After Tusk's visit to Kyiv: let’s not base our relations on gratitude

Monday, 29 January 2024 — , for European Pravda
Credit: The Office of the President of Ukraine
The visit of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Ukraine. Kyiv, 22 January 2024

Until a year ago, there was no shortage of voices in Poland and Ukraine that the spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of which Poles and Ukrainians were a part, should be resurrected (forgetting sometimes that Ukrainians had no political subjectivity in it).

This was primarily due to the great uprising of Poles, who became massively involved in helping Ukrainians fleeing the war, the great involvement of Poland in military aid to invaded Ukraine, and the gratitude that Ukrainians felt toward Poles.

This great warming was abruptly interrupted in April 2023 by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who at the Law and Justice Party convention announced a blockade of agricultural imports from Ukraine – without warning the Ukrainian side. 

The change in the political situation in Poland gives hope for a new chapter, but the level of resentment on the Ukrainian side against Poland is still very high. A few weeks ago, the European Pravda team wrote an article about the need for Poland to recognize that it is waging a trade war against Ukraine, derailing its European future and exposing it to multi-billion dollar losses. This text reads like the confession of a disappointed lover.


However, political logic is different from love logic: there is room for compromise in international relations, and love and subsequent disappointment can be replaced by an alliance of interests and a community of destiny.

While romantic ruptures are part of the Polish-Ukrainian story, it is now time for realism.

Donald Tusk's visit to Kyiv began the process of redefining relations between our countries. It looks like we will quickly close the issue of the most pressing problems - namely, the possibility of exporting Ukrainian agricultural goods to EU countries and the participation of Ukrainian transport companies in the EU single market. We also need a change in the attitude of the Ukrainian authorities regarding the crossing of the border by Polish trucks - this is now being obstructed. The first two problems will probably be resolved - statements by Donald Tusk and EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis indicate this - and it also looks like Ukraine will open up to compromise solutions.

Putting out fires

The problem of competition with Ukrainian agriculture and the issue of blocking the border was played out disastrously by the previous Polish government (the overly nervous Ukrainian reaction, as seen in President Zelenskyy's statements, didn't help either), but today a new chapter must be opened and prepared with the participation of the European Commission, but also Ukraine's four other neighbors, for whom importing products from Ukraine is a serious problem.

This must take place in close cooperation with the European Union, which has competence in this area. Here, the solutions will have to be long-term and flexible: flexible, because the war may change Ukrainian and our needs and capabilities, long-term - because Ukraine's economic integration into the European common market is an integral part of the process of binding Ukraine to the West, which is also our raison d'etre.

There seem to be a number of possible solutions: under discussion with the European Commission now is the introduction of quotas for Ukrainian goods in countries where economic sectors are threatened by competition from Ukraine, the introduction of higher requirements for Ukrainian companies (today they can participate in the common market, but are often not subject to the same rigors), or an efficient transit system through neighboring countries (supported by the European Union).

The key issue, however, will be a question of primary goals: winning the war with Russia and permanently tying Ukraine to NATO and the European Union.

It should go in line with the Giedroyc thesis that an independent Ukraine is a guarantee of Poland's independence, but also in the belief that Ukraine has proven its belonging to Europe by giving blood for this choice - not only in the ongoing war, but also a decade ago during Euromaidan and later - during the war in Donbas - here we are in a comfortable situation of compatibility of our interest with the moral dimension of the situation.

A new treaty?

In the months before Polish-Ukrainian relations sunk, there was frequent talk of a new - treaty-like - form of giving our relations new content - citing the Franco-German Treaty (the 1963 Elysée Treaty, subsequently updated in Aachen in 2019) and the Franco-Italian Treaty (the Quirinal Treaty - of 2021).

Today, however, we also have another circumstance. The G7 countries, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, signed a declaration announcing a series of agreements on their commitments to Ukraine, which launched a series of negotiations for such agreements with Ukraine - and the Baltic, Nordic, Czech, Bulgarian and Romanian countries, as well as the Benelux countries and Spain and Portugal joined the list of countries announcing such measures.

Nine countries have started bilateral negotiations so far - Romania joined the list in January. Donald Tusk announced in Kyiv that he had joined, with the consequence likely to be the signing of a similar agreement.

The first agreement was signed by the British on January 12 on the occasion of Rishi Sunak's visit to Kyiv, who, on the occasion, gave a good Churchill speech in the Verkhovna Rada. The British agreement is mainly about military cooperation, but it also mentions support for Ukrainian reconstruction, political and humanitarian cooperation, security sector reforms, state governance and the fight against corruption.

In financial terms, the agreement applies only to the coming fiscal year and amounts to £2.5 billion (roughly what the Kingdom has given Ukraine annually to date), but promises support for the next 10 years. The second in the series of such agreements was signed by France in February on the occasion of Emmanuel Macron's visit to Kyiv.

The friendship treaty proposal cited in Poland and the mainly military cooperation agreement are two different types of documents, but it is conceivable that in the Polish case a treaty that would focus on military support would also have long-term political, economic and social elements.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki (a former Polish PM) and Paweł Kowal (whose appointment as the Polish government's plenipotentiary for the reconstruction of Ukraine was just announced by Donald Tusk in Kyiv) suggested taking the example of the Quirinal Treaty signed by Draghi's Italy and Macron's France, which set relations between the two countries mainly in the context of coordinating the two countries' policies within the European Union.

The form, by the way, is secondary – the key is the adoption of a long-term plan for cooperation between the two countries.

Equally important, there is an unquestionable need for Polish-Ukrainian rapid-response groups for similar problems - preferably in advance. The two governments should regularly exchange information on possible threats and look for opportunities for synergy between the two countries.

This could take place as part of a revival of the Polish-Ukrainian Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation, as advocated by President of the Polish-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce Jacek Piechota. Kowal with Bielecki also propose joint meetings of governments twice a year and parliaments once a year, a good symbolic idea to show the strategic dimension of mutual relations.

They also recall that Henryk Józewski was briefly a Polish representative in the Ukrainian government after World War I as deputy interior minister (who also had a Ukrainian counterpart in the Polish government). Today, it would seem sensible to have a Polish deputy minister in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration and his counterpart in the Polish Minister for European Affairs - to be able to coordinate Polish-Ukrainian cooperation in the context of European integration.

Poland advocates Ukrainian membership in the Union

Jerzy Giedroyc, to whom the architects of Poland's eastern policy rightly refer, believed that Poland and Ukraine could only be independent in a European federation - another Giedroyc concept that could come true.  However, before enlargement takes place, there is a long process ahead, which will bring Ukraine gradually closer to the Union - and here Poland should support Ukrainian membership, which is by no means a matter of course.

There is a sizable group of countries in the Union that is skeptical about enlargement - it's not just Hungary and Slovakia, but also the so-called Atlantic Group (Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland), which, at Portugal's request, meets regularly to "balance the shift of the Union's center of gravity to the east."

Not all countries in this group are ready to block enlargement, but the possibility exists.

Therefore, the formation of a Polish-Ukrainian contact group on the issue, announced by President Zelenskyy, is a good signal.

However, before Ukraine joins the Union, Poland's active role in shaping enlargement and the Union - so that it is ready to welcome new members - will be needed. Donald Tusk's decision to oppose treaty changes that are considered federalist may paradoxically strengthen his position in this debate: since we are not in favor of federalist proposals, but are unequivocally pro-European, it is worth having our own proposals - they may concern both streamlining the enlargement process (reducing the number of possible blockages to the process - today, for enlargement to succeed, dozens of votes are needed, in which unanimity is necessary).

In a more ambitious version, we should join the discussion about giving up the veto - if the new way of decision-making provides us with a significant role (if only by returning to the way of counting votes from the time of Nice), there is no reason to block this change ideologically. Marcin Zaborowski talks about a Polish-Ukrainian engine within the Union - this is probably overly optimistic, but undoubtedly a dream needed by both countries.

For now, however, the Weimar format of cooperation seems to make more sense - one can imagine that a cooperation format between Poland, France and Germany involving Ukraine could counterbalance the "Atlanticists" (and keep France among the supporters of Ukrainian accession).

Today, however, the most important thing is military cooperation, especially since Ukraine is in a difficult situation today. After last year's failure of the Ukrainian offensive, the sides have dug in around the front lines and the West's malaise is becoming more apparent. While Russia is still light years away from victory, Ukraine is not getting any closer to it either - munitions production and technological innovation appear to be key. The possible victory of the isolationists in the US and the vagueness of military cooperation within the Union make the military dimension of our cooperation still the most important.

There must also be a place for history in the plan for Polish-Ukrainian cooperation. Our relations are largely overshadowed by the Ukrainian side's failure to agree to the exhumation of the victims of the Volhynian massacre, and the return of the cult of Stefan Bandera will certainly be a problem (anyone who has been to Kyiv or Lviv during the war must have noticed the large number of red-and-black flags).

But here, too, we are not doomed to perpetual conflict.

One can imagine a Polish-Ukrainian textbook commission with the honorary participation of Timothy Snyder, who has credibility in both countries and can patronize the findings of historians on the most difficult issues for both countries. Jerzy Giedroyc advocated the creation of a Polish Historical Institute in Kyiv, and given the success of a similar institution in Berlin created by Prof. Robert Traba, this is a good idea.

In the social sphere, we must not only look to the past, but also appreciate the present: a huge group of young Ukrainians (who are largely the Ukrainian elite) speak Polish and know our country well - as recounted in an excellent report by Jadwiga Rogoża and Krzysztof Nieczypor of the Center for Eastern Studies, "To Poland through Polish" - Ukrainians' interest in Poland shows how far we have come in the last quarter century.

* * * * *

Back in 2000, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz in Tygodnik Powszechny, looking at the possible continuation of the Giedroyc doctrine, was skeptical about Poland's power of attraction towards Ukrainians and Belarusians – a few years later, including as a result of Poland's accession to the European Union, this power of attraction turned out to be very strong.

In Poland, Giedroyc is often accused of exaggerated magnanimity - acknowledging that it was political naiveté toward the nations of Eastern Europe that was the fuel for his vision of continuing Polish "prometheism". Meanwhile, Giedroyc linked what is most important in politics: morally justified action with action justified by our national interest.

And while it's sometimes hard to believe that a man whose political vision was shaped in a bygone era - yes, he's right again.


Dr. Michal Matlak

Advisor at the European Parliament

The European Center for Constitutional Research at the University of Lodz

The Democracy Institute at the Central European University in Budapest/Vienna

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