Mažylis. Is the geopolitical centre of influence shifting to Eastern Europe?

Map of Europe in Vilnius DELFI / Mindaugas Ažušilis

Parliamentary elections are held in Poland on 15 October. Now that emotions have cooled down, it is safe to say that the recent Polish parliamentary elections were followed as closely as ever in Europe. It must be admitted that, in terms of political rhetoric and military support, Poland has arguably been one of the most critical voices in Europe since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

More generally, the geopolitical developments of recent years have only strengthened the role of the EU’s eastern members in shaping the Community’s foreign policy and security. The critical question now is whether Poland (whether or not their government changes) and the Baltic States will become a leading voice in Europe in the context of the war in Ukraine and in formulating the strategic vision of the European Union in general.

Warsaw and Brussels have been strained in recent years, even though Poland‘s position on most foreign policy issues, such as support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, has been in line with the EU. However, the main difference has been the disputes over the rule of law, which started with the EU as early as 2015, when Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party formed the government. In 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled that Poland’s Supreme Court law, which lowered the retirement age for Supreme Court judges, is contrary to EU law and violates the principle of the irreplaceability of judges and, therefore, the principle of judicial independence.

This disagreement on the rule of law between Law and Justice and the European Union has become the main argument of the Polish opposition parties in the elections. It is essential to mention that the significant funds allocated to Poland from the EU’s COVID recovery plan have been frozen. Therefore, the promise of the opposition parties, specifically the Tusk-led ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO), was to re-establish the rule of law in Poland following EU legislation, thereby freeing up EUR 35 billion from the EU’s economic recovery fund. However, the results of the Polish elections showed that Law and Justice, the current ruling party, secured 194 seats in Parliament, in other words, the most significant number of votes.

The second largest party was the opposition Civic Coalition, which won 157 parliamentary seats under Donald Tusk. The opposition parties, Civic Coalition, Third Way and New Left, with 248 seats, will likely form a coalition. It is too early to say what the new Polish government will look like, as the President has yet to give the party with the most votes the chance to form the government. The chances that the Kaczynski-led. The chances of Law and Justice forming a coalition are slim, as all the opposition parties that have entered Parliament have said they would not join PiS in forming a government. PiS, which has 194 seats, does not have a majority in Parliament. However, President Duda will likely give the Law and Justice party with the most votes the opportunity to form the government first. A referendum was also organised on 15 October with four questions: privatisation of state-owned enterprises, extension of the retirement age, a fence on the Belarusian border and the admission of migrants under the agreement with the EU. However, the referendum did not occur because only 40% of voters chose to vote: a turnout of more than 50% was needed for a referendum to happen.

This referendum was already controversial with the opposition before the elections. Law and Justice candidates won 34 seats in the Polish Senate elections, while candidates from the opposition parties Civic Coalition, Third Way and New Left won 66 seats. In principle, the Polish Senate is the upper house of Parliament, and the Parliament is the lower house. The Senate’s functions are related to the postponement of proposals for amendments and the adoption of laws. If the Senate rejects a bill passed by the Parliament, it can be returned to the Parliament for further consideration. The current geopolitical situation and the war in Ukraine have led Poland to actively seek a more significant role in regional and European politics. The same has happened with the Baltic States, which, even before the war in Ukraine, had been saying that the EU must take a much stricter line in its diplomatic and economic relations with Russia.

The multiplicity of international events and old external threats, particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have demonstrated the EU countries’ ability to respond to crises and provide united support. On the other hand, while Western European capitals tried to assess Russia’s red lines on the continuation of military support to Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland dominated: they were quick to send support to Ukraine in the early months of the war. Historically, there has always been a clear need for a standard defence policy between the Baltic States and Poland in response to the constant existential threat posed by Russia’s imperial ambitions. It is worth recalling that the Baltic Antant project was one of the attempts to build regional geopolitical power. The 1920 conference in Bulduri, Latvia, between Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, was intended to establish close cooperation between these countries in foreign policy, economy and defence.

Although this union did not develop into a natural multilateral political alliance, today’s geopolitical realities have shown the need for a coordinated European Union security policy. Of course, NATO remains the main guarantor of the security architecture in Europe. Even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Eastern European countries unanimously agreed on a regional security architecture and an increase in defence budgets to 2% of GDP. The Baltic States, for example, agreed that defence spending must increase to 3% of GDP. On the other hand, Poland has allocated 2.4% of its GDP to military spending, in fact, almost the highest of any NATO member (except the US). Poland has also managed to build up one of the strongest militaries in Europe, amounting to some 170,000 active reserve troops. Regarding political leadership, the Baltic countries and Poland have always been sceptical about Europe’s trade and energy ties with Russia. Regarding restrictive measures, the Baltic States have also introduced national sanctions against Russia and Belarus.

The war in Ukraine has only confirmed the position of the Baltic States and Poland on the need for a more substantial EU role in resolving regional conflicts. Of course, the EU has taken the first steps towards strengthening the European defence industry more concretely. In 2021, the European Peace Facility was established to finance EU peacekeeping missions, military exercises and training. After all, it has become one of the EU’s main instruments for transferring military aid to Ukraine, providing artillery ammunition. Another essential aspect is regional communication, such as the Three Seas Initiative, which strengthens political and economic ties between Central and Eastern European countries. The transatlantic ties between Poland and the Baltic States have grown stronger recently. This is also evidenced by the 2023 NATO Summit and the declaration that Europe will focus on the Eastern Flank. With Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries becoming full members of the European Union, the EU’s Eastern flank may become the geopolitical centre of Europe.

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