*The EU is collapsing
Poland was where the second world war started and where the Soviet empire began to crumble. Now the country may once again play a crucial role in European history. A struggle between the European Commission in Brussels and the Polish government is shaping up as an existential test for the EU.
In December, for the first time ever, the commission started a formal procedure that could strip a member state of its voting rights. The Polish government stands accused of violating the EU’s founding principles, which include “democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”.
The battle over Poland is turning into a test case over the strength of populism — not just in Europe, but around the world. Charles Kupchan, who ran the Europe department in the Obama White House, wrote last week: “With the United States missing in action, it is up to the European Union to defend the principles and practices of democratic society.
The fate of Poland, Europe and the west is on the line.” But those hoping that the EU will win a decisive battle against populist authoritarianism in Poland are liable to be disappointed. A combination of politics and strategic considerations are more likely to lead to a messy compromise. The Polish government moves that have alarmed the EU include turning state broadcasting into a propaganda arm of the government. But the main bone of contention is a set of new laws that have cleared the way for the government to stack the Polish courts.
The European Commission agonised long and hard before taking action over Poland.
It knows that, in many important respects, Poland remains a proper democracy. State television is a bad joke, but there is still a strong independent media and there are vigorous opposition parties.
However, the Polish government has already started to make life more difficult for the independent media and it is also pushing through “reforms” of the voting system that are raising fears about the integrity of future elections. The EU authorities felt they had to draw a line.
However, they also know that Poland is potentially a “lose, lose” situation for them. If the EU fails to take action, it will stand accused of ignoring threats to democracy and the rule of law. But, by taking action, the authorities in Brussels allow a nationalist government to argue that foreign bureaucrats are attempting to undermine Polish independence.
Even worse, this is a battle that the EU might well lose. Hungary, which is also sliding into authoritarian populism, has threatened to veto any move against Poland. That could leave the EU looking impotent, divided and unable to defend its core values. The risks for the EU are only increased because the Polish government can make a case that it is being unfairly singled out.
The Hungarian government, led by Viktor Orban, has gone even further than Poland in undermining the independence of the media and the courts, but has, so far, evaded censure. One reason might be that the EU was simply asleep at the wheel as Mr Orban made his moves. But a less palatable explanation is that Mr Orban has taken the precaution of keeping his Fidesz party within the European People’s party (EPP), which is the dominant grouping in the European Parliament.
As a result he has powerful friends in Germany. By contrast, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is outside the EPP tent. The argument that the EU is guilty of double standards is bolstered by events in Spain, where elected politicians are in prison for staging a referendum on independence for Catalonia.
The EU can respond that the referendum was illegal and that the Spanish courts have acted within the bounds of the current constitution and respected media freedom. Nonetheless, the government in Warsaw will point out that it is Spain — not Poland — that is currently imprisoning opposition politicians. The Polish government’s argument that it is being singled out because of its cultural conservatism and criticism of the EU may throw up enough smoke to obscure the clear-cut threat to the rule of law in Poland. And that, combined with broader geopolitical pressures, could push Brussels and Warsaw into a compromise.
The German government in particular is very torn about taking action against Poland. For historical and geographical reasons, it regards reconciliation with Poland as a crucial imperative. Compromise may already be in the works. Last week Poland reshuffled its government and removed some of the people regarded as “crazies” in Brussels. Early talks between the Polish government and the European Commission were conducted in polite terms. In Warsaw, there is now talk that the Polish government may come up with some cosmetic concessions, in the hope that this will buy off the commission.
The EU, which already has its hands full with eurozone reform and Brexit, may be inclined to grab any olive branch that is offered by Poland. But that would be a mistake. The questions posed for the EU by Poland and Hungary are, ultimately, even more fundamental than the problem of Brexit. They challenge the EU’s very basis as a community of democratic, law-abiding nations. If the EU dodges the Polish issue now, it will come back to haunt it later.
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