Discussions about EU integration have resurfaced and Brexit in particular has left many wondering whether it is an impediment or perhaps an opportunity for better integration. Indeed, the UK leaving the EU creates space for intensified cooperation with newer member states and to expand the leading Franco-German coalition with the upcoming economic force on the block, Poland. (Featured Image © P. Tracz)
Since the 2008 crisis, the European Union has been soul searching. Standard themes such as democracy, the economy, and progress which once formed the rallying cry of the EU, have mostly lost their attraction. At the same time, the train of integration and cooperation could no longer be stalled and member states had to coordinate their interests more than ever. Problematically, without a binding vision, policy is rarely coherent and vetoes occur more often.
In the example case of foreign policy, this showed itself in the lack of weight the EU could put in the scale, despite its massive economic footprint. The European Council on Foreign Relations, assessed EU foreign policy in terms of goals, implementations, and results. For example, while the Iran deal was considered a victory, internal disputes turned the handling of the refugee crisis into an absolute failure. Their general conclusion was that the EU’s neighborhood policy had performed very poor.
Rethinking the Status Quo
The EU thus clearly needs renewed vision and leadership to avoid disputes and to make sure that all member states can work towards the same goals. The (sudden) resurgence of France to the European and especially the global podium thanks to Macron, has renewed the previously less charismatic Franco-German axis. Somehow, it feels almost as if we returned to the stable core of Franco-German cooperation which drove the original European project.
But as Kenneth Rogoff stated recently, “the status quo is not sustainable”. With the UK leaving the EU, the big three (United Kingdom, Germany, and France) have been reduced to the big two, which in turn opens up some room in the European arena of power. Even though increased cooperation between France and Germany is likely, I would deem it a loss to the whole Union if the leading force were to remain a duopoly.
The most promising alternative construction would be the ‘Weimar Triangle’, consisting of France and Germany plus Poland.
France and Germany have different goals, problems, and ideas compared to other member states of the EU. A concentration of power between both would thus severely limit the support for the vision they would put forward, and would lead to the alienation of specifically Central and Eastern European member states.
The most promising alternative construction would be the ‘Weimar Triangle’, consisting of France and Germany plus Poland. In my opinion, this would be the logical formation as Poland (in coordination with Central European States) represents the next upcoming power.
Poland has a population of 40 million, making it the fifth largest country in the EU (after the UK leaves). Add its allies Hungary and the Czech Republic (together also known as the Visegrad countries) and it has the same weight as France and Italy, but without the crippling debt, with better growth prospects and the highest percentage of educated people in the EU. Thanks to years of stability and continued economic growth, Poland will probably be the first country in 20 years to get added to the list of advanced nations.
At the same time, it is different enough from Western European states and can add some new insights to foreign and intra-European policy. Contrary to the UK, which also had different opinions, Poland proclaims to be a pro-European country that welcomes integration and cooperation to a greater degree than the UK.
Poland proclaims to be a pro-European country that welcomes integration and cooperation to a greater degree than the UK.
This does not mean that they currently share the same opinions about integration as Western European states, and that they want full integration tomorrow. Other options for power coalitions are limited: Spain has tried to expand its influence in the EU, but given the current situation with Catalonia, this seems an unlikely thing. Italy has tried this too, yet again with limited success.
The Weimar Triangle therefore must be actively stimulated. The European project can only survive through integration, which in turn can only succeed by including Central and Eastern European countries more prominently in policy debates. Such an approach could crystallize a fresher vision which includes regional grievances beyond Western Europe. Adding Poland to the leadership-mix, could enable just that.
The elephant in the room so far is the behavior of the current Polish government (PiS). Prime Minister Beata Szydło is actively undoing the division of power in Poland by trying to gut their Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court and by limiting the independence of judges, all the while increasing the influence of the executive branch on the judiciary. PiS is effectively gambling away Poland’s political capital.
The EU’s Venice Commission has stated that their actions are clearly not in line with the core principles of rule of law and democracy. Consequently, if PiS continues down this path, Poland cannot be asked to the table of European power. This was already demonstrated during Macron’s last meeting with the Visegrad countries, where he ignored Poland and Hungary.
The elephant in the room so far is the behavior of the current Polish government.
The message has clearly been sent that France does not want to cooperate with Poland if it continues to behave the way it currently does. Yet, I do not see PiS changing its conduct and strategies very soon, as it would mean losing face domestically. Instead, opening a proper discussion with the Polish government and allowing them to escape the current situation with a minor victory in return for ending the crackdown on the judiciary, might help ease relations. This could convince Poland, and particularly PiS voters, that they are truly better off within the EU, and especially in the cockpit of the Union.