Poland’s Election Could Transform the European Union

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Max Bergmann on his commentary, “Poland’s Election Could Transform the European Union.” 

Audio file

The opposition’s victory in Poland is the most significant election outcome since Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 victory over far-right populist Marie Le Pen in France. That 2017 election—coming on the heels of Brexit and with concerns that the European Union could further unravel—saved the European Union from the abyss. This latest election, widely seen as saving Polish democracy, is also incredibly significant for the European Union, not for what it prevents but for what it promises.

Poland is the fifth largest EU member state by population and the largest of the former Warsaw Pact countries to join the European Union. It has also experienced an economic miracle since it joined the European Union in 2004 and has been a strong, persistent, and, unfortunately, accurate voice of concern about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

All of this meant that when war erupted in Ukraine in February 2022, there was considerable chatter about a power shift eastward within the European Union, with Poland in the lead. After all, the Eastern Europeans were right about the Russian threat, and the Western Europeans, particularly Germany, were very wrong. Yet, as appealing as the sentiment was, especially to those in the East, power within the European Union did not shift eastward—largely because the East was not offering a positive vision of where it wanted the European Union to go.

When Estonia, for instance, proposed a pathbreaking initiative for the European Union to buy ammunition for Ukraine, it was adopted at lightning speed. This demonstrated that if the East led in trying to strengthen the European Union, the West would indeed follow. But Poland had no ability to lead the European Union because it wanted to weaken, not strengthen, Europe. Poland could set the bar for Europe on defense spending and military support for Ukraine, but it was simultaneously undermining EU rulings, deliberately stoking tension with Germany, and recently restricting Ukrainian trade. Poland, with a nationalist government, could not lead a union it did not seem to believe in. Thus, Europe’s attention may have shifted eastward, but the center of gravity within the European Union moved little.

With Donald Tusk likely set to become prime minister, the victory of the centrist opposition creates an opportunity for the much talked about eastward power shift within the European Union precisely because a pro-EU Polish government will seek to strengthen the union. But more importantly, a new pro-EU Polish government might also open the door to deeper European integration, including critical reforms that the European Union needs to take to become a more cohesive geopolitical global actor.

The timing of this election is critical in part because the Franco-German engine for the European Union has stalled. The recent annual summit in Hamburg—where France and Germany were supposed to hash out differences and create an EU agenda—resulted in little progress, and this was coming after last year’s was canceled altogether. Berlin, with its fractured governing coalition, is in a bind and offers no broader vision for Europe. French president Emmanuel Macron is offering plenty of visions for Europe but lacks the ability and the broader trust without a strong partner to turn his ideas and plans into a reality. Thus, the European Union is finding itself stuck, not able to agree on new fiscal rules, on how to top up the EU budget, or a reform agenda to help make way for Ukraine.

Enter Poland. A new pro-EU Polish government, led by Tusk, who knows his way around Brussels as the former president of the European Council, could thus help jumpstart the European Union. Poland has the opportunity to work with France to outline a clear vision for the European Union. This does not mean Poland simply agreeing with France’s agenda but instead playing the role Germany has so often played of focusing on particular efforts and right-sizing ambition. If Warsaw and Paris are on the same page and pushing in the same direction, it would put added pressure on Berlin to come along. Berlin will be eager to turn the page on the hostility from the Law and Justice-led government and build a stronger partnership with Warsaw. The so-called Weimar format between Germany, Poland, and France could thus become a key venue in the years ahead.

Thus, Poland, with its new government, has the opportunity to push the European Union forward in a number of key areas.

First, it can create momentum for Ukraine’s membership and EU reform. The Law and Justice-led Polish government did a tremendous amount for Ukraine in terms of aid and refugee support. But it no doubt would have been a major obstacle to EU reform, which will be necessary to pave the way for Ukraine’s membership. A new Polish government will likely take a much more constructive approach to the reform agenda thus creating real momentum. This matters a lot because one of the key obstacles to EU reform is psychological. Officials are wary to dive into what will be a difficult, lengthy, technical, and often tedious process if they believe the political odds of success are low. The removal of Poland as an obstacle creates positive momentum.

Second, it can strengthen the European Union’s ability to uphold democracy and the rule of law. This topic can now be put back on the agenda for EU reform. Having run an election campaign on preserving democracy and Poland’s EU status, the new Polish government clearly understands the importance of upholding the rule of law in the union. Poland should lead an effort to strengthen the European Union’s enforcement tools and help guide EU policy to take a firmer line with Hungary.

Third, it can push EU defense forward. Estonia, as mentioned, has led the way here with innovative proposals. But there is an urgent need for the European Union to do more, such as by financing larger joint European procurement efforts. Whether through bolstering EU security assistance funding for Ukraine, expanding the European Union’s procurement efforts beyond ammunition, and more broadly outlining a vision for EU defense and embedding it within NATO, Poland could push forward far-reaching proposals.

Fourth, it can call for reform of the EU budget and the union’s fiscal capacity. Poland will likely want to see the EU budget grow to support Ukraine, invest in defense, and provide infrastructure support. Poland is currently the largest net beneficiary of the EU budget, receiving almost 12 billion euros in 2021. This means Poland could be a powerful voice to expand the European Union’s fiscal capacity and will likely oppose a rigid return to the stability and growth pact that Germany is advocating. Thus, there is a need for the union to invest and spend more, and that could be supported by more EU borrowing or developing its revenue-raising ability. This is where the breakdown in Franco-German relations has stymied progress in the union and where leadership from Poland and key eurozone countries like Spain could chart a new path.

Lastly, it is unlikely to derail the EU climate agenda. The previous Polish government was a thorn in the side of the European Union’s climate efforts. While Poland may not lead the way on EU climate policy, it may also stop acting as a spoiler and instead take a more productive approach. This will be a relief to Brussels.

The elections in Poland have the potential to reshape Europe. The question will be whether a new Polish government seizes the opportunity and lays out a positive vision and agenda for the European Union. If it does, Europe will likely follow.

Max Bergmann is the director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center