According to press reports on Friday, the recently announced initiative to buy used Australian frigates hit a stumbling block before the talks even began, with Poland’s PM pulling out at the 11th hour despite the President and Defense Minister having already embarked upon their Australian visit. In subsequent reports, Poland’s deputy Defense Minister claimed the ministry never made an official statement on its intent to buy the ships, despite numerous media reports in recent days.
Early on Friday, various media outlets began circulating news that Mr Morawiecki might not be seeing eye-to-eye with the Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, who, along with Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, was a strong supporter of the prospective multi-million deal.
The contemplated deal would have the Polish Navy acquire two Adelaide-class frigates which entered service in the 1990s. The warships, whose equipment and armament were recently updated to the latest NATO standard, would have served as a stop-gap before Poland finally built its own frigates, designed and constructed from the ground up in Polish shipyards.
Old. But still newer
However, the Defense Ministry took flak from critics for opting for 30-year-old vessels, just 10 years younger than Poland’s current US-made frigates which are now on the verge of becoming obsolete.
The Australian warships would only serve the Polish Navy for ten more years, which, some believed, hardly justified their EUR 460 million price tag, especially given that the entire annual budget of the Navy amounts to approximately EUR 185 million.
The idea also had its critics inside the government, with the Maritime Economy Minister Marek Gróbarczyk giving it the thumbs down due to the fact that buying ships abroad would be a disservice to Poland’s own manufacturers.
Not on the same boat
The latest reports suggest that the PM was finally swayed by the arguments advanced by the naysayers, deciding to pull the plug on the initiative at the very last moment.
“We’re surprised that the Defense Minister proved unable to convince his superior – the Prime Minister – to sign the letter of intent. We hope that they can finally reach an agreement and that the PM will no longer have to block the actions of his own minister,” an anonymous source at the Presidential Palace was quoted as saying.
The source reportedly also added that since the contemplated purchase was to be a government contract, it would be the government that would “take the responsibility for the possible fiasco.”
Later on Friday, Poland’s deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz attempted to play it safe by saying that “Minister Błaszczak never said he wanted to acquire these warships” and that “the Defense Ministry never made any statements as to the purchase of those ships, calling all the reports concerning the contemplated deal “media speculation.”
However, he also added: “If it turned out that Australia would like to sell us those two ships for a symbolic dollar… then we surely would be interested, but these are business issues that will be discussed in the near future.”
Once the news of the possible cancellation of the talks broke out, some of Poland’s media began to speculate that the Prime Minister was not on the same wavelength as his Defense Minister and that a reshuffle could take place sometime next year, with the current Defense Minister possibly being given the role of the parliamentary speaker or the head of Poland’s Supreme Audit Office.
The current Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak began his mission in early 2018 after his predecessor was dismissed amidst speculations that he was not getting on well with the President.
If proven to be true, the rift over the contemplated warship contract could be said to highlight the ongoing power struggle over the control of the armed forces. While the defense ministry forms part of the government, the President remains the Commander-in-Chief under the current constitution, his extensive wartime powers eclipsing those of the Defense Minister.
In addition, Poland has a tradition of the so-called “presidential ministries” which existed back in the 1990s, with the president having an influence over the selection of the defense, interior and foreign ministers.
According to a 2017 poll, most Poles would rather hand over the control of the armed forces to the head of state, but the simmering conflict over army oversight is unlikely to abate unless the current constitution is amended to remove the structural overlap between presidential and government powers.