By Monika Bičkauskaitė

In 2004 the EU underwent its fifth enlargement, integrating Central and Eastern European countries. Today, these latecomers are no longer mere beneficiaries of the project, but also emerging players in the European system.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s official visit to Warsaw next week confirms the centrality of Poland. The visit – the first by a French president in six years – comes amid talks to reanimate the Weimar Triangle, a political grouping of France, Germany and Poland whose leaders last met in 2011. And it sparks hopes of a turnaround in deteriorating Franco-Polish relations.

A window of opportunity for closer cooperation

Macron begins his two-day visit on Monday, when he is expected to meet with President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Warsaw. On Tuesday he will visit Kraków to give a lecture about Franco-Polish relations at the Jagiellonian University, where he will make a call for “joint commitment to European politics”, according to Polish media.

Macron’s visit comes as the two countries are locked in a sharp disagreement. Paris is concerned about Warsaw’s domestic reforms and the state of the rule of law, as well as the lack of commitment to European strategic sovereignty initiatives, such as the idea of creating a European army.

Meanwhile, the Polish government, as it becomes increasingly marginalised in Europe, sees Macron’s new European projects as divisive. A significant dent to bilateral relations came in 2016, when Poland cancelled a multi-billion contract to buy 50 Caracal helicopters from Airbus, France’s flagship aerospace corporation.

Yet regardless of the standoff, the presidential visit could provide ample opportunity to re-establish dialogue. With Brexit underway, Poland is about to lose a powerful ally in the EU. It also comes at a convenient time, with Polish presidential elections scheduled for May. Overseeing Macron’s visit and revamping dialogue with the Élysée could boost President Duda’s image.

However, the Élysée is likely to bring both carrots and sticks to Warsaw. In an official statement, the former Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said that France wants bilateral relations “to be good” and the dialogue between the two countries to remain open. On the one hand, France currently perceives Poland as isolated and unwilling to engage in any processes to build a closer European Union. Yet, being one of the largest and fastest-growing countries in the EU, Poland is an important player to engage with.

Hence, Macron recognises the need for a closer partnership, calling for a “Weimar Triangle” summit between Poland, Germany and France. In Warsaw, he is likely to suggest a greater cooperation between the two countries, marked by an active Polish role. He may emphasise the shared priorities of the two countries, such as maintaining high expenditure on structural funds and agriculture. However, the substantial goal of the visit is to establish a dialogue and lay the grounds for future conversations, rather than to achieve grandiose results.

Yet the conversation between the two presidents is also likely to involve some “sticks”. Currently, the EU does not trust Poland owing to the controversial reforms of its current Law and Justice (PiS) government. France has been vocal about Poland violating the separation of powers and democratic governance due to erosion of independent judiciary, media and the rule of law. France’s EU minister has made clear that the “the rule of law is an important issue” in Poland. Hence, the meeting between the two presidents will involve France’s concerns about Poland’s domestic politics.

Venice Commission and EU condemn Polish court reforms but president wants to push ahead

If France veers into such discussions, Poland is equally likely to respond with concerns of its own. Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz has recently called France “the sick man of Europe” and criticised Paris for breaching European deficit laws. In November, Morawiecki criticised Macron for saying that NATO is suffering “brain death”, calling the remarks “dangerous” and suggesting that perhaps the situation could be improved if France met its pledge to spend 2% of its GDP on defence. Finally, comments indicating that Macron’s concessions to the yellow-vest protesters showed weakness may also prove unhelpful in overcoming existing divides.

However, domestic politics is not likely to be at the centre of the presidential dialogue, whilst the aim of the visit is to ameliorate bilateral relations, rather than amplifying existing arguments.

The role of European security

Among the topics that are to become central is European security. For one, France has been actively promoting the idea of “European strategic sovereignty”. Macron believes that the EU needs to develop its own strategic military capabilities and move towards structural integration. One such project is the European Intervention Initiative (EII), a planned rapid response force independent of NATO and the United States which could be deployed to crisis situations on Europe’s borders.

As of now, only nine out of 28 countries have joined the initiative, with Poland being excluded. On Europe’s eastern flank, Estonia was the only country in the region to join. This could be linked to Estonia’s contributions to the French military missions in Sahel. It is possible that if Poland were to also join France’s missions in Africa, it would forge its way into the EII.

On the one hand, Poland has been cautious with initiatives sidestepping NATO, fearing that they could weaken European cooperation with the US and the role of the alliance in Europe. Yet Poland could also welcome greater French military presence on its soil under the NATO framework, as well as mutual military investments.

Hence, the topic of security will assume a fundamental role in the presidential dialogue, regardless of divergent perspectives. While the two presidents might not come to a concrete agreement, Macron’s visit will aim at setting the initial stages for a future conversation on European security.

Other areas of interest for Macron are climate change and nuclear energy. The two countries collided last year, when Poland refused to sign the EU’s new zero-emissions agreement. Poland, which relies on coal for 80% of its energy, replied by saying it was “not possible and not feasible” for Poland to meet the proposed goals by 2050.

In response, Macron called for environmental protests in Warsaw, hurting the relations between the two countries even further. “[Environment activists] should go protest in Poland. Help me move those I cannot push forward,” said Macron in response to Poland’s actions.

Macron: Poland could lose EU funds over climate stance

To reconcile the bilateral relations, the issues of climate change and nuclear energy will have to be re-addressed. The two countries need to achieve mutual understanding. For Poland, energy security is a higher priority than EU emission goals. To cut down on its emissions, the country needs significant financial assistance from the EU.

France could also consider pushing for strategic investments in Poland’s nuclear industry and sharing its decades-long expertise, an insider at the French ministry of foreign affairs is quoted as saying in Polish media. There could also be a return to talks about joint investments into the production of electric car batteries, which began between Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Development Minister Jadwiga Emilewicz in February 2019.

Finally, the presidential dialogue is likely to touch on areas of cooperation: migration, cyber-security, and foreign interference in domestic politics and elections. Both countries have experienced such issues and could use each other’s know-how to find effective solutions domestically and within a broader EU framework.

Path to a new chapter in Franco-Polish relations

Thus, while President Macron’s visit to Poland might not yield immediate results, its importance should not be overlooked. The visit could bring a thaw to frozen bilateral relations, and become a first step towards a new chapter of Franco-Polish cooperation. Closer partnership between Poland, France and Germany would underline the importance of the CEE region in the EU and highlight the eastern flank’s security concerns.

As France strives to strengthen its position in the EU and seeks new partnerships, it is re-shaping the EU’s balance of power. If the two countries manage to find a middle-ground, and Poland assumes a more active role within the EU, we could move towards a more representative, integrated, and stronger EU.

Main image credit: (under CC BY 4.0)

Monika Bičkauskaitė is a Program Assistant at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Warsaw office. She is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris and University of Southern California (USC) with a master’s degree in International Security.

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