1. Poland in breach with European rule
Whether or not to declare Poland in breach with European rule of law standards comes down to a choice between principles and pragmatism.
The triggering of Article 7.1 by European Commission in December 2017 has forced Poland to seek a new relationship with Europe. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice (PiS), must have concluded that something needed to be done in order to prevent Poland from paying an excessive political, economic or reputational price in Europe for its controversial judicial reforms at home.
His response was to appoint a dynamic new Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, initiate a government reshuffle, and embark on a diplomatic charm offensive.
Jacek Czaputowicz (a respected academic and a political outsider) was appointed the country’s new foreign minister. Together with Konrad Szymanski, Minister of Europe and Deputy MFA, as well as the PM himself, he has devoted much energy to securing sufficient support ahead of a possible vote in the EU Council on Poland’s commitment to the rule of law.
If the vote goes ahead, and a qualified majority were to declare Poland in breach of EU rule of law standards, it would seriously harm Poland’s reputation. In the worst case, it could even lead to some of Poland’s voting rights within the Council suspended or EU funds slashed, although that would require an unlikely unanimity.
Czaputowicz discussed Poland’s view on the EC’s Article 7.1 procedure with his Bulgarian counterpart, Ekaterina Zakharieva, during his first foreign visit to Sophia. He did likewise with Sigmar Gabriel in Berlin and Frans Timmermans in Brussels. The latter meeting – organised on Czaputowicz’s initiative – was particularly noteworthy given that Timmermans, the Deputy Head of the European Commission, is the person behind the rule of law procedure against Warsaw and for that reason had been a target of heavy criticism from the previous Polish government.
PM Morawiecki has also been very active on the external front, meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans in early January, and recently representing Warsaw at the World Economic Forum in Davos with a bright, optimistic vision of Poland’s future.
This is not exclusively about the vote at the EU Council. More broadly, the Polish government wants to shed its image as the EU’s ‘ugly duckling’, and to strengthen its position ahead of EU budget negotiations to be launched in spring this year.
Warsaw is currently benefitting from a short grace period: the EC gave it a further three months to implement its rule of law recommendations, which include the restoration of judicial independence and greater legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal. But Warsaw knows that it is unlikely to receive another pardon without a serious change in its relations with other member states.
The position of many European capitals will depend on whether Warsaw implements the EC’s recommendations. Yet, for the moment, there is no indication that it will do so.
Morawiecki’s government tries to present itself as a more civilised version of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, following a well-justified assumption that appearances matter in European affairs.
His government may also demonstrate a greater willingness to cooperate on some issues. For example, the new minister of environment announced that he would respect the ruling of the EU Court of Justice demanding Warsaw stop the illegal logging of trees in the Bialowieza natural park, carried out by his predecessor.
- But if we listen carefully to what Czaputowicz, Szymanski and Morawiecki are actually saying, they mostly aim at better explaining to their European counterparts the Polish judicial reforms and the government’s refusal to accept the EU’s refugee quota.
- They see the whole Article 7.1 procedure against Poland as based on ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of the EU. ‘It’s all a matter of perspective’, Morawiecki repeated several times during his interview for CNN at Davos.
To be fair, Warsaw is also reframing its case. In one of his first public appearances as foreign minister, Czaputowicz suggested that the EU Court of Justice should be involved in the Article 7.1 procedure against Poland, presenting it as the only institution capable of dealing with such cases in an impartial way.
The EC has, in fact, referred Poland to the Court of Justice on this matter. But it may take several months for the Court to announce its ruling. Czaputowicz’s idea therefore looks like playing for time.
Warsaw may be hoping that the next European Commission, to be constituted after the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019, will be more lenient with Poland’s rule of law misdemeanours. Equally, other European governments may simply get used to their partner in Warsaw, just as they did with Hungary’s Victor Orban.
A cooperative Poland is still in high demand, given the many issues on the EU’s current agenda, such as migration policy, defence and security cooperation, Single Market reforms, or Brexit.
In a way, European partners have learned already what they can expect form Warsaw, and they may even start considering it as a predictable partner. That may explain the first signs of a new normalisation.
The Weimar Triangle (composed of Germany, France and Poland) is expected to come back to life on the occasion of the upcoming Munich Security Conference in mid-February. Morawiecki’s visit in Davos was a PR success. And last Friday, Rex Tillerson flew to Warsaw from Davos, meeting Morawiecki, Czaputowicz, president Andrzej Duda, and even Kaczynski (who is formally not a member of government), thus further strengthening Poland’s standing on the European map.
- 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 at: eu