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The Polish people are the big losers

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Bernd Riegert
December 20, 2017

The European Commission is demanding punishment. Poland has managed to exclude itself from the EU. In the end, both will damage the country and EU-Poland relations have reached rock bottom, says DW’s Bernd Rieger.

Poland passes judicial reform
Image: picture alliance/dpa/AP Photo/C. Sokolowski

It is a sad day for the European Union. Article 7, the sharpest sword in the EU Treaty, was actually forged in order to avoid its use. Now, the irresponsible behavior of Poland's conservative-nationalist government has pushed Brussels into its next crisis, one that cuts to the very core of the bloc's cohesion. The Polish government, through its stubborn insistence upon carrying out a legally dubious restructuring of its national justice system, has forced the EU to take a drastic step.   

The move is something entirely new, and it represents a low point in relations between Poland and the EU. If, in the end, the most serious of all punishments results from the tedious article 7 process — revoking Poland's right to vote within the EU — it would be equivalent to suspending its membership altogether. It would mean a Polish withdrawal from the EU on the installment plan, indeed, the P-Exit that no one really wants.

The European Commission also warned Poland that it was putting its membership in the European Single Market at risk, pointing out that the shared market can only work in countries that abide by the rule of law. That would hit average Poles quite hard, both in the pocketbook and in terms of the freedom of establishment.

Ball in Poland's court

The Polish government, which never tires of complaining about the EU while at the same time holding out its hands to take massive amounts of EU aid money, can easily avoid all of those potential problems. By changing its behavior it can immediately halt the whole article 7 process, making it altogether superfluous. Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely. The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, apparently wants to set an example and push his nationalist resistance to the supposed dictate of Brussels to the breaking point.

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Bernd Riegert is DW's correspondent in Brussels

The Commission's toughened stance on Poland will also affect the rest of the EU. Should Hungary keep its word and support Poland in the current dispute, the split between east and west within the EU would get that much wider. The rift is already there, as evidenced by the fact that the so-called "New East Bloc" of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have remained steadfast in their refusal to implement majority measures regarding the redistribution of refugees. That is clearly a breach of contract, as the European Court of Justice has found. With their persistent intransigence, the aforementioned countries are attacking the very foundation of the EU, which is based on legal compliance. Poland, for its part, has decided to crown this sad state of affairs by insisting upon completely dismantling the rule of law at home.

What would Poland say if the EU's net contributors, such as Germany or Italy, refused to fulfill their membership duties and there was suddenly no more money to subsidize Polish farmers or pay for Polish infrastructure projects?

A dark day

In Rome, at the EU's 60th birthday party in March of this year, Poland renewed its commitment to shared European responsibility and allegiance to the pillars of the EU. That pledge is now totally worthless. Poland has been afforded one last three-month reprieve to reconsider the situation. It remains doubtful that Kaczynski will make use of it.

The European Commission has been forced to take action to save the very foundation of the EU as 2017 comes to a close. A dark day indeed — one that does not bode well for what 2018 may bring.         

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Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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