EU versus Poland: How High Are the Stakes?

The EU angle

Frans Timmermans
Frans Timmermans

E.U. member states hear a lot from Frans Timmermans. Timmermans is the first vice president of the European Commission and it is his responsibility to ensure that all member states in the E. U. abide by the rule of law.

The rule of law in the E.U. context revolves around the Rule of Law Framework introduced in 2014. Timmermans holds the Framework in high regard, constantly reminding every interested party that respect for the rule of law is amongst the core common set of values enshrined in the E.U. Treaty.

In a recent statement, he made it abundantly clear that preserving the rule of law is a “collective responsibility of the E.U. institutions and of all member states.”

Polish defiance

Apparently, Warsaw does not see things the same way.

Only recently, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a controversial amendment into law that Brussels had vehemently kicked against.

In Timmermans viewpoint, the law would undermine the transparency and independence of Poland’s highest court—the Constitutional Tribunal.

Brewing the feud

Timmermans has a point. The law signed by Duda firmly overturns earlier decisions made by the Civic Platform government that held power previously. The Civic Platform government had before losing October’s parliamentary elections, appointed five judges to the Constitutional Tribunal.

The new law stipulates that only four of the 15 Tribunal judges could be able to block the announcement of a new ruling by up to six months. This amendment severely weakens the ability of the court to provide necessary and timely checks if the government violates constitutional norms.

Timmermans anticipated the signing and appropriately issued a second warning to Warsaw days before Duda inked the law.

In his warning, Timmermans maintained that the European Commission had reason to believe that Poland was taking steps to threaten the sanctity of the rule of law.

He went further to state some recommendations. One of the recommendations was that Warsaw should allow previously nominated judges to assume their positions on the tribunal. Another was that Warsaw should allow the court publish and implement their judgments.

The response window for Warsaw is three months.

The feud

It does not appear as though Poland would shift ground easily. The real power behind the government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo is the leader of the Law and Justice party—Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski is bent on curbing the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal. There are two main reasons why. The first is that Law and Justice is on the path of revenge.

The Civic Platform wrestled control from Law and Justice who had their time from 2005 through 2007. In the years Law and Justice held sway, they tried to steer Poland in a conservative, Euroskeptic direction.

When Civic Platform took over in 2007, they reversed the trends set by Law and Justice. According to Law and Justice, it is only fair that they in turn undo what the Civic Platform had enforced.

This dichotomy is not new in the Polish polity. It has its roots in the Solidarity movement.

The primary goal of the Solidarity movement was to ground communism in Poland. In 1989, they succeeded in bringing the communist regime to its knees. Both sides—Solidarity and communists—agreed to engage in talks to usher in democracy.

However, the talks had a fracturing impact on Solidarity as deep ideological divisions came to light.

On one end were the liberal, secular intellectuals who championed the cause for inclusive politics. They proposed “shock therapy” economic policies to modernize Poland in as little time as possible, and wean the country of the old communist nomenklatura.

On the other end were the conservatives and uncompromising anti-communists who wanted to have nothing to do with inclusive politics. They wanted a clean break with the past.

Since the inception of democracy in Politics, both wings have continued to compete for the upper hand in Poland.

The second reason is the yearning of Law and Justice to take back as much sovereignty as they can from Brussels.

Some of the gripes the party has against the E.U. are the increasing push for gender equality, secularism that downplays the Christian traditions of Europe, and increased meddling in Poland’s affairs.

The European refugee situation is another bone of contention. Law and Justice party unequivocally opposes any attempts to relocate refugees to member states by the European Commission.

The stakes of the feud

The commission would have had less to worry about if all of this is isolated Polish defiance. However, in the face of Brexit and growing Euroskepticism in the bloc, Kaczynski’s policies are getting popular outside of Poland.

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister and currently the ideological Euroskeptic leader of Central Europe, already backs the policies of Law and Justice.

Timmermans cannot go full throttle on dealing an iron fist, such as suspending Poland’s voting rights. Such move would have a ripple effect beyond Warsaw and inadvertently add fuel to the flames of Euroskepticism across the E.U.

It isn’t all about the policies and posturing either. The size of Poland, how Poland has managed its transition to democracy, and its outward-looking foreign policy; are good enough reasons to sound alarm bells in Brussels.

Law and Justice may be managing a domestic turf war from vibrant civil society and opposition, but Poland is already sending strong messages beyond its borders to its eastern neighbors, particularly Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova.

Poland is a model to these countries, filling a role Russia desperately wants. If anything, the current direction of Poland would be satisfying for Russia’s leader—Vladimir Putin.