Lithuania hopes for a new cordial chapter in its relations with Poland, but the purported Vilnius-Warsaw friendship may soon get tested in Brussels. As Western European leaders grow impatient with how the Polish and Hungarian governments treat the rule of law, Lithuania might have to pick between backing its close ally and supporting democratic principles – or, more prosaically, the EU's purse-holders.
Fraternity was in the air when Lithuania's newly sworn-in President Gitanas Nausėda met his Polish counterpart in Warsaw, the destination of his first foreign trip. Andrzej Duda spoke of cooperation, mutual respect and sympathy, as the two presidents hinted at a new, more cordial stage in the Vilnius-Warsaw relationship, something akin to the friendship between the two leaders' predecessors, Valdas Adamkus and Lech Kazcynski.
Read more: Exclusive interview with Poland’s Duda – brotherly connection with Lithuania, shared values with Nausėda
Defence, trade and cultural cooperation are quite uncontroversial, but Poland might be looking for Lithuania's support in another matter – Warsaw's row with the European Union over its judicial reforms that, Brussels says, threatens the rule of law in the country.
A legal battle ensued when Poland launched a court reform three years ago. The lowering of the retirement age of judges would allow the current conservative government to stuff courts with their loyalists – and this, the European Commission fears, undermines the independence of the judicial branch.
Warsaw insists that the reforms is aimed at fighting corruption and, moreover, Brussels has no business interfering into member-states domestic affairs.
The issue was bound to come up during the meeting of the Lithuanian and Polish presidents.
“The judicial system is not the business of the European community, it is one for the individual member-state,” Duda said during his joint conference with Nausėda. “The European Union must not interfere, there is no such rule in the treaties.”
The Court of Justice of the EU decided last month the reform did violate EU laws and the European Commission gave Warsaw two months to bring its legislation back in line, threatening with a case in the Court of Justice and fines.
Leaders of the EU's big nations are also growing impatient with some Central European countries, notably Poland and Hungary, playing fast and loose with their democratic institutions and hinted at hitting where it hurts – the EU funding.
“I will refuse that the European budget serve to finance fiscal, social or value divergence. The European budget must not finance governments that do not respect the fundamental rights in the treaty,” France's Emmanuel Macron said last year.
Commenting on suggestions to link EU funding to action on migration and compliance with the rule of law, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in March 2018 that the rule of law was was not a national matter: “The single market can flourish only if the rule of law applies in all member states.”
When Nausėda was asked about it in Warsaw, his comments treaded a fine line: “Before we talk about sanctions, we need a dialogue. We shouldn't go down the road of sanctioning, but rather one of better mutual understanding.”
Observers in Lithuania note that Poland's more welcoming stance towards its smaller neighbour is a results of these problems.
“The more intense efforts by the current Polish government to make friends with Lithuania can be explained by the isolation that Poland's government feels among EU states,” Dr. Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, the director of Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science, tells LRT TV.
Poland is trying to build a coalition within the EU which could counterweigh the Franco-German duet, comments Dr. Andžej Pukšto of Vytautas Magnus University. “They are playing a very subtle game.”
Should Lithuania respond to Poland's overtures? Some, like the Polish-Lithuanian politician Česlav Okinčic, believe that there is no better way for Vilnius to be Warsaw's friend than in its hour of need. Moreover, he says, Lithuania could serve as a mediator between Poland and the European Commission.
“I think this would not harm Lithuania but, on the contrary, Lithuania should take an active position in all disputes between Poland and the European Commission, Lithuania's prestige will only grow,” Okinčic tells LRT TV.
It may not come to a vote on sanctioning Poland, political observers say. However, Lithuania may need to indirectly taking sides – and the choice will have a bearing on next year's negotiations over the EU's new budget.
“Lithuania should probably be neutral, but also encourage a dialogue between Warsaw and Brussels,” says Pukšto.
How easy it will be to balance between the two sides will depend on how much the tensions between Warsaw and Brussels escalate.
“If it comes to a formal vote at the Council, Lithuania will have a tough choice to make,” according to Vilpišauskas. “What would be at stake is weather Lithuania supports the principles established in the EU treaty.”
If EU presents a strong case against Poland, “it would be strange for Lithuania to support a government that violates principles established in Lithuania's own constitution,” Vilpišauskas says.
MP Gediminas Kirkilas, who chairs the Committee on European Affairs in the Lithuanian parliament, comments that politics is always a choice between bad and worse.
“It would be worse to return to the times of cold relations with Poland,” Kirkilas says. “We support the rule of law, but we oppose any sanctions, let alone withholding European funding. We believe that is unfair.”
Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius describes Lithuania's position as “waiting and not rushing things”.
The Polish government hoped that the new European Commission might focus less on its domestic policies. The Poles strongly opposed that Frans Timmermans, the EC vice president for the rule of law who has vocally criticised Poland and Hungary, be the new EC president, and the votes of Polish MEPs were instrumental in electing Ursula von der Leyen to the post.
However, that is far from clear.
“The next Commission, under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, I have no doubt, will be as forceful, as concrete and as determined as the present Commission, no doubt whatsoever,” says Timmermans, who is likely to stay on as vice president in the new Commission.