Poland could be biggest EU loser from Brexit

by Paul Taylor | 05.04.2017

Paris: For Poland’s nationalist, Eurosceptic government, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was unmitigated bad news.

De facto ruler Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice (PiS) party face the loss of vital EU development funds for their country, as well as his strongest political ally in the EU council, and the firmest western supporter of a tough EU line on Russia. Britain has sent troops and tanks to Poland as part of NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” designed to deter Russian intimidation after Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine, and to reassure eastern allies.

“Poland was orphaned by the Brexit vote,” said a senior Polish diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity because he is still in government service. “Of course, Britain isn’t leaving NATO or disappearing off the map of Europe, but we are losing our greatest patron in the EU.”

Free-marketeering Britain, the most enthusiastic campaigner for the eastward enlargement of the Union, was the only big European country to open its doors to migrant workers from Poland from the day it joined the bloc in 2004. Germany and France took advantage of a seven-year transition period to shield their labour markets. As a result, more than 900,000 moved to the UK, sending home remittances that boost particularly the poorest regions of eastern Poland.

Warsaw is aware it is in a weak position to defend expatriates’ rights. “It’s obvious that Brexit is crucially important to us,” Poland’s Europe minister Konrad Szymanski told Bloomberg News. “If we don’t carry it out well, it will harm the internal market. And it will probably be difficult to coordinate on residency issues because the stakes are uneven.”

Barring some agreement on future payments for market access, the UK’s departure will deprive the EU budget of a net contribution of about 10 billion euros a year, much of which goes to structural aid to the poorest regions of the bloc, helping build roads, airports, railways and modernise heavily polluting power stations. Poland is the biggest recipient of these EU funds and depends on them to support a slowing economy.

Warsaw is increasingly isolated in the EU because of its moves to emasculate its own constitutional court and refuse to take a share of Syrian refugees, as well as its unsuccessful attempt to block ex-prime minister Donald Tusk’s reappointment as president of the European Council of EU leaders. In the past, Britain might have been expected to protect its ally from incurred censure by the European Commission, but the UK is on its way out and won’t want to complicate its divorce negotiations by standing up for an awkward partner.

Instead, Brexit makes Poland more dependent than ever on good relations with Germany, which Kaczynski and his supporters suspect of wanting to dominate Europe at their expense. With Berlin and Paris moving towards a two-speed Europe with closer eurozone and defence integration, Warsaw could be marooned in the slow lane without the UK to help it fight for a more decentralised Europe.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe