Three Things to Watch for during Trump’s Trip to Poland
By Jacob Kostrzewski
President Trump will make a stop in Poland’s capital Warsaw on July 5th prior to attending the G-20 Summit in Germany. His visit comes a year after President Obama visited the country and praised the strong Polish-American alliance but expressed concern about the brewing Constitutional Tribunal crisis.
Since then, the Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) party, has undermined Polish democracy in various ways. PiS seeks to assert itself over Polish civil society through the creation of a new body, under the direct control of the Prime Minister, that would distribute funds based partially on whether the missions of organizations are in line with “state policy objectives.” In addition to its refusal to accept Syrian refugees, Poland has reportedly been denying asylum to refugees from Belarus, prompting an investigation from the EU’s Venice Commission. And a newly proposed law would allow Parliament to appoint judges to courts across the country.
Such blatant abuses have sparked mass demonstrations across the country and prompted the EU to threaten sanctions against Poland. The public outcry reflects fear that the immense democratic progress that Poland has made since the fall of communism is being undone. In light of the above, here are three things to watch for during Trump’s visit to Poland.
- Trump’s speech to the Polish people will be held at a major monument commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Poland’s conservative government promised that Trump will be greeted by “massive cheering crowds,” which Trump thoroughly enjoys and is likely to take as an indication that all is well in Poland. However, the major crowds marching through Warsaw have been protesting the reforms undertaken by the same government that has so enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s visit. The U.S. is held in higher regard amongst Poles than any major European country, so what an American president says holds significant sway. While Trump is (probably) aware of the political and civil crises in Poland, it will be telling to see if he praises a fellow conservative government or addresses its abuses and speaks to the concerns of millions of Poles. Any mention of the deteriorating political situation would catch PiS off-guard and likely lead to uncomfortable public questioning. A rebuke by Trump would also provide much-needed support for pro-democracy protesters and indicate that the Polish-American alliance is, in addition to being mutually beneficial strategically, a reflection of shared values of “democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”
- Trump will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda, who extended the official invitation. He is also likely to meet with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party. A key question is whether Trump will meet with Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice widely considered the decision-maker behind major government policies and decisions. Kaczyński holds no political office, but is highly regarded by PiS officials and members, and seen as the source of Poland’s problems by his opponents. An affectionate meeting between Trump and Kaczyński would validate a government routinely criticized by human rights organizations and the European Union for its policies. Trump has been known for heaping praise on unelected leaders with dubious human rights records, and it will be important to watch whether he continues this trend in Poland.
- One shared policy preference between the Trump Administration and the PiS-led government is their antipathy towards refugees. While Trump’s “travel ban” has been repeatedly shut down by federal courts and faces a Supreme Court showdown in the fall, Poland’s government has repeatedly blocked any refugees from the Middle East despite threats of sanctions from the European Union. Any praise Trump offers for Poland’s refugee policy may further entrench the PiS government’s position. This could lead to wider rifts within the European Union and have longterm ramifications for the stability of the Union, not to mention for the millions of refugees seeking resettlement and safety. PiS will undoubtedly be seeking this affirmation from Trump.
After shedding Soviet Communism in 1989, Poland has been one of the most reliable U.S. allies in Europe. Trump will have the opportunity to affirm this alliance and its vital role in an uncertain world. That end will not be served by basking in applause and showering government leaders with praise. Rather, Trump should denounce the actions that are threatening this vibrant democracy.