2. 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.
Prepare for a longue durée
Another factor that European governments may well take into account is the newly-consolidated position of the Polish government domestically. With the government reshuffle, Warsaw has managed to improve its external image and reduce internal criticisms, without losing the support of its base.
As the country’s democratic opposition is in disarray, European leaders may be coming to terms with the fact that they will have to live with the PiS government longer than they expected back in 2015.
The two liberal parties present in the parliament – Civic Platform (PO) and Nowoczesna (Modern) – disappointed many supporters in early January, with their positions on proposals for a new abortion law. Several of their MPs did not appear to vote on a citizen project which aimed at a liberalisation of the current strict abortion law; a couple of them even voted against it.
Meanwhile, a quarter of PiS MPs voted for the project to be further discussed at a dedicated parliamentary committee. In the end, the citizen project lost by a handful of votes and the committee will focus only on a second project, which seeks to restrict Poland’s abortion law even further. The ensuing street protests reflected popular anger at the government and opposition alike.
This all leaves PiS with record support of over 40%, a stunningly three times more than the nearest challenger, Civic Platform, which governed from 2007-2015. Thus, instead of waiting until 2019, Kaczynski may even opt for early elections with the aim of obtaining a constitutional majority.
He took a similar gamble in 2007, however, and lost, enabling Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform to take power for the next 8 years. He may be more careful this time, unless he concludes that the odds are sufficiently improved.
If Kaczynski decides to wait, it may put Europe even more in the centre of Poland’s internal politics, as the elections to the European Parliament will serve as a prelude to the country’s parliamentary elections in autumn 2019.
In a way, keeping the conflict with Brussels at a low heat might serve PiS’s internal politics. Preparing for the electoral marathon of the next two years, the government may continue to present this issue as a one of external interference in Poland’s legal order, distracting the attention of Polish voters from the fact that their judicial reforms are also inconsistent with the country’s own constitution.
The ironic choice
For some countries (such as France), Poland’s rule of law problem is a question of principles. These countries will likely push for a vote at the EU Council whatever it takes, though they may accept a mere verbal punishment.
Others (such as Austria) will be happy to support this approach, on the grounds that the Polish case is a useful scapegoat, distracting Europe’s attention from their own wrongdoings.
On the face of it, the government in Warsaw faces a relatively easy task of convincing six Member States (the number needed to prevent a qualified majority) to oppose the proposal to censure Poland, or avoid holding such a vote altogether. Still, it is unclear which countries would make up that bloc, with the obvious exception of Hungary.
The likely targets of Warsaw’s outreach are the Czech Republic, the UK and the Baltics, possibly also Romania or Bulgaria. But it is far from certain that they could be convinced to oppose or abstain on this question.
Much will depend on whether Berlin endorses Macron’s principled approach (as the draft GroKo agreement may indicate), or if it continues to act as the EU’s peacemaker state, prioritising European unity over principles. Germany would feel very uncomfortable voting against Poland. But Berlin also feels a strong obligation to support the European Commission.
A pragmatic German approach would embolden other Central European countries to show solidarity with Poland. It would effectively allow the issue to blow over, and it would strengthen PiS domestically and remove any incentive for Warsaw to halt its illiberal course.
More broadly, it would provide clear evidence to all those who denounce the EU as a toothless organisation and a hypocritical community of interests rather than values
- 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