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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Bedrocks of Transatlanticism: Poland & the Baltics

Article by: Justyna Gotkowska with edits by Release Peace

This article is an adaptation of an article by Justyna Gotkowska as part of a publication collaboration with the Foreign & Security Policy section of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Justyna Gotkowska is coordinator of the Regional Security Programme of the Warsaw-based think tank Centre for Eastern Studies.

Bedrock of Security and Prosperity

Despite their prominent roles and voices in the current challenges Europe faces on its Eastern flank, Poland and the Baltic states are relative newcomers to the Euro-Atlantic structures – NATO and the EU. Poland joined NATO in 1999, with the three Baltic states following suit in 2004. The latter was also the year all four countries joined the EU. This process has been perceived as their “return” to the West after the post-WW 2 Communist rules and the ultimate fall of Iron Curtain in 1991. Being part of the West was associated with democracy, stability, prosperity but also with sovereignty and independence. The European integration was an accelerator for the new member states’ socio-economic development. NATO, on the other hand, was seen as the primary source of security – with a strong role of the US. Out of this separation of roles of the EU and NATO from the perspective of Poland and the Baltic states emerged a cautious view on the idea of European strategic autonomy or European sovereignty, concepts we will return to in this article.

Caution Towards European Strategic Autonomy and European Sovereignty

From the four countries’ perspectives “European strategic autonomy” was an ill-devised term from the start. In the Global Strategy of the European Union it was defined as an autonomy regarding external crisis management. This was a limited definition, contrary to the ordinary understanding of the term, which denotes an emancipation of the EU in political, economic and military terms from the United States. Such an understanding of the future of the EU is unacceptable for Poland and the Baltic states, in which close political, economic and military relations with the US are considered nothing short of existential.

Listening to Paris, which generally supports European strategic autonomy, the use of this term is not merely a misunderstanding but a reflection of national preferences reflecting the above-mentioned wider definition. Otherwise, French officials would have long embarked on a different narrative. The German version of the concept is “European sovereignty”, meaning greater responsibility and ability to act on the part of the European Union, a semantic difference that creates only more confusion. Sovereignty is commonly attributed to nations and using it in the European context opens the unproductive debate about the “federalisation” of the EU with different views from the member states.

More Substance: European Engagement in Security and Defence

It is clear to Poland and the Baltic states that NATO should remain the primary military alliance that takes care of Europe’s collective defence. Even prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the view in Poland and the Baltics was that European nations should do more, both in terms of investments in their own national armed forces, engagement in collective defence in NATO and in external crisis management in different formats (NATO, EU, UN).

Many analysts have argued that European states should use e.g. the EU setups PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and the European Defence Fund to a larger degree in order to advance military capabilities that are currently lacking, such as air defence or disruptive technologies. As a consequence of the war in Ukraine new possibilities emerge, such as for even more joint procurement of military equipment and ammunition. But from Polish and Baltic perspectives it should be a priority to harmonise the goals and means of the EU and NATO in the defence field and to align the strategies of both organisations as much as possible.

Further, the US shift of focus to the Asia-Pacific theatre means that US military engagement in the European security architecture may not be guaranteed to the extent endlessly. Regardless of the war in Ukraine, more European, including more substantial German engagement, on the eastern flank needs to within NATO, ideally in collaboration with US forces in the region.

“Sovereignty” for all EU Member States

Notably, the Polish and Baltic concerns about European strategic autonomy or European sovereignty do not relate exclusively to security and defence. Their worry also concerns the balance of power in the post-Brexit EU and the representation of the interests of all member states. The four countries have concerns that under the umbrella of narratives about European “autonomy” or “sovereignty” French and German interests will be at the forefront of the EU’s agenda with smaller and mid-sized EU member states being side-lined. Whether justified or not, this fear stems from the fact that Brexit has changed the political configuration of the EU. Poland and the Baltic states have lost an important ally balancing the Franco-German tandem. In particular, the UK shared with the region similar approaches to many policy areas including transatlantic relations, Russia, European security, the internal market, economic policies, and trade.

Since 2016 the position of Poland, a mid-sized member state of 38 million, and of the three small Baltic states, has become increasingly challenging towards larger EU members. In these countries the European autonomy or sovereignty is partly perceived as a buzzword for promoting Franco-German undertakings in the EU, in which mainly or solely the two countries were involved. Creating “European” champions, starting “European” armaments programs, introducing more protectionism on the internal market, proposing qualified majority voting in foreign and security policy along with adaptations in other policy areas – all this has been proposed without the region’s involvement and was met with an unease for the reasons mentioned.

Excluding Polish and Baltic states’ perspective and interests that are to a large degree shared also by the Nordic and the V4 countries might be counterproductive for the intra-EU debate. The fierce rejection by German and French officials of the recently circulating slogan on “the European centre of gravity shifting towards the east” shows how difficult it is for the two biggest EU countries to acknowledge a stronger Polish and Baltic voice acquired not least by their staunch support for Ukraine and the transatlantic alliance.

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