The end of the year 2023 is an important moment for the CEE. After 8 years of continued conservative-populist control Poland, with the election of Donald Tusk as Prime Minister, is changing its course aiming to become a responsible regional leader with staunch pro-Ukrainian and pro-European ambitions. The need for such leadership is evident as with inter-EU divisions, and the limiting of support from the US, Europe now has to step up and support Ukraine in its struggle against the brutal Russian invasion in the hope of restoring security and stability.
On Monday, December 11th 2023, the Polish parliament voted out the government of Prime Minister Morawiecki. A day later, the parliament voted in favour of Donald Tusk’s candidacy for the position of new Prime Minister, who, along with his chosen ministers, was sworn in on Wednesday by President Andrzej Duda. This event finalised the transition of power in Poland into the hands of the liberal-progressive coalition and ushered in a new political era outlined by pro-European mindsets, progressive values, and staunch resistance to the Russian threat.
While Tusk’s government has only been in power for a few days, it has been extremely busy and achieved much. The first most notable success is unlocking European reconstruction funds for Poland, with Tusk’s government filing the application for the first payment worth 7 billion euros. Poland is already set to receive an advance payment of 5 billion euro, which were approved before the new government came into power, though since then, the EU stated that the entirety of this sum would be delivered before the end of the year in a single instalment (rather than several as previously planned). These decisions coincide with Tusk’s first official visit, undertaken on his first day in office, to Brussels to meet with EU leaders.
The new government has taken a very active stance in strengthening the relationship with regional partners. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski, has prioritised relations with key regional partners, directing the first phone call to his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielus Landsbergis. The focus on the Baltic States was to be reinforced by Tusk’s official visit to Tallinn to meet with his counterparts from Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. The meeting between the four leaders was to focus on matters of safety, security, current dealings with the EU, and the situation in Ukraine, as well as a joint response.[i] Unfortunately, the meeting was cancelled due to the Estonian Prime Minister’s sudden illness, but the plans highlight the Polish government’s focus on regional cooperation and the strengthening of ties with key partners in Central and Eastern Europe.
The war in Ukraine has also been presented as a key priority of the new government. In Tusk’s first speech to the Polish parliament, the newly elected Prime Minister spoke of the importance of the Ukrainian cause. Tusk stated that he cannot listen anymore to Western politicians and that they are tired of the war in Ukraine and of supporting the Ukrainian cause. The Polish leader further claimed that „We will … loudly and decisively demand the full mobilisation of the free world, the Western world, to help Ukraine in this war”.[ii] Tusk’s speech had once again placed Poland as the staunchest supporter of Ukraine and its fight against the brutal Russian aggression. This approach has been further reinforced by Sikorski, who called the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba and assured him of continued Polish support not only in terms of aid in the war but also in the country’s European aspirations.
While the new Polish government might prove a key Ukrainian ally, another European state might be quite the opposite. Hungary has blocked an EU aid package for Ukraine worth 50 billion euros, continuing its streak of anti-Ukrainian approach to European politics. While further negotiation talks on the aid to Ukraine will be continued next year, with a number of politicians assuring that the aid will reach Ukraine, such delays might prove difficult for the war-torn country. Such discord within the European Union, delaying critical decision-making processes, can be very damaging to the Union’s status as a reliable power and the security of its member states. Such events and issues requiring a united approach of the entire Union are most probably what prompted a number of actors with the EU to promote and support the idea of majority voting in European decision-making – moving away from the unanimity principle and veto powers in favour of a more straightforward and more cohesive approach.
While such changes would eliminate a number of issues, highlighted by the Hungarian actions, which complicate, lengthen or even outright stop the decision-making process it could lead to several alternative problems. Coincidently, one of the key repercussions of these changes could be further division within the European Union, with like-minded countries joining together to influence EU institutions and the decision/policy-making process. One such potential entity could be the CEE, with like-minded countries would join together to try and balance out the Western member states, which often present different perspectives. The perspective of balancing member states’ influence has been touched on by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, who stated that it was vital to maintain a level playing field for every member of the Union, advocating for maintaining the unanimity principle. Without the it, countries of the CEE with smaller representations would join together to balance the greater influence of Western states like France or Germany. Here, Poland would most probably serve as a leader of the eastern part of the EU, representing its voice, needs and aspirations due to its more significant impact on EU institutions (for example, Poland will hold 53 seats in the EU Parliament from 2024, compared to 11 Lithuanian – for reference Germany holds 96 seats).
War in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine, irrelevant of the political situation in the EU, continues, with Russian forces increasing their pressure on Ukrainian positions along the entire frontline. Russian troops continued their suicidal attack on the fortress city of Avdiivka, hoping to break the Ukrainian flanks protecting the last supply line into the city. Despite staunch opposition from the defenders, the invaders are slowly making progress. It seems that Russia hopes to repeat their relative success from Bakhmut in Avdiivka, slowly strangling the city and its defenders. While the cost of such victory would be high, it seemed acceptable to the Russian command. Similar attacks are being carried out by Russian troops all across the eastern frontline, from the embattled outskirts and towns surrounding Donetsk through Bakhmut all the way to the Kupyansk region in the north section of the front.
These attacks and intensifying offensive operations undertaken by Russian forces come at an increasingly difficult time for Ukraine. Having suffered noticeable losses in their own offensive, and since then, the Ukrainian armed forces need further reinforcements and Western aid to recreate their military potential. However, the aid is slow to arrive. The EU is continuously blocked by Hungary, which vetoes major aid packages being sent to Ukraine, while on their own, European countries struggle to maintain a steady supply of military equipment. While the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk vowed to redouble the European efforts in supporting Ukraine and increase Polish contributions, what exactly will be done remains to be seen. The progressing modernisation of the Polish military will potentially allow the country to transfer more of its Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine. However, the level of such deliveries currently needs to be determined.
On the other hand, the USA, a key Ukrainian ally, needs help to agree on further aid being sent to the war-torn country. The bill with additional funds for Ukraine is stuck in limbo, continuously delayed and debated. At the same time, President Biden, a staunch advocate for supporting Ukraine, is being threatened with impeachment by the Republican party, further derailing cooperation within the Congress and bipartisan efforts for Ukraine. In addition to this, American attention is drawn more and more to the Middle East, where Yemen Houthi rebels are threatening one of the world’s most important trade routes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, especially in the area of the Bab el-Mandab Strait. Already, many commercial vessels have chosen not to enter this passage, and should such a trend continue, it might heavily impact the global economy. At this point, the American administration is considering committing further resources to the area, with additional warships to provide security. All the while, American support for Ukraine faltered.
As the war in Ukraine continues, the invaded country faces an increasingly difficult situation. With Russian troops attacking along the majority of the frontline and a key city besieged, Ukraine needs its allies, who are unfortunately distracted or prevented from providing aid. Some hope remains with the new Polish government, which aims to strengthen regional cooperation and rally support across the West for the war-torn country. With Poland surging to take the place of regional leader, the situation in Ukraine and the entire CEE might improve, driven by the Polish impetus.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] “Wizyta zagraniczna Donalda Tuska odwołana w ostatniej chwili”, Rzeczpospolita, December 17, 2023, https://www.rp.pl/polityka/art39581321-kolejna-wizyta-zagraniczna-donalda-tuska-premier-uda-sie-do-estonii.
[ii] Anna Koper, “Poland’s Donald Tusk wins confidence vote, sets pro-EU path”, Reuters, December 12, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/polands-donald-tusk-says-he-will-push-wests-help-ukraine-2023-12-12/.