By March 2019, Britain will leave the European Union. It can’t, however, leave Europe. If it wants to remain a key player on the Continent, it needs to carve out a new role for itself. Since World War II, the U.K. has been trying to strike a balance between participating in the European project and developing its own, independent relationship with the U.S. to maximize its room for maneuver. But it can’t lean too heavily on its relationship with Washington and risk becoming overly dependent. It’s best hope to remain an influential power in Europe is to build stronger ties with another state on Europe’s periphery: Poland.
The Unrecognized Leader of Eastern Europe
Poland has found itself on the outs with the EU since 2015, accused of violating the bloc’s democratic values. Both Poland and Hungary have resisted EU directives, for example, on refugee quotas. Poland wants to be strong enough to hold its own in Europe and fears being dominated by Germany and Russia, given its history of being divided by various European empires and being caught in the crossfire between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich during World War II. One way for Poland to increase its maneuverability on the Continent is by becoming the leader of Eastern Europe.
The Poles have resurrected the Intermarium concept, first proposed by Polish statesman Jozef Pilsudski in the 1920s. Pilsudski envisioned the Intermarium as a confederation that would include most Central European states and that would act as a counterweight to Germany and Russia. This time around, the Poles are not hoping for a confederation – which they could not achieve anytime soon because of historical grievances and competition that divide the region – but rather a looser alliance in which Poland would play the lead role. The Three Seas initiative, which would include countries along the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas, is an extension of the Intermarium.
EU heavyweights France and Germany may not be ready to treat Poland as an equal partner, but that might change if Poland presents its position as representing a majority of member states in Eastern Europe – about half the bloc’s total membership. Although most of these states depend on Brussels for funding, coordinated action from Eastern European members can significantly impede badly needed EU reform and other policies pushed by Brussels. But Warsaw needs to progress from being a self-declared leader of Eastern Europe to a leader recognized by other states both in and outside of the region.
Enter Britain. Poland is a natural ally for Britain, considering that both countries are, in different ways, challenging the status quo on the Continent and Brussels’ authority. Britain can offer Poland a number of benefits in a partnership, including defense cooperation. Although Warsaw is a member of NATO, it has chosen not to rely solely on the alliance for its security, cultivating bilateral defense relationships with key countries. Poland’s closest defense partner is the United States, which has, for example, supplied Warsaw with Patriot missiles. But supplying weapons is one thing; providing military support during a crisis is another. Poland therefore is looking for bilateral ties with other countries closer to home, and Britain is chief among them. In December, the U.K. and Poland signed the Treaty on Defense and Security Cooperation, in which they pledged to coordinate on a number of fronts such as cybersecurity and strategic communications.
Britain can also give Poland recognition as the leader of Eastern Europe. After Brexit, Britain will have autonomy over its foreign policy, and it can throw its diplomatic weight behind Poland’s resistance against Germany and the other country that Warsaw feels threatened by: Russia. Britain can also offer Poland investments and preferential trade agreements that, in the long run, could decrease Polish economic dependence on Germany and, as a result, strengthen Poland’s political position in Europe.
Pushing Back Against Germany
The British want the EU to remain what it was meant to be – a union that will preoccupy Germany and prevent it from one day politically and militarily reasserting itself on the Continent. The EU is a major source of Germany’s economic strength because it provides markets for the export-based German economy and a common currency that facilitates trade. Yet the EU is also a major source of German vulnerability. Germany is so dependent on EU markets that any trade or financial disruptions could send its economy plummeting. What’s more, the EU limits any political and military ambitions that Germany may have. Berlin’s primary concern is keeping Brussels afloat. Britain can exploit this German weakness by boosting the legitimacy of the Polish resistance against Berlin. Encouraging any process that puts pressure on the union without breaking it would benefit the British.
The Poles similarly view German ambitions in the EU with caution. Germany and Poland have conflicting views of what the EU’s future should look like, particularly how much agency Brussels should have to intervene in the domestic affairs of member states. When the 2008 economic crisis began, Germany, as the state with the largest economy in the EU, helped navigate the situation by leading the response to the Greek debt crisis and ensuring that austerity was implemented across the eurozone. Berlin has maintained the power it gained during the crisis and has used its influence over Brussels in other matters, including immigration policy. Germany is willing to contribute substantial funds to the EU – more than any other member – to make sure that the bloc and its less affluent members remain intact. In exchange, it expects member states to comply with Brussels’ demands.
Poland rejects EU leadership in many areas, but its resistance is limited by its dependence on EU funding and trade. Indeed, standards of living in Poland have risen since it joined the union in 2004, but so too has Poland’s integration into the German supply chain. In 2016, 27 percent of Polish exports went to Germany, mainly to be used as components in German industry (such as auto parts, which accounted for 8.3 percent of those exports). Poland has developed a chronic economic dependence on Germany, making Poland a subordinate rather than an equal.
What Warsaw can do, and has done successfully so far, is establish a better bargaining position against Germany. Threatening to leave the EU may place pressure on Berlin, but it’s a threat on which Warsaw could not follow through. A survey released by pollster CBOS in January showed that 92 percent of Poles want to remain in the EU. Poland is therefore positioning itself as the leader of Eastern Europe instead and looking to recruit Britain as an ally. For the British, partnering with an emerging Eastern European leader is one way they can remain relevant in Europe. For the Poles, having the support of an economic powerhouse is pivotal.