“Distrust and caution are the parents of security.” So thought Benjamin Franklin, and who would argue? And security, like the good child it is, may from time to time be called upon to help its parents. Perhaps none is more distrustful of Russia than the Polish government, and thus the opportunity for Poland to trade aspects of social security for military security, with Poland’s foreign minister saying that Poland is willing to support the United Kingdom’s plan to restrict social security benefits for residents in the UK, in return for assistance with its demands of NATO.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters in an exclusive interview that Poland would support British Prime Minister, David Cameron, as long as the UK helps Poland with its international security. “Britain could support our expectations related to an allied military presence on Polish territory,” Waszczykowski said. “Of course, Britain could offer something to Poland in terms of international security,” he added. “We still consider ourselves a second-class NATO member-state, because in central Europe [...] there aren’t, aside from a token presence, any significant allied forces or defence installations, which gives the Russians an excuse to play this region”.
The opportunity for some top notch bargaining arises because the UK, faced with unprecedented immigration, is considering restricting access to certain social security benefits for foreigners currently resident in the UK. Poles make up the largest group of immigrants from the European Union and so are sensitive about this.
The main difficulty arises because the UK benefits system differs from the Continental European model, which much more closely relates entitlements to benefits to actual contributions made. Under EU rules, the UK is less able to adapt its system to take account of these new conditions by restricting the benefits available to recent immigrants unless it restricts the benefits available to UK citizens in a similar fashion, which has its own political difficulties. Behind the scenes, other member states – particularly France and Germany – are sympathetic to the UK position, but it simply doesn’t do to say so publicly.
While this is yet another example of how an arrangement made for six similar countries simply does not work for 28 (especially when levels of benefits are looked at) Waszczykowski does seem to have grasped the essential point. “We’re aware that the British welfare system is very elaborate and that it may not be able to bear it. We are therefore addressing this by increasing our benefits, and we also want to raise salaries in Poland,” he said. In fact, this constructive suggestion is rather at odds with the typical portrayal of PiS’s approach to life since the party came to power. Another chink of light peeping through the clouds of doom and gloom, perhaps, although the Polish foreign ministry has been quick to state that “the minister clearly stressed that Poland would not oppose the UK lowering benefits for Poles if it applied to all residents.”
Be that as it may, the difficulty is that neither objective lies wholly within the gift of the UK or Poland. While the UK might well be sympathetic to Poland’s wish for a permanent NATO base in Poland – if nocturnal personnel changes can be avoided, of course – Germany and France are likely to be much more reluctant to abandon the 1997 accord with Russia whereby NATO agreed not open any major bases in eastern Europe.
Russia would no doubt regard such a move as provocative, but then so was annexing the Ukraine. NATO responded at the time by establishing a brigade of 5,000 men capable of being deployed in the region within days, but Poland might be forgiven for considering this a little inadequate. Russia has already indicated that it is unhappy with the stockpiling of US materiel in the region, with a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman saying last week that the storage of such equipment require “a permanent military presence”, which will “border on a violation of a key provision of the Founding Act between NATO and Russia from 1997.”
If nothing else, the NATO summit in Warsaw, in July, promises to be rather more interesting than usual. But as the Chinese (perhaps apocryphally) warn us – no slouches when it comes to military build-ups by the way – to live in interesting times is rather a curse than a blessing.