Poland's post-Brexit dillemas

Simon Dawson

As Britain heads towards the EU’s exit door Poles are wondering just how their country will fit into, if at all, any British post-Brexit view of Europe and the relationships London will hope to cultivate.

Warsaw knows it has a lot invested in its current relationship with the UK. Up to a million Poles now live in the UK, Britain has become an important market for Polish exports and the British armed forces provide a battle-hardened security that no-other European nation can match and one that Poland wants.

But with much invested Warsaw has also a lot to lose if Brexit disrupts or weakens Britain’s links with Europe and its alliances with European states such as Poland.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, has sought to allay fears of a weakening of bonds by stressing that although the government wants a “global Britain” as the country departs from the EU it “is not leaving Europe” and that it remains wholeheartedly committed to the continent on issues like defence.

Yet despite these words so far, some say, the practicalities of this commitment and future relations remain vague.

 “There is total lack of clarity in what kind of networks we need to be part of,” said Ian Kearns, an author and expert on British foreign policy and European affairs. “We’re leaving the EU so we need to be thinking, when it comes to Europe, what sort of institutions we need to be in to have some influence. 

“But I don’t think the UK is thinking about this. Brexit is sucking all the oxygen out of the room in terms of process. Britain is not really thinking about what its post-Brexit relationships are going to look like,” he added.

Kearns also points out that despite talking about Britain remaining a strong and influential partner in Europe, the government has cut the foreign office’s budget, thereby reducing British influence.

Limited budgets could also affect British defence commitments that Poland has a vested interest in. A country with a reputation as a hawk when it comes to relations with Russia, the UK will probably want to maintain strong defence relations with Poland and other countries it considers on the front line against Moscow.

But with the UK’s defence budget limited the number of boots on the ground will probably stay at a symbolic level as any British desire to use defence to increase its influence in Europe remains subject to austerity.

All this could leave Poland in a bind. Warsaw has long regarded the UK as a key alley but with London all-consumed with exiting the EU and having little time to think about relations with other countries Poland might consider forgetting about Britain and instead strengthen ties with Germany and Paris. They, after all, will become stronger forces in Europe as British influence on the continent wanes.

But there is a hitch to closer ties to Germany, explained Kearns.

“Poland does not trust Germany at all in terms of its relations with Russia,” he said. “It thinks it is always going to sell out to Russia over something like a pipeline. Germany is not always reliable when it comes to a robust response to Russia.”

This could result in Poland pushing for strong post-Brexit ties with the UK. Yet while London may now regard Warsaw as one of the big European capitals the confusion over Brexit and uncertainty over just what influence Britain can wield over Europe could limit those ties.