The EU cannot afford to play political games with Poland

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki on a visit to the Polish border with Belarus (Coyright: Polish government )

By Robert Tyler, Senior Policy Advisor at EU affairs think tank New Direction

The recent escalation of the migrant crisis on the Polish border with Belarus is proving to be a major political headache for the European Union. On the one hand, the crisis, widely viewed as a hybrid threat from Russia and Belarus, is posing a major threat to the EU’s external borders, on the other hand, the European Commission is trying to remain firm in its stand-off with Poland over the Rule of Law Mechanism. 

However, the reality is that from a geopolitical point of view, only one of these two standoffs poses an existential threat to the internal cohesion of the West – and that is the migrant crisis. This of course is not because Europe wouldn’t be able to handle more migrants – quite the opposite – but because the European Union cannot be seen to surrender Central-Eastern European countries in the face of crisis.

Some in Central and Eastern Europe believe that the Commission’s slow response is in fact part of its ongoing argument with the Polish government over the rule of law. They allege that the Commission, naively, is using its slow response to send a message. However, by playing with fire, it risks burning itself.

In Central and Eastern Europe, neighbouring states are already rallying around Poland – regardless of their political differences. The Lithuanian PM, during her wishes to the Polish President on Independence Day, highlighted that the shared threats they are facing make their relationship stronger. Meanwhile, the chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the Parliaments of all three Baltic states and Poland signed a joint declaration calling for the West to take the issue more seriously. This letter was later other concerned states. Interior ministers from 12 EU member states also demanded that the EU finances border-wall projects to stop migrants entering through Belarus. Furthermore, also the United Kingdom has sent a detachment of troops from the Royal Engineers Company of the British Army.


The reality which the European Commission has continued to face, is that if the European Union is seen to simply ignore this hybrid attack on Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – it will only further embolden Russia and Belarus to carry out more. Today, EU Foreign Ministers decided to tighten the Belarus sanction regime. The EU will now also be able to target individuals and entities organising or contributing to the human trafficking operations of the Lukashenko regime. Will that however be sufficient?

Already in a test for Western readiness and resolve – the Russians have once again started to build up troops on the border of Ukraine. Their last set of ‘exercises’ on the edges of Ukraine ended in April 2021, with a large number of the participating divisions remaining stationed in Russia’s ‘Southern Military District’. Since then, however, Russia have also signed a new agreement with the Belarusian regime on military cooperation, meaning that Russian coverage of the Ukrainian border has extended with a further 1,000 KM – stretching Ukrainian defence needs further to the West. Perhaps more worryingly, This also put the frontier just 91 KM from Kyiv.

Between them, Russia and Belarus are testing the willingness of the West to not just help cope Poland and the Baltic states with a migrant crisis, but also defend Ukraine from a military threat.

All of this of course comes against the backdrop of the ongoing energy crisis, with Russia restricting the amount of gas flowing through existing pipelines to Europe, while already cutting off supplies to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Germany is closer than ever to securing the required licences to run Nord Stream II.

It is hard to understate the real threat posed by Russia to Europe’s Eastern flank. And yet thus far, the West has paid only limited attention to the escalating series of crisis – in part due to political stubbornness, and as a result of sheer naivety. 

The answer is for the European Commission to put its feud with the Polish government on ice and accept that there is a much more real threat to Europe than the appointment of judges. Should Poland’s ability to defend its border collapse, it is Western Europe that will end up dealing with the influx of migrants. More importantly, however, it would send a message to Russia, and further afield, that Europe is unwilling to defend its own.

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