Poland’s double-game on defence matters

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Poland has chosen to buy F-35 aircraft from the US rather than favour European products.

Poland’s decision to buy American F-35 aircraft sounds like Warsaw snubbing European projects. However, the EU member state, is also in breach of its commitments, writes Nicholas Gros-Verheyde.

Since the conservative PiS (Law and Justice) government came to power in Warsaw, Poland has often favoured dealing with its partner across the Atlantic to purchase defence equipment.

The decision made in 2016 to abruptly break off negotiations with Airbus for the purchase of 50 Caracal transport helicopters spectacularly displayed this.

Not only had Warsaw given the French, in a negotiating position, that nosedive, but it had also slammed the door on Europeans, thus renouncing to the integration of the European industrial project.

The choice to acquire 32 American F-35 aircraft carriers, announced in June and confirmed on Wednesday (25 September) by Washington, is in line with the same logic. Committed to a vast plan to modernise its army, Poland prefers to buy from the US rather than Europe.

But, in the meantime, the situation on the continent has changed. What was possible yesterday, without any conditions – the purchase of defence equipment – is now taking place in a closer European framework. 25 EU countries, including Poland, have indeed committed themselves to strengthen their defence relations.

Inaugurated with great pomp and ceremony in December 2017 by European heads of state and government, the “permanent structured cooperation”, or PESCO, is not just a political act with no future. It includes twenty “binding” commitments and aims to carry out joint projects.

A breach of commitments under PESCO

This purchase thus constitutes a significant violation of one of the twenty commitments signed. More precisely, it is the 16th commitment which stipulates: “Consider as a priority of European collaborative approach in order to fill capability shortcomings identified at a national level.”

Commitment is not difficult to keep. It is sufficient to examine the possibilities for European cooperation before adopting an “exclusively national approach”.

There is no shortage of European cooperation projects in this area. In addition to a future version of Eurofighter, the Europeans have two programmes underway: the FCAS, a Franco-German-Spanish project set up to develop the aircraft and drone of the future, as well as British-Swedish-Italian Tempest project.

The Poles were not involved in the preliminary stages of these projects, and they did not consult their European colleagues. One diplomat from a European member state even confided that they had not been kept informed of the investment in question.

Cooperation with Washington, money from Brussels

It is no secret that Warsaw is looking to Washington more than Brussels when it comes to security and defence. The Polish defence ministry now swears by American equipment. A very political posture. In addition to a specific common understanding with US President Donald Trump’s team, the objective is very pragmatic for the Polish conservatives.

The aim is to forge the closest possible link with Washington to obtain investments for equipment and human resources from the Pentagon. The hope is to ensure permanent US presence in Poland, which is considered a strategic move in response to Russian threats.

The aim is not only to seek a military tactical contribution but also to forge a strategic impact, particularly because of the proximity between the US and Russia. The Poles believe they could bring the patriotic spirit to bear on the other side of the Atlantic.

Beyond this approach, there are also very down-to-earth, economic interests. The Polish defence sector thus hopes to revitalise itself and find outlets, as a subcontractor, for American products.

The European piggy bank 

The Polish government of the PiS is playing double games, as it does not disdain the European approach, especially when it can get subsidies. When it comes to PESCO, the government in Warsaw did not fall ‘head over heels’ as it has long hesitated to join.

But the possibility of having a 10%’ bonus’ in the allocation of European funding under the future European Defence Fund (EDF) has played a significant role. For Warsaw today, the equation is simple: in defence, we cooperate with the Americans and finance with the Europeans.

This appears to be a short-sighted vision, as well as a strategic error.

The relationship is unbalanced. For the United States, the ultimate goal is not a military alliance with Warsaw, but the sale of surplus equipment and the proper functioning of its industry. The political and strategic objective is to restore good relations with Russia. Donald Trump’s statements at the G7 summit in Biarritz at the end of August bear witness to this.

This vision is contrary to the Polish government’s current strategy. For Warsaw, disappointment in the long term could, therefore, be great.

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