8 June 2016

Poland’s slow drift from democracy throws up new problems for the EU


The European Commission declared last week that the Polish government was threatening the rule of law in the country. The constitutional reforms introduced by the socially conservative Law and Justice Party have been criticised across Europe as threatening Poland’s adherence to shared European values.

In a British news cycle dominated by Europe, it seems odd that such a story should have been overtaken by Boris and Dave’s latest spin on the same old arguments. But the EU’s decision has consequences that go far beyond Poland.

The EU has stated that it feels that one of its largest states is failing to live up to the core principles of the organisation. Indeed, respect for the rule of law is one of the reasons Turkish entry remains on hold for the foreseeable future.

Law and Justice, which took a clear majority in the Polish elections last year, began its wide-ranging reform programme by bringing Polish national broadcaster TVP under closer government control. The government granted itself considerable powers over the hiring and firing of managers at the television station, and this has led to both editorial and managerial layoffs. The move has been criticised as threatening journalistic independence, and has certainly allowed the government a much bigger say in how the station is run.

This was matched by the weakening of the Polish constitutional court. Earlier this year, Law and Justice passed laws upping the number of votes in the court needed for government policy to be declared unconstitutional. It also forced through the appointment of judges friendly to its aims in a manner in which the court itself said was unconstitutional. The court’s ability to check government power has consequently been weakened.

Law and Justice has even threatened to co-opt museums for nationalistic ends. The Museum of World War 2 in Gdansk, intended to commemorate the civilian costs of the war, will be turned instead into a patriotic exhibition commemorating the German invasion of 1939. This has sparked criticism from historians such as Yale professor Timothy Snyder as an attempt to interpret history in the interest of the governing party.

Now these policies are not particularly surprising for a populist Christian democratic party of the traditional right, elected with a big majority on a mandate of sovereignty and Catholic values. Indeed, these values have played out in the government’s social policy too; the party vetoed a bill that would recognise transgender rights, and the party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has previously claimed that “The affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilisation.” But they do pose a problem for the EU.

Such policies fly in the face of EU expectations, and it is clear why the Commission felt it had to act. In theory, the formal warning it made last week, taken to its logical conclusion, could lead to Poland’s EU voting rights being revoked under Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU. But the EU is unlikely to try to make an example of Law and Justice, with a potential Brexit just around the corner and the slow burning Euro and migrant crises persisting.

For one thing, the move would not play well in Poland. As one Polish colleague put it:

“Law and Justice argues rightly that the former governing party Civic List acted similarly in the sense of appointing their own judges (but not altering the rules governing the court) and no one in the EU cared because Civic List was pro-EU.”

“The court, which is strongly pro-EU in general, is also painted as a remnant of communist control which undermines democracy. In contrast, Law and Justice is seen as directly democratic with a strong majority in the elections, so pressure from the EU and labelling Poland as undemocratic is highly likely to backfire.”

Taking on the Polish government headfirst is unlikely to solve the issue. What is instead likely is that the EU will ask for minor cosmetic policy changes, which Law and Justice will amend, but both sides will be able to argue they got their way. We saw exactly this muddling through with Cameron’s sovereignty renegotiation, and Merkel’s migrant quotas. As a pragmatic party of government, Law and Justice is likely to play along.

But while this case is likely to be resolved, the dispute with Law and Justice underscores a broader problem that sooner or later the EU is going to have to face. In Western countries across the globe, a wave of reactionary politics is washing over, from Donald Trump in the United States to Marine le Pen in France, playing off issues such as inequality and the migrant crisis. As we have seen in Austria’s presidential election, these parties are on the cusp of national power.

This begs a question. How could the Commission deal with a French government led by Le Pen in France, when that government would subscribe to a set of values incompatible with the rest of Europe?

These parties would be unlikely to be interested in making compromises with the EU, especially when such parties often advocate leaving it. Muddling through, in this case, would no longer be a credible option. The EU would be left with the choice either to try to directly impose its rules, or to allow members states to obviously break them, either way plunging it into crisis. Neither option looks attractive.

The European Union has an honourable history of pragmatism and solving disputes cooperatively to allow progress on issues where there is agreement. This seems likely to be what will happen with Law and Justice in Poland.

But the question remains, what will happen when dealing with reactionary parties far further to the right? It seems a European Union that operates solely by consensus cannot survive for ever.

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.