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Poland, Trump and the 'new Europe'

Gerhard Gnauck
July 4, 2017

Donald Trump has arrived in Poland ahead of the G20 summit to meet with leaders from a dozen central and Eastern European states. The government in Warsaw is seeking a leadership role in the regional coalition.

US-Präsident Trump in Warschau
Image: Picture Alliance/dpa/C. Sokolowski

It's not the first time that a US president has paid the city a visit: Since Richard Nixon in 1972, 10 American heads of state have traveled to the Polish capital. But this feels like something else entirely. Trump, a US president like no other so far, is meeting with 12 leaders from across Eastern Europe, from Estonia to Bulgaria, with Austria included.

According to the White House, the Trump administration wants the visit "to reaffirm America's steadfast commitment to one of our closest European allies and emphasize the administration's priority of strengthening NATO's collective defense." There is also talk of "common values and interests" and a close relationship with Central Europe. Trump also plans to deliver a speech at the monument dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising during his visit.

Read: The East-West divide in Europe deepens

Three Seas Initiative a priority for Duda 

For a US leader, visiting Poland is almost always an easy win. There are hardly any counter-demonstrators, and the trips are marked by a strong connection between the two countries. Poland wants to use this visit not only to present itself as a good host and a "land of the free," as US presidents like to boast, but also as a regional leader. This time, Warsaw is asserting itself as the initiator and host of the Three Seas Initiative, an idea President Andrzej Duda had first presented in a speech at the GlobSec Conference in Bratislava.

There, Duda announced that this initiative would be "one of the political priorities" of his presidency. "Poland wants to build a regional community alongside the Euro-Atlantic community," he said. "With this we will ensure that Central Europe is safe and coherent and has a growing, dynamic economy."

NATO Gipfel in Warschau Andrzej Duda Präsident Polen
Polish President Duda is keen to push ahead with his Three Seas InitiativeImage: Reuters/J. Dudek

Read: US forces in Poland are here to stay

Initiative not directed against the EU

Just as with cooperation between the eastern NATO members, this group would work within existing power structures - in other words, within the EU.

It would also not seek to replace the Visegrad Group, which comprises Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and which until now has been the most concrete form of cooperation in the region. Instead, the new group will focus on joint infrastructure projects, especially a new north-south interstate highway, in the structurally underdeveloped regions along the EU's eastern border.The group says it will also seek to improve the free flow of natural gas and other forms of fuel in the interest of energy security and competition. All of these things are the "logical consequences" of membership in the EU and NATO, according to President Duda.

Trump's visit highlights another important point. In 2003, when the US launched the Iraq War and sought its "coalition of the willing," it found partners not only in Great Britain, Spain, Italy and Portugal, but also in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The new NATO members were consequently christened "the new Europe."

Polen Gas Hafen Swinoujscie Schiff
Poland wants more US exports of liquid gas to EuropeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Muranski

Read: Poland's new weapons and delayed tender

Mixed feelings about Trump

Now, under different circumstances, Trump is meeting this "new Europe." In Hungary and Poland, at least, he will find governments that are skeptical of liberal democracy and the "establishment." It is true that many of these countries are concerned about Trump's still unclear attitude toward Russia and NATO. Nonetheless, the Polish government sees potential in Trump's ambiguous presidency.

The coming days could see the emergence of a stronger partnership between the US and these members of "the new Europe." This could result from two important factors: The delivery of liquified gas from the US to Poland, which would make Warsaw less reliant on Russian gas; and the first clear formation of a coalition in Poland and the Baltics.

The regional headquarters of the NATO alliance in Elblag, northern Poland, was officially opened this spring. Some 280 officers from 13 countries are stationed there. They oversee a battle group of 1,270 mostly American soldiers. However, the NATO deployment has little to do with Trump. The move was authorized during the Obama administration in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and threats directed against the alliance by Moscow.

Trump's trip to Warsaw the day before the G20 summit is seen in the Eastern European capital as a clear indication of US commitment to Poland, as well as a political symbol. It's not clear if Europe is at risk of being even more divided now. For Trump, on the other hand, the visit is an opportunity to enjoy a possibly jubilant reception in Europe - exactly what he can't get in Hamburg and Western Europe.

Verlegung US-Panzerbrigade nach Polen
More than 4,000 US soldiers are stationed in Poland and the Baltic statesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Bielecki/PAP