1. Poland and rule-of-law issue
Europe Germany Polska
* Poland’s illiberal turn or is it illiberal Europe ?
A showdown is approaching in the conflict between Poland and the European Commission over the rule of law. Dialogue with Warsaw started after the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s unlawful exchange of Constitutional Court judges in the autumn of 2015; the president refused to appoint judges elected by the former government, and PiS instead elevated their own. That dialogue did not change the government’s policy. Instead, Warsaw denies the Commission’s right to judge the government’s domestic moves, and continues to steer Poland’s illiberal turn.
In July, the government opened a new front with its reforms to the judiciary. To be sure, President Andrzej Duda suprisingly blocked two proposals that would have given Parliament and the executive considerable influence over the replacement and nomination of members of the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary. But a third proposal was adopted by Parliament and signed by the president. Among other things, the new law allows the minister of justice to freely dismiss any chief judge in the six months after the law’s passing. This is a severe impediment to judges’ independence. It was to no one’s surprise that the Commission started an official infringement procedure. But the time of the political outsourcing of the “Polish case” to the Commision seems to be over.
Europeanization and national interests
Germany‘s changing approach is most significant. For a long time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel believed it was best for Berlin and other capitals to stand aside in the spat between Warsaw and Brussels. Politicizing the conflict did not seem to serve the overarching interest of keeping the European Union united. Now the opposite view seems to be gaining momentum: that ignoring the persistent violation of EU standards presents a bigger threat than breaking the silence.
- The conflicts between the populist Polish government and the EU institutions and member states go far beyond the fundamental rule-of-law issue. Warsaw wants to claim reparations from Germany; ignores the decision of the European Court of Justice to stop the logging in the Bialowieza forest; refuses to fulfill any commitments regarding the relocation of refugees; and picks political fights with Paris.
- Law and Justice characterizes the European Union as a political project that abandoned its Christian traditions to become an ideologically driven, leftist instrument designed to gradually homogenize Europe in line with the concepts of multiculturalism, secularization, and ecology.
- The latter criticism is most telling. After years during which Europeanization — defined as the emulation of Western standards along with EU integration — defined the path of Poland’s transformation into a democracy, the ruling party now frames the European Union and Western Europe as a risk rather than opportunity for the country.
The Commission will be tempted to trigger Article 7 of the EU Treaty and ask the European Council to declare a severe threat to the rule of law in Poland. The required yes vote of 22 member states to trigger this procedure seems to be within reach. The political price for Warsaw would be huge, even if formal sanctions, specifically expressed as the withdrawal of voting rights, are rendered unlikely by the need for a unanimous vote.
But there are no signs that informal Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski will back down under EU pressure. Just in opposite — this autumn we may witness a further hardening of his political course, including Hungarian-style restrictions on non-governmental organizations and a clampdown on local media.
Those who hope that the trend toward illiberalism and de-Europeanization will be stopped must closely follow two developments in the country’s deepening crisis.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available atcom
Piotr Buras is the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office. The views expressed here are the author’s own.