Monday, June 17, 2024

Local governments’ autonomy weakening EU member states: The example of Poland

Aerial drone view of black coal mine at dusk. Sosnica, Gliwice, Silesia, Poland (Photo: iStock)

Local governments in Poland are becoming increasingly independent of the state apparatus, pursuing their own goals that are not always in line with the interests of the country. They conduct their own foreign policy while ignoring the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to provinces threatened by separatist tendencies, such as Silesia, where it is difficult not to see the hand of Berlin and Brussels behind this trend.


Andrzej Krzystyniak


Direct cooperation and the establishment of broad relations between Polish voivodships, or provinces, and cities with local governments in foreign countries is a positive phenomenon and very often brings tangible benefits in the form of exchange of experience as well as joint ventures in the economic and cultural fields. Better said, it is positive as long as such cooperation takes place within a well-defined framework, without attempting to override state foreign policy or to achieve a level of autonomy that would imply some degree of economic or cultural independence from the nation-state.

This condition is especially important when it comes to regions that are home to separatist movements, as is the case with Silesia in Poland, where it is difficult not to notice the actions of foreign countries, especially Germany, in the cultural and economic sphere – actions which are not always beneficial to the Polish state.

A Silesian “embassy”

The local government of the Silesian voivodship has been making efforts to conduct its own foreign policy. An example of this was seen when the Marshal (president) of Silesia, Jakub Chełstowski, announced the establishment of a “Silesian embassy” in Ukraine that was intended to be a kind of center for Silesian entrepreneurs wishing to invest in that country. Another of Chełstowski’s announcements concerned direct economic cooperation with a region of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China at the Chinese embassy. Participation in celebrations on these occasions was a demonstration of the region’s independence, to some degree, from the Polish state and its foreign policy.

Admittedly, the provincial statute clearly states that “Cooperation of the voivodship with regional communities of other countries is carried out in accordance with domestic law, the foreign policy of the state, and its international obligations, within the limits of the tasks and competencies of the voivodship.” Very often, however, the things that local governments do in their contacts with international partners are done within the framework of their own self-governance and foreign policy. They justify this by saying that, after all, it is the authorities of a given province that know better what is beneficial for regional development, rather than the capital, which supposedly lies “too far away to see the problems of the province.”

On the other hand, the authorities of the Silesian region see no problem with Brussels directly giving guidelines for the development of Silesia, such as for the green transition and decarbonization, which means the closure of Polish coal mines in that province. In some ways, Warsaw, the country’s capital, seems to be seen as being more distant mentally and culturally than the capital of the European Union.

Silesia is not alone in making attempts at shaping its own foreign policy. However, one gets the impression that it is one of the leading Polish provinces in this regard.

Pro-German separatism in Polish Silesia

In December last year, shortly after the Marshal of the Silesian voivodship Jakub Chełstowski had left Law and Justice with three other provincial councilors to join the ranks of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, leading to the voivodship falling into the hands of the left-liberal opposition, a delegation from the European Commission, headed by its Vice-President Frans Timmermans, came to Katowice. Although this was not stressed at the time, the visit constituted a gross overreach of foreign policy powers by the Silesian provincial government. It was not met with a reaction by the central government, however. No legal or customary mechanisms exist in Poland to regulate this type of issue.

A declaration of the regions

However, the most interesting event in the “foreign policy” of the Silesian Voivodship occurred at the end of October 2023, when, within the framework of the “Just Transition Platform” held in Brussels, Marshal Jakub Chełstowski signed a declaration of the coal regions’ position on the programming of the next EU financial perspective after 2027. As if that were not enough, the Marshal proudly announced that the Silesian Voivodship had been designated by the European Commission to establish contacts with the Brazilian state of Paraná. So it now looks like Brussels is also directing Silesia’s foreign contacts.

Lack of reaction from the Polish government

It is hard not to get the impression that this type of activity meets with the passive approval of the central government. In turn, local governments, seeing no constraints and no response from the state, are encouraged to act at will in their international dealings. They set their own goals and courses of action themselves, not always in line with the country’s interests. The general public is rarely aware of this type of activity. Government politicians themselves do not very often react to local government actions that occur beyond the scope of their authority.

In 2012, in response to the signing of the final communiqué of the German–Polish Interregional Cooperation Committee conference in Schwerin by the Marshal of Lubuskie Voivodship, speaking, among other things, of the need to limit Poland’s use of natural resources, Law and Justice MP Elżbieta Rafalska – then in opposition – submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressing the view that the Marshal of Lubuskie Voivodship had exceeded her authority by signing that document. The question noted that the Marshal “in the field of Polish–German cooperation, as well as in the field of energy and climate policy, independently expressed the view that economic growth should not depend on the use of natural resources.” Hence MP Rafalska’s conclusion that “it is unacceptable that on a national scale, on an issue of such key importance, which clearly lies in the sphere of foreign policy, decisions should be made at the provincial government level and not at the ministerial level.

In its reply, the Foreign Ministry stated at the time that “the wording in the committee’s final communiqué, which was adopted by the Marshal, does not contradict Poland’s foreign and economic policy.

It can be discussed, of course, whether “limiting the use of natural resources” is consistent with Poland’s economic interests. Bu when the boundaries of cooperation are severely overstepped by local governments and this raises criticism, outraged local government officials usually respond that, after all, “it’s only about building good neighborly relations and economic cooperation, which is so important for the region’s residents.”

Indeed, any such contacts are generically referred to as “economic and cultural cooperation.” And most cases of this type of cooperation happen in areas often referred to by Germans as “areas of the German East.” Until recently, they also functioned in the German narrative as areas that were only under “Polish administration.”


This article was first published in Polish in the Do Rzeczy weekly in November 2023.