Poland sits at 24th in this year’s Soft Power 30, only just behind Greece but still comfortably holding off its resurgent European neighbours, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Disappointingly for Poland, it has dropped several places in the polling, with only Russia keeping it from occupying last place. This is offset by solid showings in the Digital and Education sub-indices. In the former, it is ahead of digitally-savvy polities including New Zealand and Finland, while in the latter it ranks on a par with Norway and other education powerhouses. There was international outcry in March when the nationalist government approved a controversial law making it a criminal offence to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had only just responded to the criticism of this apparent attempt to whitewash history, watering down the law to a civil rather than a criminal offence (effectively removing the threat of jail time). Whether this will have the desired effect of rekindling initially warm relations with President Trump’s administration, and of course reducing friction with the EU, remains to be seen. The ruling Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) overhaul of its judiciary system continues to provoke ire within the European Commission, and is reflected in the country’s slight drop in the Government and Engagement sub-indices.
Poland’s reputation as an open and safe country with a lot to offer is echoed by another annual upturn in tourists (2017 visitor numbers were up 4.5 per cent on 2016). This has been boosted by improved flight connections to the East. A concerted #VisitPoland campaign, launched with the support of hundreds of online bloggers, speaks volumes of the country’s growing strength in the digital sphere. And if that’s not enough, in June this year the much-awaited Polish Vodka Museum opened its doors to the public in Warsaw (don’t worry, a presentation on responsible drinking is a mandatory part of any visit).
Last year, we warned of Warsaw’s growing defiance towards Brussels potentially damaging political and economic cooperation. These fears have in no way been assuaged as PiS continues to weaken the country’s democratic checks and balances, with two laws passed in December 2017 that strengthen the party’s grip on the National Judiciary Council of particular concern. Poland remains by far the biggest recipient of EU development payments, and a change of political course is sorely needed to avoid damaging its economic prospects.
Though its relationship with Brussels is increasingly strained, Poland remains an integral member of the EU. It also continues to be a major regional leader, as demonstrated by its prominent role in the Three Seas Initiative. Poland should continue to balance its relationship with Brussels, Washington, and its regional neighbours. If it succeeds in this difficult balancing act, it could gain significant advantages from these different relationships.