters now reside now in the U.K..

If Europe is to ever develop a more substantial Common Foreign and Security Policy — which is important for Poland, given its dangerous neighborhood — the U.K.’s strategic culture and military capabilities are critical. Despite its diminishing defense budget, Britain remains one of the main European powers, and without it, a hope that EU can ever become a player in security and defense diminish. The U.K.’s departure from the EU would also have unwelcome consequences for NATO, where its voice would become less relevant, just as the peace and stability of Europe is being challenged by Russia.

An active, outward-looking, and confident U.K. firmly rooted inside the European Union is therefore clearly in Poland’s interest. Poland would be largely supportive of creating a good package of EU reforms that Cameron can sell at home as a success. But it will also have red lines in these negotiations — most notably the free movement of people. The rights of Poles residing in the U.K., if undermined, would easily become an issue in Polish domestic politics. The ability to freely move and work across the EU is one of the Union’s most cherished rights, and according to public opinion polls one of the top reasons for the popularity of the EU in Poland. The Polish government will have very little room to maneuver on this point.

This calculation, however, might change after parliamentary elections in Poland this fall. After all, the U.K. is not the only place capable of producing electoral surprises. Incumbent President Bronislaw Komorowski recently lost in the first round of voting against an opposition candidate, Andrzej Duda, despite public opinion polls predicting a slim — but healthy — victory. The second round of the vote will take place soon, and the outcome is far from determined. But no matter the final result, the vote has shown a desire among the Poles for change, and increased the likelihood of the opposition, the conservative and euro-skeptic Law and Justice (PiS) party, winning.

Such an outcome would have an impact on Poland’s place within the EU, and its position on negotiations with the U.K.. Two years ago, the U.K. approached Poland with an idea of creating a non-euro caucus within the EU. This idea was then rejected by the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now president of the European Council. Such an offer might not be rejected by a PiS-led government. If power changes hands in Poland in the fall, the new government might be far more willing to accommodate Cameron, and in fact share some of his ideas on reforming the EU.

Michal Baranowski is the director of GMF’s Warsaw office. This article was first published by the GMF. 


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