Poland in an “awkward squad”?

Tom Nuttall in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 20 January 2016
Brussels correspondent for “The Economist” on the reactions of European politicians to the first steps of the new Polish government and a growing frustration with Central Europe.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Is the EU different after what happened in Cologne and other cities during the New Year’s Eve?

Tom Nuttall: The more important question is, I believe, – is Germany different? What happened in Cologne fits in with many concerns people have not only about the behaviour of asylum seekers but also about the way the elites deal with these issues. It was evident that the police in Cologne was for several days engaged in attempts to cover the scandal up and there’s the feeling that it was politically manipulative.

The fact that Chancellor Merkel has come out very quickly and spoke about changing the law in order to allow deportation of those who have been convicted of a crime shows just how worried she is about the defending her position, which was already extremely precarious as a result of the influx of migrants she invited to come to Germany. We still need to see how exactly the events in Cologne affect German politics but they may potentially have dangerous consequences.

Do you think that this potential growth of anti-immigrant mood can change the general attitude towards Central European countries, like Poland or Hungary, which have been against accepting migrants and refugees but have so far been severely criticized for that?

Chancellor Merkel has run out of patience with the countries in the region which are not accepting their share of the burden. Last week I was in the Netherlands – which have just assumed the presidency of the European Council – and I was struck by just how strong the feeling was there as well. One can hear all sorts of proposals either to encourage or threaten Central European states into doing more – from suggestions that that region could be punished in future budget negotiations, to the notion of creating a mini-Schengen which has been put forward in some Dutch circles.

How serious are these threats?

I don’t yet see them as serious proposals but as bargaining chips designed to threaten those countries in the east that the Germans or Dutch consider not to be taking their fair share of the burden.

But this should not apply to Central European countries only.

Last year, when the decision to impose refugee quotas by qualified majority vote was made, I was told this had the potential to inject poison into the bloodstream of the EU decision making processes. It turned out to be absolutely right. That particular decision on the relocation of asylum seekers has led to a breakdown of relations between the East and the West and to re-emergence of this divide which many people thought was slipping into history.

At the same time it has had no practical effect on reducing the burden on Germany or other countries. They have only managed to relocate around 300 people so far, and I doubt we will ever see asylum seeker relocated to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or any other country which has been sceptical about this scheme.

It is a double problem, then: on the one hand everybody knows the programme is not going to work, but on the other everybody in the West would like Central European countries to do more, or at least pretend they are doing more.

Yes, I can’t emphasize enough how much anger there is in certain circles towards countries in the east that are considered not to be doing their share. Both in Brussels and national capitals it is said they are essentially treating the EU like a cash cow – milking it for solidarity and cohesion funds, but when solidarity turns out be something that involves contribution as well as benefits – in this case accepting refugees – they are not prepared to do their bit. And this leads to a great deal of frustration, because even though the number of refugees has now fallen we all know that when the weather improves it will pick up again.

Is Poland criticized heavier than other Central European countries?

The Polish case is particularly interesting. Under the previous government I was speaking to the Poles in Brussels and had a sense that they were really conflicted. On the one hand, they did not want to participate in the relocation programme as they didn’t believe it would work and were concerned abut domestic reactions to it. On the other hand, however, there was a real feeling that Poland is now at the heart of the EU’s decision making as the largest country in the region and it has a responsibility to be a good European. I think it was that feeling which ultimately lead the country not to oppose the decision to assign quotas of migrants.

With the new government that feeling seems to have entirely disappeared. There’s no sense Poles need to be responsible Europeans, there’s no feeling we need to dance to the tune Brussels is playing. The issue of refugees might be the first one in which your country will be deemed a member of what they call the “awkward squad”, not interested in taking part in the scheme.

This is extremely interesting, because the prevailing mood among Polish cabinet members is a sort of “I told you so” triumphalism. And from what you are saying it seems this can have devastating effects on Polish relations with Western European countries. Let’s change a subject a little, though. Do you think the EU can actually impose any sanctions on Poland? On the one hand, we are told that the Union has so much on its plate it is not going to deal with Poland since this is a minor problem and Brussels has no time and resources to address it. On the other hand, some pundits claim that because the EU is already dealing with so many crises it cannot allow yet another one to happen and that is why it’s going to be very tough on Poland.

When talking about Poland what everybody has in mind is the Hungarian case from a few years ago, when Viktor Orbán took measures which many people thought undermined the country’s independent institutions.

It’s clear not very much was done at that time and the Commission was not particularly interested in taking a hard line. Similarly, the European People’s Party, of which Fidesz is a member at the European Parliament, never showed any particular interest to do what many people urged it to do, which is to threaten Mr. Orbán with expelling him from its ranks.

With the Polish government the early signs are that the Commission has taken a more aggressive stance. Frans Timmermans have sent a letter to the Polish government and on 13th of January the Commission is to discuss the situation in Poland.


What is the difference between Poland now and Hungary in 2010?

The Commission people would tell you that they now have something which was not available then, that is the rule of law procedure which may be triggered. But there are other reasons too.

The fact that over the last 8 years or so Poland has moved to the heart of the European Union is one of the big success stories for the EU and there have not been many of these over the last decade. Strengthening bilateral relations between Germany and Poland was also seen as a great accomplishment.

There’s also a fear that Poland’s current behaviour will have consequences for the entire region. Poland as a leader of this part of Europe might provide a cover-up for smaller countries to become more sceptical about refugee policy, foreign policy or any other decisions taken in Brussels.

We thus get back to my earlier point, that is the re-emergence of the East-West divide which many people thought has dissolved. Its reappearance may have serious, negative consequences for decision-making processes in the EU.

What practical measures can we expect to be taken against Central European countries?

The asylum-seekers relocation programme is now European law and countries have an obligation to accept people under this regulation. This presents the Commission with tools to punish those governments it deems not to be doing their part. Whether the Commission decides to use these measures is another question.

However, there is a larger issue at stake: how the EU should function as a whole? In the Mediterranean states, seriously affected by the refugee crisis, one can already hear opinions that Central Europeans’ reluctance to accept refugees may lead Southern European countries to eventually veto sanctions against Russia. These states are not concerned about Russian actions in the Ukraine and their companies might be hurt by the sanctions. Why on earth then should they show solidarity with Poland or the Baltic states over Russia when they receive nothing in return on refugee crisis?