David Cameron will receive a frosty welcome on Wednesday when he visits Poland, a traditional UK ally which has been upset by what it sees as Downing Street’s discriminatory moves to curb migrant welfare.
Poland’s new rightwing Law and Justice government shares the UK prime minister’s sceptical view of the EU. Its representatives sit with his Conservatives in the European Parliament’s reformist camp. And its diplomats support British efforts to resist deeper EU integration, protect member states outside the eurozone, and reduce regulation.
But on Mr Cameron’s demand to restrict benefits for EU citizens who move to the UK, Warsaw is leading the resistance.
“This is a red line for us. It is purely discriminatory in nature,” said a senior official. “We want to keep Britain in the union. But it does not mean we can or will pay any price.”
Over 850,000 Poles were living in the UK at the end of 2014, more than the population of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city. That makes Warsaw a sensitive partner in debates over curbing EU migration.
Mr Cameron has demanded that Britain be allowed to restrict welfare benefits to EU migrants for four years, an idea that has been rejected by Poland, and other eastern states such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Officials in Warsaw say that unless Mr Cameron arrives with new ideas, talks on a compromise will be pointless.
“It is problematic because we do not hear any fresh thinking,” said the official. “We need more sophisticated proposals for us to start talking . . . We want to hear something new.”
Mr Cameron has previously said he is open to other suggestions from EU partners, but officials in Warsaw bristle at the implication that they should come up with other ways for London to discriminate against Poles, the largest foreign population in Britain.
Instead, eastern officials say Britain's generous tax credits — an in-work wage top-up offered to UK citizens and EU migrants — should be reformed.
The prime minister will dine with Polish officials and dignitaries on Wednesday evening, and hold bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and President Andrzej Duda on Thursday morning before flying to Bucharest to conduct similar talks with the Romanian government.
Convincing Poland is critical for Mr Cameron’s efforts to reach a settlement with the EU, ahead of the UK’s planned referendum on membership.
Law and Justice’s euroscepticism stems from its fear of policies that weaken member states’ sovereignty, a concern that chimes with Mr Cameron’s rhetoric. A Nato member that worries about Russia’s increased aggression, Poland is also keen to keep the UK in the EU for stability and defence reasons, and values its role as a transatlantic conduit with Washington.
Those common points had led some in the Conservative party to cheer Ms Szydlo’s election victory in October. But the new government, which won the first parliamentary majority in Polish history, has struck a strongly nationalist tone in its first few weeks in office, and appears not to be in a conciliatory mood.
Poles as a proportion of non-British nationals in the UK (2015)
Ms Szydlo’s party, which has promised to “fix” Poland and defend its interests, has outraged constitutional experts by aggressively politicising the country’s constitutional court. It has also vowed to close its borders to migrants, wield more power over the media and banks, has threatened to challenge the EU’s climate change strategy and has promised to push through populist measures such as cash handouts for parents.
As such, Law and Justice seems even less likely than its liberal, centrist predecessor to agree a compromise on curbing benefits for Poles in Britain.
Further, Ms Szydlo is keen to not appear weak in her first major foreign policy test ahead of her debut European Council summit later this month, and her party’s euroscepticism means there is scant chance of other EU partners being able to put pressure on Warsaw to reach a deal.
“Even if [Law and Justice and the Conservatives] are supposed to be in the same political family, it is a funny political family that says national interests come first,” said a senior EU diplomat. “A Polish prime minister who would agree to [Cameron’s demands] would commit political suicide.”
As the largest economy in the EU’s east and the region’s most powerful voice in Brussels, Poland’s blessing would likely lead to support from other eastern states.
There may be some room for conciliation, if Mr Cameron can come up with a better proposal. Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s Europe minister and the country’s most senior EU negotiator, has previously said that Poland has “a major interest in preventing any British EU exit”, and that Warsaw was not in principle against adjustments to the EU’s “treaty architecture”, which could be necessary to give Mr Cameron what he wants.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels
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