There are many possible reasons that President Trump chose to start his second overseas trip as head of state with a visit to Poland instead of other, perhaps more expected, destinations. Most obviously, Poland is a major NATO ally that could do with some reassurance from the United States at the moment. It also helps that Trump, like most other U.S. presidents, is expected to get a warm reception when he visits Warsaw.
But there is a less constructive possibility, too. Trump has criticized the European Union. And if he wanted to use a foreign trip to thumb his nose as the bureaucrats in Brussels and Berlin, Poland is as good a place as any to do it.
“The conservative Polish government is keen to interpret the visit as an endorsement of its policies and a snub to the E.U., which Warsaw increasingly has a strained relationship with,” said Erik Brattberg, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of its Europe Program.
This E.U.-Warsaw antagonism may surprise some. Poland has been a member of the bloc since 2004, and polls suggest that the country’s general public is far more supportive of E.U. membership than are citizens in other nations of the bloc. Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the E.U.’s annual budget, and Poland’s Foreign Ministry has in the past released documents detailing the economic benefits of the membership.
Yet this positive sheen masks the more complicated relationship that has shaped up in the past few years — most notably after a right-wing populist party, Law and Justice (PiS), returned to power in 2015. While the current government officially supports further integration with the E.U., it wants to do so only on terms that are beneficial to Poland. Meanwhile, it chafes against the domination of the organization by Western European nations — most obviously neighboring Germany, an economic giant.
This has led to clashes between Poland and the E.U., including one over a plan for refugee quotas and another over efforts to tighten laws on greenhouse-gas emissions. When PiS sought to change the way Poland’s Constitutional Court operated (critics said the amendments would undermine the system of checks and balances), it earned a remarkable rebuke from the European Commission. This year, an attempt by PiS to block the reelection of Donald Tusk — a former prime minister of Poland — to the position of European Council president failed, leaving the Polish government looking embittered and isolated on the continent.
A visit from the leader of the West’s most powerful nation could help dispel this image. “I think for PiS, Trump’s visit is a success before it has even started,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It can be portrayed that the country is not isolated, as its critics maintain.”
Trump may well be unaware of the tension or view the visit as inconsequential for the E.U., having already visited Italy and Belgium on his first foreign trip earlier this year. However, some Polish politicians are suggesting that the visit is a victory over their neighbors. “We have new success: Trump’s visit,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader, said last week. Others “envy it,” he said. “The British are attacking us because of it.”
For some in Western Europe, there is concern that Trump is helping reignite a bitter debate — the divide between “Old Europe” and “New Europe” — that came to the forefront during the George W. Bush administration, Brattberg said. Trump has toned down some of his worst criticisms of the E.U. since assuming office, but he has repeatedly singled out the most obvious bastion of “Old Europe” for criticism in the past.
“You look at the European Union, and it’s Germany,” Trump said in an interview just days before entering the White House. “Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the U.K. was so smart in getting out.”
Trump will also attend a summit of the Three Seas Initiative on Thursday, a move that may rankle some in Western Europe. The Polish- and Croatian-led initiative seeks to strengthen ties among 12 nations in Central and Eastern Europe, all of them E.U. member states. Though the initiative is largely devoted to improving energy security and trade infrastructure, many perceive it to be an attempt to counteract German hegemony in Europe. Buras noted that some in PiS even refer to it as “Intermarium,” “which draws upon a Polish foreign policy concept in the ’30s of the 20th century which was openly directed against the German dominance at that time.”
Notably, one key goal is to promote energy independence from Russia and remove a powerful tool that Moscow has used for political purposes. Last month, Poland received its first shipment of liquefied natural gas from the United States, and members of the Three Seas Initiative have been vocal in their opposition to Russia’s planned Nord Stream 2 — a gas pipeline that would route supplies through Germany.
Having Trump at the summit is a boon for Poland’s ambitions for the Three Seas Initiative, and many will be watching to see whether Trump comments on Germany or the Nord Stream 2 pipeline at the event. “A strong U.S. statement against the pipeline could embolden these countries in their opposition of the project,” Brattberg said. “If so, this could further increase the rift between Berlin and Warsaw and other regional capitals.”
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