The dispute between the European Union and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) over that nation’s respect for the democratic process, and respecting EU values is heating up once again. On Wednesday, new legislation revising the retirement age for Poland’s Supreme Court judges went into effect. The new retirement age has been set at 65, requiring roughly one-third of the current sitting judges to retire. Critics and opponents of the new law have labeled it a purge of the courts. The EU considers the action an attempt by the Polish government to control the judiciary. Warsaw’s view of the legislation is quite different. It sees the law as a necessary move to rid the judiciary of communist-era practices, and thinking.
On Monday, the EU began a new infringement procedure against Poland, claiming the new law undermines judicial independence in the nation. This is not the first action taken by the Union concerning Poland’s judicial reforms either. A year ago, a previous infringement procedure was launched as a result of Polish government reforms to lower court system. An Article 7 (1) procedure is also presently underway, which could theoretically lead to Poland’s expulsion from the EU.
The Poland-EU dispute is only part of a larger standoff between the EU and many of its Eastern European members. The cultural divide on the continent between east and west has become more evident lately. For nations like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, that lived under communist control for decades, recent EU efforts to infringe on their internal politics, and redistribute migrants to their nations harken back to the days before the end of the Cold War. Memories of that time period continue to influence Eastern Europe immeasurably, even more so now with the Russian threat again emerging to the east. European Union punitive measures aimed at bringing Eastern Europe more in line with Brussels is sparking staunch resistance. Given the other issues currently facing the EU, Brussels has to walk softly around the Polish matter for the time being, or risk transforming Eastern Europe into a powder keg that could bring about the eventual breakup of the European Union.
An expanded US military presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank will be a major topic of discussion next month at the NATO summit. In recent weeks, a number of NATO member-states let it be known they would welcome additional US troops on their soil. Last Friday Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia called for a discussion on increasing the NATO military presence in the region. The hope is for talks to take place at the NATO summit. Norway and Poland have gone beyond this. Both nations have been vocal in their desire for US troops to be permanently based in their countries. At present, US troops are deployed in both nations on a rotational basis.
Norway intends to ask the US to double the number of troops currently on Norwegian soil. There are 330 US Marines there at present. Oslo would like to see that number increased to 700, and for the troops to be stationed closer to the Russian border than the present rotation of troops. Russia responded sharply to the Norwegian plan, promising there will be ‘consequences’ if Oslo and Washington move forward with the plan. The Russian embassy in Oslo released a statement saying a rise in the number of US troops in Norway “could lead to rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”
Poland has taken it a step farther. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has held discussions with US officials about a permanent US military presence in Poland. The present US military setup there is centered on the periodic rotation of a US armored brigade. Warsaw wants to build on that and have an entire US armored division permanently based in Poland. In the view of Poland’s senior military officials, and politicians, having a US armored division stationed on Polish territory would be the ultimate hedge against future Russian aggression. As a sign of their willingness to bring a deal together, the Polish government is offering $2 billion to be placed towards building an infrastructure for a permanent US military presence.
It has taken years to bring to fruition but the largest arms procurement deal in Polish history has become reality. Yesterday, Poland reached an agreement with the United States to purchase the Patriot air defense system for the amount of $4.75 billion. The deal comes as the latest step in Poland’s effort to modernize its armed forces in the face of a growing Russian threat. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Poland stepped up modernization of its aging military equipment and structure. This deal calls for the purchase of 2 batteries of the PAC-3+ variant of the Patriot system, which is the same advanced model fielded by US Army air defense units. They will take the place of the Soviet era SAMs currently in the Polish inventory such as the SA-2 and SA-6.
The deal has come just days after the United States and many Western nations expelled Russian diplomats in response to the use of a nerve agent on a former Russian intelligence officer in Great Britain. Warsaw is already in negotiations with the US to purchase more Patriots, advanced radar systems, and a separate interceptor missile as part of the next phase of its military modernization. The batteries purchased today will be delivered in 2022.
This deal could also potentially lead to the US offering stronger air defenses to the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been requesting just that in recent years. The Baltic region has become a military focal point since 2014. Russia has deployed SS-26 ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, increased air activity around the Baltics, and held a number of major military exercises. NATO’s response has included strengthening the Baltic Air Police contingent for an extended period of time, rotating troops into the Baltic states on a regular basis, and the pre-positioning of US armor in Eastern Europe.
Whether by design or by happenstance, Poland has played significant roles in nearly all of Europe’s major geopolitical acts over the last 100 years. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Poland found itself sandwiched between two major powers; Germany to the west and Russia to the east. World War II began with Hitler’s invasion and subsequent defeat of Poland. In the Cold War era Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union and member of the Warsaw Pact. The first cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in Poland with the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. Following the end of the Cold War and break up of the Soviet Union, Poland was once again a free nation-state, and as the twentieth century drew to a close the former Soviet satellite applied for, and war granted membership in the NATO alliance.
Eighteen years into the twenty first century and Poland is again playing an essential role in European geopolitics. The reemergence of the Russia as a threat to NATO places the nation squarely on the front line of what is potentially a new cold war. Along with the threat to the east, Poland is contending with another type of threat coming from the west. Warsaw and the European Union have locked horns an increasing number of times in recent months on a diverse range of issues. Poland’s independent streak is rubbing Brussels the wrong way. Whatever drama comes next, Poland will be in the middle of it.
With all of this in mind, the Spring 2018 project for this blog will be to produce a picture of what Poland will look like four years from now. Economic, political, military, and domestic factors will be explored. Questions will be formed and hopefully answered as well. The following are but two examples: Will Poland’s relationship with the EU mend, or continue to fray? How seriously do the Polish people take the possibility of a future war with Russia?
The project posts will be published weekly between mid-March and mid-April, 2018.
Until recently it has been generally accepted that the greatest threat to Poland lay to the east in the form of the Russian Federation. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has responded decisively to what it perceives as NATO and European encroachment of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis following Euromaidan and the subsequent War in Donbass can be linked directly to its fear of NATO or the European Union co-opting Ukraine and molding it into a pro-West nation-state. Moscow cannot let this happen for a variety of reasons. As the fighting in Ukraine reached a stalemate, Russia began to shift its attention to the Baltics and its former satellite states in Eastern Europe. Russian military exercises set around the periphery of the Baltics and Poland, coupled with NATO military deployments to the region heightened tensions, and made the prospect of a future Russian-NATO clash in Poland seem a reasonable scenario.
While Russia remains a clear threat to Poland, its status as the greatest could be facing some competition. A newer menace to Poland and its sovereignty is developing in Brussels at the headquarters of the European Union.
The EU and Poland are moving towards a confrontation that could prove to be a crucial test for the Union. The right wing Law and Justice government in Warsaw has undertaken a series of moves that the EU regards as a challenge to EU principles. Even though Poland remains a proper democracy in every regard, the government’s attempts to reform the voting system, and judicial system rub Brussels the wrong way. Added to this is Poland’s refusal to accept refugees as part of the EU attempt to distribute asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe.
In December, the European Commission invoked Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty, giving Poland three months to reverse its judicial reforms or face EU sanctions. This action projects the current differences as being a matter of the EU bullying Poland because it does not approve of the domestic decisions being made in Warsaw. Brussels claims otherwise, of course, but the fact remains that the European Union wants Poland to reverse its reforms and come in line with the supra-national body’s principles. In short, the EU seems determined to punish Poland for what it views as Polish defiance.
The brewing confrontation fits in well with a project on Poland I’m in the process of planning. Later this week I’ll post about it and then separately next week provide a deeper analysis of the EU-Poland rift.