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Pesky PiS pulls Poland to periphery of EU

Tomasz Bielecki
November 16, 2017

Over 80 percent of Poles support EU membership, but the Law and Justice Party has halted the country's integration into the bloc. As PiS puts it, the European Union is a necessary evil — one to be handled with hostility.

the flags of Poland and the EU
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A. Widak

"We've been managing with Alexis Tsipras' Greece, so we will live with Poland under Kaczynski as well," senior EU diplomats said after former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although many officials in Brussels recalled that his 2006-07 government had been an overall painful experience for the European Union, they watched passively as Kaczynski's understudy, Beata Szydlo, formed her cabinet. The PiS boss is not a member of the current government, but he is regarded as Poland's strongman and the key influence behind the prime minister's decisions.     

Many observers in Brussels figured that the first friction between the PiS government and the EU was a result of Kaczynski's attempt to gain respect by playing rough. But the problems went much deeper. The PiS launched a propaganda campaign against the EU's institutions after the European Commission initiated a Rule of Law dialogue in response to the government's targeting of Poland's Constitutional Court. That has proved mostly toothless: EU treaties allow for the blaming and shaming of member states but make imposing any sanctions within the bloc almost impossible. Over a year after the commission invoked the dialogue, Poland's government flaunted an order from the European Court of Justice to suspend logging operations in the ancient, UNESCO-listed Bialowieza Forest. It was the first time in the history of the European Union that the government of a member state had defied an order from the EU's top court. Poland's government has since adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward the court, but the case has yet to be resolved.       

Critics have also accused the PiS government of riling up anti-German resentments and jeopardizing the close ties between Poland and its neighbor in order to energize the party's core voters. The bilateral relations have been a cornerstone of Poland's foreign policy since the 1990s, and Germany was the main advocate of the country's accession to the European Union in 2004. For example, the PiS government fiercely opposed former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's reappointment as European Council president in March, calling him the "German candidate." PiS politicians have even claimed that other EU members outvoted Poland on Tusk (27 to 1) because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had "forced" her counterparts to support her preferred candidate.

PiS invokes 'sovereignty'   

As the PiS puts it, challenging the competence of EU institutions and abandoning the close alliance with Germany is meant to rebuild "Poland's sovereignty." When momentum toward the Brexit referendum built in 2015, the PiS government decided to replace Germany with the United Kingdom as its main EU ally and to tighten Poland's cooperation with its Visegrad Group partners: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Although the Visegrad Group, meant by Poland to be a euroskeptic (but not anti-EU) bloc, has little to show for its efforts thus far, the government is sticking to dreams of a Polish-led group that would counterbalance the influence of Germany and France.        

In Poland, the dispute over the quota-based EU-wide distribution of displaced people has added to the impression that the European Union is imposing an undesirable multiculturalism ("dictated" by Germany) and endangering national identities. Poland's state media has presented terror attacks in other EU nations as the direct result of decisions made in Brussels. Kaczynski has skillfully played on tensions between the EU's Eastern and Western members: Many in the states that joined the bloc more recently detest the condescension from "Old Europe." They see EU accession as an act of "historical justice," not as their entry into a school of democracy, rule of law or tolerance. The European Union used to be Poland's standard setter — now it has become something of a lesser evil.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Kaczynski has attempted to unite Poles by presenting the EU and Germany as foesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Keplicz

The PiS has made it clear to supporters that membership is a necessary evil, however, underscoring that this is the way by which Poland can influence the European Union — including the EU's Russia policies. At the same time, the government and state media describe the bloc in the anti-EU terms familiar from pro-Leave outlets ahead of the Brexit referendum. 

Poles' support for the European Union is stable and high (over 80 percent), but it could drop. More than 70 percent are against joining the eurozone, however. Only about half of them would choose the currency if this were a condition for remaining an EU member. The support for the EU would probably diminish further should membership be linked to accepting displaced people. The PiS promotes a transactional approach to the European Union, but it also expects returns — such as generous cohesion funds —  without holding up Poland's end of the bargain on solidarity mechanisms involving migration. And how will the attitude of voters change after the reduction of EU funds for Poland expected to begin in 2020?              

Kaczynski’s Poland seems to have gotten stuck in a trap. The country's status within the European Union has been diminished since 2015. Even legitimate demands for certain reforms or for putting an end to the protectionism that disadvantages Polish service providers in other EU nations are increasingly at risk of going unheard, because the country's current status is that of a member state that defies the rule of law. This can aggravate existing frustrations within the government and Polish society — possibly eventually leading to the country's own referendum on EU membership. However, in a more likely scenario, Poland's aversion to new EU integration projects, its permanent struggles with Brussels, and its view of the European Union as a necessary evil could marginalize the country within the bloc.