As Russia Spooks Europe, a Rebel Is Reminded Who Its Friends Are

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s nationalist government spent the past two years isolating itself within the European Union over everything from rule of law to refugees, but it just got a timely reminder of who its friends are.

The U.K. accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison a former agent and his daughter this month and Polish officials are on the front line calling for its EU allies to unite and impose new penalties on freshly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. They also want to halt the building of a Russian gas pipeline to western Europe that bypasses Poland.

While some of Europe’s eastern nations cozied up to Putin, the only thing that’s occupied Poland’s foreign policy makers as much their drive to pull away from the EU mainstream has been the Kremlin’s intentions for the region.

As Russia Spooks Europe, a Rebel Is Reminded Who Its Friends Are

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s governing Law & Justice party, blames Russia for the death in 2010 of his twin brother, the serving president at the time. He perished in a plane crash in Smolensk, western Russia, along with many of the Polish elite.

“The way the EU started dealing with the Russia nerve agent issue serves as a reminder that a strong EU is good for Poland,” said Judy Dempsey, a fellow at Carnegie Europe in Berlin. “Poland needs to decide where its interests lie. Perhaps it’s about how, given its size, to regain influence in Brussels.”

Rhetoric Shift

Poland met Tuesday’s deadline for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s cabinet to respond to recommendations made by the bloc’s executive about how to resolve a standoff over Warsaw’s power grab of the country’s judicial system, Poland’s PAP news agency reported.

The government rejected EU criticism and won’t back down, the report said. In Brussels, European Commission principal Vice President Frans Timmermans said that judicial independence is “essential.”

Yet there’s been a marked change in the rhetoric, the Warsaw leadership talking of unity rather than division in light of the accusations against Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Warsaw on Monday after meeting Morawiecki, said the EU should take “strong and joint” action in the wake of the U.K. nerve agent attack, especially since there are “serious indications” that Russia was involved.

Hours earlier, Poland called on Germany to rethink plans to expand the Nord Stream pipeline carrying Russian gas to western Europe. The U.K. poisoning case marked a “new aspect of Russia’s policy toward Europe,” Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said. “It’s worth to again consider, in this context, whether Russia is a credible partner.”

EU countries may decide this week to impose new political or economic sanctions on Russia, whose Kaliningrad enclave borders Poland, according to Michal Dworczyk, who heads Morawiecki’s office.

Tough Ask

That said, the imposition of extra sanctions against Russia faces significant hurdles.

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said there was “full unity” during Monday’s ministerial-level meeting in Brussels to condemn the nerve gas attack. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said it was tough enough to get all member states to agree on existing measures over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“We of course know that it has not been easy always to get the unity to back up the sanctions that we already have decided on,” she said. “But I think the discussion today will give a good ground for further actions.”

Polish Measures

Another pending question is the action that still could be taken against Poland, the largest net beneficiary of the EU’s budget, with 82 billion euros ($102 billion) in structural funds.

Morawiecki said he saw a “light in the tunnel” for finding a solution in talks with Brussels over the next two months. The European Commission has accused Poland of eroding the independence of courts by giving politicians more sway over the justice system.

The country also triggered international outrage this year with a new law criminalizing suggestions Poland was in any way responsible for the Holocaust.

So far, Morawiecki’s cabinet has shown no will to row back any reforms to win a truce with Brussels, in part because it knows that the bloc needs unanimity to impose sanctions on the government and that Hungary pledged to back Poland on the issue.

“It’s probably a poker game where Poland wants to test the EU if there’s unity and strong will to stick to the official EU line and go to the next step of the escalation, which in the end could bring sanctions,” said Jo Leinen, a German member of the European Parliament. “They’re testing the EU how firm it is.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.