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Sep 28, 2023

EU Enlargement and Reform (II): The Troubled Polish-Ukrainian Partnership. A View from Warsaw

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war, Poland has been one of the strongest advocates of integrating Ukraine into the EU. But is it ready to accept the various consequences of such a move?

General view shows the city center with skyscrapers and Communist-era Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2023.
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Ever since the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Poland has been a vocal proponent of Western assistance to Ukraine and an unequivocal supporter of the country acquiring the candidate status to join the European Union, which happened in June 2022.

The Ukrainian policy was and remains one of the few issues that rises across the deep political divide in today’s Poland. Support for Ukraine as a future member of the EU is deeply rooted in Polish solidarity with its Eastern neighbor as well as the realization that it pays geopolitically for Poland not to be a frontline country, but to be safely located between “Western” countries. So much for the strategic choice, which is not only that of the political establishment, but a strong conviction held by large swathes of society. Interestingly, Jerzy Giedroyc, a Polish intellectual, suggested already in the early 1990s that the development of good relations with Ukraine and support for its independence is more important for Poland’s security than accession to NATO.

Until today, there has rarely been any more specific reflection voiced in the public debate about the practical consequences of the potential Ukrainian accession. This is perhaps understandable. The ongoing war and the need for providing support to Ukraine—be it material, political, or moral—makes such a discussion harder. Sooner or later, however, lofty words of support will have to be replaced by more cold-blooded calculations about when, how, and in what exact manner Poland would like to see Ukraine inside the EU. Issues that have been already discussed by European capitals and institutions but somehow omitted in Warsaw.

To begin with, Poland, which has been ruled since 2015 by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) seems to be unsure about its place in the EU. The PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has been busy vilifying the EU as a platform of German imperialism, as a eurofederalist plot against Polish sovereignty, or as a leftist “rainbow” ideology, which poisons Polish conservative Catholic society. Poland is the subject of several proceedings of the European Court of Justice regarding the potential breach of law and, along with Hungary, has been denied access to the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) resources. If the current trajectory were to continue following the upcoming Polish parliamentary elections, which will pit PiS against the pro-European Civic Platform, then Polexit could become a realistic possibility—making the Ukrainian bid for membership technically and politically more challenging.

Putting these considerations aside, assuming that Poland turns away from this euroskeptic course, it is useful to look at the potential consequences, both challenges and opportunities alike, for Poland of having Ukraine as a fellow EU member state.

Poland’s Socio-Economic Standing in the Bloc

Ukraine as a large but poor member state would lead to the statistical effect of Poland rising in the GDP ranking closer to the average of the EU. This would mean a reduction in resources from Brussels within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and cohesion, or regional spending. An estimate prepared by the European Council suggests that Ukraine’s entry would make Poland swing from the largest net recipient of EU funds to an overall net payer. Moreover, Ukraine would receive resources which in a non-accession scenario would flow to Poland as was the case of Spain and Portugal, both of which lost some funds when the “big bang” accession happened in 2004.

Moreover, Poland currently fills the economic niche in the EU as a provider of cheap foodstuffs into the single market (from poultry to fruit such as apples to grain, potatoes, and many other types of food) and labor-intensive production such as furniture. The Polish labor force is cheap and mobile. All these advantages would pale against those of Ukraine whose fertile fields, cheap, agile, and plentiful labor force, and the economies of scale of its agriculture and horticulture sector would make it a formidable competitor in the single market.

In short, the Polish economy would need to start getting prepared for Ukraine’s accession by shifting its competitive edge to elsewhere, higher up the value chain of production. Such a process of restructuring would take at least a decade. What might happen without such preparation can be ascertained through the current protests by Polish farmers against imports of Ukrainian fruit and grain into Poland.

Opportunities Regarding Ukraine’s Post-war Integration

The eventual Ukrainian victory in the current war would not only entail huge costs in terms of reconstruction but also bring enormous opportunities for Polish companies and entrepreneurs. There would also be the potential advantage of having a friendly, fast-developing, big economic partner next door for whom Poland would be the gateway to Europe. If bilateral relations flourished, it is possible to imagine some kind of special treatment for Polish investors in Ukraine before four freedoms to the whole EU are introduced.

Poland and Ukraine could even go so far to sign an “Élysée Treaty” type of agreement just like Germany and France did, according to Radoslaw Sikorski, the MEP and former Polish foreign minister. It would not only enhance bilateral cooperation to support European integration but also to strengthen their political, economic, and societal ties (the efforts to establish such a treaty between Poland and Ukraine have already met with a lack of enthusiasm from Kyiv). It would help to overcome Poland’s feeling like a second-class partner to Ukraine in the EU. This sentiment has to do with Poland’s exclusion from the “Normandy format” talks in 2014, and incidents in 2023 when a key Polish official hinted at Ukraine’s lack of appreciation for Poland's help.

Governance of the EU and Power Relations

It is hard to imagine that current decision-making process would remain the same after Ukraine joins the bloc. For the EU to be governable there would need to new procedures for the Council and the European Parliament. A shift from unanimous voting would be necessary, and the devil lies in details on how to make it happen. While MEPs call for treaty change, the member states would prefer to use existing instruments such as the Passerelle clause in order to avoid open the pandora box of treaty change.

Poland is rather skeptical regarding the matter of treaty change, and favors making better use of “untapped potential” under the current system as mentioned above. What is more, Warsaw opposes shifting to qualified majority voting (QMV) to protect its key security and national interests in EU foreign and security policy debates. The notion that big countries such as Germany and France could, for instance, decide Warsaw’s foreign policy without a Polish say is no-go. This means that unlike the general enthusiasm about Ukraine’s EU accession, Poland has not yet done its homework when it comes to discussing the practicalities of EU enlargement.

On the idea of a multispeed Europe, which has been floated several times recently in reference to functioning of an enlarged EU, Poland’s position is ambiguous. While Warsaw is not a fan of an EU of different speeds (as it can create a two-tier Europe), it also doesn’t want to be left out. The perception of other countries that Poland is, in fact, on the EU’s periphery, has motivated Warsaw to join some formats and instruments of differentiated cooperation such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the area of security and defense policy.

Finally, with Ukraine on board, the EU would be back to the level of 500 million people with the greater ability to play a role of a geopolitical actor on a par with the United States and China. Whatever vulnerabilities Ukraine would have after the war with Russia, these would become the EU’s problem and the West’s commitment to stand by its new member state—which might have ongoing territorial disputes with Russia as well as its fresh history of violent conflict. This is especially a challenge for Poland, a country that only escaped the geopolitical void 30 years ago.

Depending on the period of history you consider, there have been both laudable and ugly aspects to the relations between the two countries. The last two years have been extremely positive in terms of bringing the societies together, as a result of the inflow of refugees and workers and heartfelt compassion on the part of Polish people. This spirit cannot be taken for granted, however. There are nationalists and populists on both sides who, for quick political gain, are willing to escalate some bilateral economic matters or historical differences into outright international diplomatic conflict. It is easy to imagine endless arguments between politicians already at the state of accession negotiations with blockages of the process coming from Poland. The preview of such a spat has recently materialized and is related to the dispute over the grain transit through Poland. The clash of national interests in the middle of the Polish electoral campaign has led to diplomatic ties between Ukraine and Poland coming under their most significant strain since the onset of the war. But while Poland’s position as a Western advocate for Ukraine could diminish, its solidarity and commitment to providing support, foremost defense aid, remains steadfast.

Recalibration of Strategic Priorities of the Enlarged Bloc

In some ways Ukraine’s accession would equip Poland with a fellow member state that has similar security and economic concerns. There would be two big member states with a distinct Russia policy, and with economic priorities counterbalancing Western European countries such as France or the Netherlands. Two countries plus a handful of smaller ones that would shift the EU away from the West to a more continental strategic depth with an excellent expertise of the post-Soviet space.

In short, it is a significant and laudable fact that Poland without hesitation has vocally supported Ukraine on its path to the EU. Going forward, things can go splendidly or disastrously wrong. How the accession and eventual membership of Ukraine will look like matters enormously for Ukraine but also for Poland. In the bigger picture, Ukraine has the potential to save the European project, or to bury it.

Kinga Brudzinska is a Research Associate at the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM).