Overly harsh criticism of the Polish government will only stiffen its resolve, especially coming from Germany. Christoph Hasselbach says diplomatic tact is sorely needed in Brussels.
So far, no infringement proceedings have been initiated. And no one wants to use the "nuclear option" of withdrawing Poland's right to vote in EU matters. Yet European politicians should think twice before even hurling tough threats at Warsaw.
Past experiences offer many lessons on this point. In 2000, when the conservative ÖVP (Austrian People's Party) formed a coalition with the right-wing populist FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria), governments from the other 14 states in the EU at the time distanced themselves from Vienna. Bilateral political relations with the Austrian government were broken off. Back then the European Commission was not the protagonist, but rather the individual member states, and all of them were careful to avoid using the term "sanctions."
Nevertheless, the ÖVP's Wolfgang Schüssel, Austrian chancellor at the time, deliberately presented the measures as an attack on the entire country and its citizens. As a result, even many FPÖ opponents joined in support of the governing coalition. The EU's measures proved to be counterproductive. After about a year, the states quietly resumed normalized relations with Austria, without having gained anything for their efforts.
Orban paints Hungary as a victim
Even more obvious is the case of Hungary, where the conservative nationalist Fidesz government has been trying to bring media outlets and the justice system to heel since 2010 - in the same way that Poland is attempting today. The European Commission began infringement proceedings, and in the end Prime Minister Viktor Orban capitulated.
However, to this day the result has merely been cosmetic improvements that go just far enough to keep Brussels from filing more formal complaints. There has been no change whatsoever in the spirit of Orban's political agenda. And at home Orban has been able to successfully portray his country as a victim of foreign interference. Support for his policies has in fact grown over time.
In the case of Austria, one country faced off against 14. Budapest was also rather isolated in 2010. Things are very different today. Nationalism and authoritarianism are once again on the march in Europe, especially in the East, and increasingly since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Whoever voices angry criticism toward Warsaw, from Brussels or any other European capitals, will therefore garner ever more resentment and simply worsen the inner conflicts gripping Europe.
More than anyone else, Germany should practice self-restraint. Firstly, because German-Polish relations, much like German-Israeli relations, are burdened by history. And secondly, because Poland, as a very large neighbor, possesses a special importance for Germany.
Furthermore, this bilateral row symbolizes the divide that Europe currently has to overcome. This self-restraint should apply to Günther Oettinger as well. Although as an EU commissioner, he does not speak for his home country but represents the entire EU, in Poland he is seen as a German. When Oettinger says that he wants to put Warsaw "under supervision," it can only be understood in Poland as Germany patronizing its neighbor.
In acting this way, one can only achieve the opposite of what one really desires. That is very unfortunate, as there is a lot of opposition to the policies of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland - unlike the situation in Hungary. Many Poles did not vote for the PiS because of their attempts at enforced conformity - but despite them. Now many of those voters are being steamrolled by PiS's policies and are indignant about it.
Yes, the Commission must see to it that member states uphold the fundamental values of the European Union, but in these times of strained European relations, that will require political sensitivity - from all involved.