“While politicians may be forgiven for failing to predict the future – who can, alas? – it is amazing that they defiantly ignore the past.” The words of novelist Michael Korda which, while they seem to apply in general, perhaps apply less in particular to the politicians of Poland, where the past is seldom ignored even though it is not always remembered in the same way by all.

One subject on which there does seem to be general agreement is the need to be wary of Russian intentions, whether by lobbying for a permanent US military presence in Poland or substituting LNG imports for Russian gas supplies, for example. Thus, the latest potential environmental flashpoint between Poland and the EU, the proposed canal across the Vistula Spit, a heavily wooded sandbank on the Baltic coast. The Spit, 55 km long and under 2 km wide, is, with the coastal lagoon it encloses, shared between Poland and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

At present, the only access from the lagoon to the Baltic Sea is via a channel at the Russian end of the Spit. Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS), which is deeply distrustful of Russia, says that the proposed canal, which is estimated to cost PLN 900 million, is needed for both security and economic reasons. PiS says the canal will turn Elblag, a small port with a high unemployment rate, into one of Poland’s biggest harbours, along with Gdansk and Szczecin, as more vessels will use it. “Elblag citizens support the project. What kind of port is it if it does not have access to the sea?”, said Witold Wroblewski, the mayor of Elblag.

As reported by Reuters, Poland’s minister for maritime affairs, Marek Grobarczyk, said: “The first and basic reason for the construction … is a threat from the east.”  Russia has deployed advances Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. “This is the border of the EU, NATO, and above all of Poland, and it cannot really be controlled now because ships can only enter the Vistula Lagoon with Russia’s approval,” he said. According to him, work will start in the second half of 2019.

For critics this is a costly vanity project with same potential for conflict with EU as the increased logging in the Bialowieza Forest which the European Court Justice ruled was illegal. Indeed, an EU official said on Friday that Poland should not build the canal before the European Commission approves the project since the Spit, like the Bialowieza Forest, is protected under EU Natura 2000 programme. “The Commission services will assess the additional information provided by the Polish authorities and the technical discussions will continue,” the official said. “Pending a final Commission decision … no works should be undertaken.” Preliminary logging has, however, already taken place.

Environmentalists say that it is difficult to predict the impact of the canal on local wildlife and according to Michal Goc, a biologist from Gdańsk university, “There is no species that will benefit from the project.” Jolanta Kwiatkowska from the mayor’s office in Krynica Morska, a town that will be cut off on what will become a Polish-Russian Island after the canal is cut, said that residents are worried that tourism will be affected since it is not clear what will happen to the beaches.

Vanity project or strategic necessity? Environmental degradation or economic rejuvenation? It is understandable that when it comes to their eastern neighbour, Polish politicians cannot ignore the past, but does this canal represent the best prediction of the future?

Given the proximity of the major ports of Gdańsk and Gdynia, it seems unlikely that the need for the canal is being driven by purely economic needs. Not, of course, that the needs of the local economy should be dismissed. Nor, from a purely military point of view, does it seem likely that the lagoon would be of major strategic naval significance.

Be that as it may, symbols matter in politics. Last year, Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, said the canal project demonstrates “that the times when the Russians dictated to us what we can and what we cannot do on our territory are over.” He added that the canal was a demonstration of Polish sovereignty. When you are determined not to ignore the past, the present is more important than the future.

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