WARSAW — There’s a rule of thumb about Polish-British summits: The more the two sides talk about bygone wartime heroics, the less the meeting matters.
“As part of the allied coalition against the Axis powers, you fought for freedom in Europe. We are here today to honor, celebrate and thank you for your sacrifice,” Prime Minister Theresa May said during her one-day visit to the Polish capital Thursday.
The two sides did sign a bilateral security and defense treaty, and did talk about a future trade relationship — but it was pretty clear that there isn’t much of a special relationship between Warsaw and London.
That’s because there’s not much one country can do to help the other in their parallel, but very different, crises with the European Union.
The U.K. is completely absorbed by Brexit, and Warsaw is embroiled in a fight with the European Commission that was taken to the next level by Wednesday’s decision to launch the Article 7 procedure against Poland, alleging the country is violating the EU’s fundamental democratic values.
“I don’t think the Polish government is looking for much help over Article 7″ — Igor Janke, head of the Freedom Institute think tank
So even if there was a will in Warsaw to try to help Britain carve out a more favorable Brexit deal, the current Polish government doesn’t have the diplomatic heft to do it.
Warsaw also has tense relations with most of its neighbors, and wouldn’t be able to marshal any kind of a regional grouping to come to Britain’s aid.
“Poland is unable to convince the Slovaks, who are part of the eurozone, and the Czechs have made it clear they see their future as Germany’s allies. None of the Baltic countries want to hear about Polish leadership,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations.
In turn, the Polish government isn’t going to get much help from May in its battle with Brussels. The U.K. needs the Commission, the European Parliament and big countries like Germany and France onside as it negotiates its future relationship after leaving the EU. Going to bat for Poland would be a distraction, especially as both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkelhave said they’d back Brussels.
In Warsaw, May did say that such issues “should be primarily a matter for the individual country concerned” but there isn’t much more London can do.
“I don’t think the Polish government is looking for much help over Article 7,” said Igor Janke, head of the Freedom Institute think tank.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
When the Law and Justice party took power in late 2015, it shifted Polish foreign policy away from the tight ties with Germany that had been a hallmark of the previous government. Instead, Poland’s new crucial ally in the EU was going to be the U.K. “In the first place, the United Kingdom,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told the Polish parliament in early 2016.
Ostensibly, the two have a lot in common. Both are pro-American, keen NATO members, in favor of low regulations, and tend to be suspicious of the more grandiose federalist ideas that occasionally come out of Brussels.
But Brexit killed that foreign policy option for Poland, and now Warsaw is trying torebuild frayed ties with France while new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is supposed to reset relations with the EU.
Britain hasn’t been a big factor in Central Europe in over a decade. It did push hard for the EU to accept post-communist countries like Poland, hoping that would water down the bloc and turn it into little more than a free-trade area. But since 2004, London has been barely visible in the region.
What’s left are the old wartime memories — which many Poles remember very differently than the Brits, seeing the alliance as one that betrayed Poland when the war broke out and then handed the country over to the Russians once the fighting ended — and the mixed legacy of their shared time in the EU.
“We’re in a crisis which I hope is transitory. Britain is in a permanent one” — Igor Janke
There are about a million Poles in the U.K., one of the largest minorities in the country, which helped fuel a surge of anti-immigrant opinion that may have had a bearing on the outcome of the Brexit referendum.
For Poland’s right-wing government, despite being tarred as Euroskeptic by its opponents, the chaos around Brexit serves as a reminder that, whatever its problems with Brussels, there is no support in Poland for a Polexit.
“We’re in a crisis which I hope is transitory,” Janke said. “Britain is in a permanent one.”
Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.