For Poland’s right-wing populist government, Donald Trump is a bit of a hero — a leading figure in the rising tide against liberal democracy. And as the country prepares for a visit by the U.S. president July 6, there are fears in Warsaw and in Brussels that his trip will fuel the growing divide between a hard-line government in Poland and its liberal western partners in the European Union.
Trump is set to visit the Polish capital for the Three Seas Summit, a gathering of central and Eastern European leaders, en route to the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been quick to claim the visit as a major diplomatic coup, with Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz describing it as “an enormous event showing how much Poland’s place in geopolitics and world politics has changed” under his party.
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s nationalist conservative government has steered the country away from the liberal values of the EU, contributing to a divide between former Communist countries and western members of the bloc. As a result, there’s anxiety that a visit from the unpredictable U.S. president could inflame tensions between Poland’s government and its EU partners in Western Europe – bolstering Warsaw’s defiance toward the rest of the bloc.
“It could deepen this gap between Poland and the EU,” Hanna Szulczewska, a member of Poland’s Committee for the Defence of Democracy, a grassroots civic movement, told VICE News. “Trump is like the hero of the same story this government is narrating.”
Like Trump, Poland has been an outspoken voice against Muslim immigration, with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, whose government has been accused of creating an increasingly xenophobic climate, calling EU-mandated refugee quotas “a madness of Brussels elites.” Her government’s refusal to take in refugees agreed to under a 2015 agreement led the EU to start legal action against Poland in June, alongside Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In a further rebuke to Poland’s increasingly anti-EU positions, Brussels returned former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk – a bitter adversary of Poland’s ruling party – to a second term as president of the European Council in March, against the strenuous objections of Warsaw.
Diplomats in Brussels fear the visit by Trump – who shares Warsaw’s skepticism and disdain for international organizations – will be taken by Poland as a key show of support, one that could destabilize European solidarity at a time when the bloc is particularly fragile.
It’s not clear whether Trump will participate in the Three Seas summit itself, which brings together leaders of 12 central European, Balkan, and Baltic countries in a bid to boost regional infrastructure and trade ties. But his visit has already prompted the relocation of the meeting from Wroclaw to Warsaw, and will certainly give a higher profile to an event viewed in Brussels as an attempt by Poland to build up its influence beyond the EU. “One cannot but feel a bit suspicious if it isn’t an attempt to break up European unity,” Reuters quoted one EU diplomat as saying of the summit.
There are also concerns that Trump could use the trip to again stir up tensions over low defense spending by many European countries, another potential wedge issue between Poland and the EU. At a summit in Brussels last month, Trump again criticized European countries who failed to meet the NATO target of two percent of GDP on defense spending; Poland and the U.S. are among the few who reach the target.
Whatever Trump ends up saying during his visit, at least Poland’s opposition will now have the chance to hear it. Szulczewska said that the Polish government, in its excitement over the trip, had neglected to invite any of the opposition to Trump’s engagements. “It was only the diplomats at the American embassy that invited the opposition to the main event where Trump will speak,” she said.