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Poland - from bad and ugly to a bit better

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Poland’s former foreign minister, offered a damning verdict on his country’s diplomacy under the Kaczynskis. “If the bride is poor and ugly,” he said, “the least she can do is to be gracious.”

During their two-year rule the twins chastised the Germans, refused to talk to the Russians and at times ignored most European partners.

The only nation with which they seemed to care about having good relations was the US, though there is scant evidence that this sentiment was reciprocated. In the paranoid world of the Kaczynskis there was little space for serious thought about the outside world.

Civic Platform (PO), the party which won the election, is liberal and outward-looking. Donald Tusk, the party’s leader, grew up in a bilingual Polish-German home and talks about Ireland as a model country that Poland should emulate.

Obsessed with conspiracy theories, the twins were convinced that the diplomatic service was made up of former communist spies and liberals. Some of this was probably true; there were too many communist-era apparatchiks hanging around the corridors. But the way the outgoing government went about pursuing reform discredited the reasons why they were doing it.

The Kaczynskis removed almost all first-rank professional diplomats. Until recently, 25 ambassadorial posts were vacant. In fact, the post of ambassador to the EU was also empty for months. The result was a managerial catastrophe – official visits were ill-prepared, morale in the foreign office was low, and foreign policy making was prone to knee-jerk reactions. Under Tusk one can expect a change in this area, which is important because style and professionalism matter.

But what about the substance? German Chancellor Angela Merkel is hopeful that the new government will be pro-European and pro-German. Unlike the Kaczynski brothers, PO does not harbour anti-German sentiments, thus the atmosphere will improve. However, the main bone of contention in the relationship – the Russo-German project to build a pipeline bypassing Poland – will not go away.

Last year the pipeline was likened by the then Polish Defence Minister, Radek Sikorski, to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Sikorski, who switched sides, is now Tusk’s candidate for foreign minister. 
If selected, Polish objections towards the pipeline will not waver, but at the same time Sikorski has stated that he has no intention of making Washington choose between Poland and Germany. When it comes to the US, Sikorski will lead a tougher line. While Washington may see him as a neo-con buddy, he has become increasingly sceptical of the US’ missile defence system and also questions the merits of Poland’s continued presence in Iraq.

What about Europe? The new Government’s overall attitude towards the European Union will be more embracing. Civic Platform has endorsed the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. 
However, this pro-European stance will also be assertive. It was Civic Platform, and not the Kaczynskis, that protested most loudly against the introduction of the new EU voting system which would diminish Poland’s influence. When, after the bad-tempered negotiations of June 2007 Poland agreed to the new voting system, the Kaczynski government was attacked at home by the opposition.
Finally, there is a small constitutional problem to overcome before Poland’s foreign policy can become less Kaczynski-like. Until 2010 Lech Kaczynski will continue to be president, a post which includes many foreign policy competencies.

Poland’s new foreign policy will be more professional and more constructive. But it will not be less assertive. The bride will be more gracious but she may well remain difficult.

Kerry Longhurst is a researcher at the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI) in Paris and Marcin Zaborowski is senior research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies. They are authors of ‘The New Atlanticist: Poland’s Foreign and Security Policy Priorities’ (Blackwells/Chatham House 2007).