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Expert View

Poland will back EU not Brexit

by Denis MacShane | 22.03.2017

Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe and author of “Brexit: How Britain Left Europe” published by IB Tauris.

Warsaw: The Polish cabinet has met  to decide its line on Brexit and it is not good news for Theresa May.  Warsaw will stick firmly with the rest of Europe and with the European Commission in its approach to handling the Article 50 negotiations. There is no difference between the more nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government of Poland and the opposition Civic Platform, which has recently jumped 10 points in opinion polls following the clumsy Polish diplomatic effort to block a second term for the EU Council President, Donald Tusk, the number one political enemy of the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Some in London hoped that Poland might be prised away from the rest of Europe as  a special friend of Britain and at a time when a small number of British soldiers are undertaking Nato exercises in East Europe to send a “hands off” message to the Kremlin.

But for the Poles, the unity of the EU, the integrity of the single market, and the four freedoms are the priority, I was told at a high level. “Poland expects the Article 50 negotiations to focus on the technical, legal aspects of leaving the EU Treaty and on the UK honouring its financial and budget contribution to the EU,” a minister told me.

Poland is the biggest recipient of EU transfers and there is still resentment in Warsaw that the Poles have to pay from their own national budget towards the UK rebate.

They also hope that some solution can be found to the “acquired rights” of Polish citizens in the UK. But if Britain seeks to end unilaterally the European four freedoms then Poland will reciprocate.

The EU flag is alongside the Polish flag in the office of Konrad Szymanski, the fluent English speaking PiS Minister for European Affairs. “The solution to Brexit has to be the same for all EU member states. For Poland, it is important to keep the union unified. We cannot make any exceptions and must stick to the integrity of the single market. We can already see a wave of protectionism in Europe and Poland will oppose that.”

The PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is painted as a nationalist who thinks the EU needs to listen to what the nations of Europe say and want. But in a major interview this week he came down hard against a “multi-speed Europe” or any idea of a leading group of EU member states with Poland relegated to an outer ring.

Szymanski warned that the appeal for reciprocal granting of rights to EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU was more complicated than its advocates realised. “There is no symmetry or balance. There are many Poles in the UK and few Brits here. Reciprocal status impacts on social security which is a national not an EU competence.”

Talks with senior politicians from the opposition Civic Platform party produced the view that on Brexit, PiS and  Civic Platform share the same view that maintaining the integrity of the EU is the essential priority for Poland.

The hopes from Brexit commentators that Britain could trade on its old friendship with Poles or use the number of Poles in the UK as some kind of pressure on Warsaw appear to be in vain.

When the Brexit negotiations begin – whether on technical Article 50 treaty withdrawal language or the wider questions of how Britain trades with, flies into or lives with the EU after March 2019 – Poland will be scrumming down with Germany, France, and Brussels.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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