By Percy Metcalfe

Since Poland joined the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in November 2019, over 20,000 Poles have been authorised to travel to the United States without visas. Poland’s government has hailed the country’s participation as a diplomatic victory and a long-awaited levelling in Polish-American relations.

Yet, Poland’s decades-long wait for visa-free status had been peppered with setbacks and disappointments. Securing a speedy announcement might have also come with political concessions. Poland’s path to joining the program thus provides a window into how the symbolic and strategic aspects of the relationships have evolved over the years.

The long and winding road

Poland began to push for visa-free travel as soon as US-Polish relations normalised after 1989. In 1991, Poland unilaterally abolished visas for Americans. When the US did not reciprocate, Polish politicians began to drum up public support for the issue.

During a White House visit in 2004, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski raised the question several times in a press conference with his counterpart. When US President George W. Bush said that the visa issue was important to the thousands of Americans of Polish descent, Kwaśniewski corrected him – “millions” – in an attempt to emphasise the significance of the issue.

“The public rarely cares about anything related to foreign affairs. But including Poland in the VWP is a piece of news that even the average citizen may pay attention to,” said Sławomir Dębski, head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a think tank linked to the foreign ministry.

Nomination for the VWP is chiefly an administrative process, imposing a number of criteria on a country, which Poland simply did not meet. Yet exclusion from the program nonetheless became a thorn in the side of relations, especially after Poland’s show of support for the Iraq War in 2003.

Poland has dispatched some 2,500 troops to the region following the American invasion. At the time, there was a sense that Poland would be rewarded for its loyalty. In 2006, a short-lived bill was put to Congress to reform the US immigration law, including admission to the VWP of any country that provided “material support” in either Iraq or Afghanistan. However, Poland’s entry to the program did not materialise when lawmakers failed to agree on the broader terms of the immigration changes.

Poland missed another opportunity in 2008, when the threshold for one of the criteria of admission, the rate of refusal for non-immigrant visa applications, was briefly raised from three to 10%. However Poland’s rate remained stubbornly high, explained Patrick McNeill, current Deputy Consul General at the US embassy in Warsaw.

To make matters worse, several of Poland’s neighbours – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – all made the cut. Feelings were hurt: “There is a sense of disappointment on our part,” said Paweł Kotowski, who was deputy chief of mission at the Polish Embassy in Washington at the time.

Poland had eventually become the only Schengen Area country without VWP privileges. The European Commission chimed in too, calling the exclusion a breach of the reciprocity principle of the EU Common Visa Policy, which demands that a non-member state granted visa free access into the EU gives similar treatment to every member state. However, the Commission stopped short of suggesting that they would reinstitute visa requirements for American citizens, citing possible adverse effects in “trade, tourism and the EU’s economy.”

After years of deadlock, last year Poland checked off the final requirement for eligibility, when its visa refusal rate fell to 2.76%, clearing the 3% threshold. Many credit US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, for speeding up the paperwork thereafter. According to McNeill, Mosbacher was able to ensure a Homeland Security pre-assessment for Poland during the summer, a break from normal procedure.

The importance of the VWP

Admission to the scheme yields a number of tangible benefits: bureaucracy has thinned and Poles now pay a $14 registration fee instead of $160. The scheme lowers the costs of business with the US and may provide a boost for airlines. In preparation for the announcement, American Airlines pledged a new non-stop route between Chicago and Kraków that is due to fly in May this year.

Yet, the VWP has also garnered outsized symbolic value over the years, with several actors keen to claim credit for the long-awaited development. With the announcement coming just days before Poland’s parliamentary election in October, the Polish government hailed the success of its diplomacy. TVP, Poland’s public broadcaster and a mouthpiece for the government, aired a news segment of the first Pole, Marcin Bakalarski, to travel to the US without a visa, which later turned out to be staged.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump was also quick to claim credit for the policy change: “I got it for them in honor of the Polish people in the United States and in Poland,” he said. McNeill and Dębski agree that Mosbacher’s efforts had support from above. “President Trump just wanted this to get done,” according to McNeill.

Yet Ryszard Zięba, a professor of International Relations at the University of Warsaw, warned that the admission was “merely a symbolic gesture” that should be seen as an administrative re-configuration of Poland’s status, rather than a political gift.

Trump and Poland: the wider context

Poland’s passage to the visa waiver program also illustrates the country’s intensifying commitment to the US. The election of Donald Trump to the White House has ushered in a seemingly renewed friendship between Washington and Warsaw. At a time when Washington’s traditional partners in Europe – Britain, France, and Germany – are distancing themselves from Trump, Poland has tried to fill their shoes.

Pundits have pointed to similarities between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the Republicans under Trump. The two governments share a mistrust of transnational organisations, are accused of undermining liberal democracy and the rule of law, and have shown hostility toward Muslims and refugees.

Donald Trump’s 2017 speech in Warsaw was seen as echoing PiS’s own populist rhetoric. According to Tom Junes, a historian, Trump’s appeals to history and martyrdom were a suggestion of civilisational alliance in struggle against multiculturalism.

Poland the only European country in which a majority have confidence in Trump

Trump has also greenlighted an increased American military presence in Poland, including an adding 1,000 troops to the 4,500-strong local contingent. Poland has long petitioned the US for a greater military presence, citing the threat of resurgent Russian militarism. In turn, Poland committed $2 billion to the cost of the new American soldiers and in a blatant appeal to the US President’s vanity, with President Duda even loosely proposing naming a potential new base “Fort Trump.”

While links to the VWP announcement are speculative, Warsaw has taken strides to appease Washington in recent months. During Vice President Mike Pence’s September visit to Poland, Warsaw agreed to US demands to ditch plans for a digital tax, which would have burdened American technological giants, including Google, Uber and AirBnB. Pence’s visit also precipitated a cooperation agreement on 5G, which precludes Poland from working with Huawei, while some other European powers have signed agreements with the Chinese telecoms giant.

Moreover, in February 2019 Poland hosted the Warsaw Conference on Middle East security, which was viewed as a means to legitimise the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran following the collapse of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Poland’s hosting of the conference marked yet another break from European partners and showed PiS’s dedication to its relationship with the US as well as to Trump’s more controversial forms of diplomacy.

The relationship’s next term

Since Trump took office, US-Polish relations have become closer. Yet if Poland is to truly help anchor the US in post-Brexit Europe, Warsaw must begin to make amends in Brussels in order to effectively counterbalance the interests of France and Germany. Although it may please Trump personally, future US administrations may come to resent the links with Poland in its current role as the EU’s enfant terrible.

While it appears that PiS’ charm offensive may have won the mercurial US president’s goodwill, Trump’s friendliness has its limits. In September, the US leader cancelled a trip to Poland at the last minute to monitor the approaching Hurricane Dorian, but was instead spotted playing golf. In a recent interview, ambassador Mosbacher said that, despite earlier assurances, the president is unlikely to reschedule his trip to Poland anytime soon.

If Poland continues to employ foreign policy based on an eagerness to impress Trump, the country runs the risk of going the same way as Israel in US foreign policy circles: on the surface a consensus ally, but actually the source of deep divides.

Image credits: White House/Flickr (under public domain)

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