by Jonathan Nemetz
The nation of Poland is no stranger to authoritarianism. Whether under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Nazi German occupation, or a Soviet puppet regime, Poland knows the taste of authoritarianism. Which is why so many were shocked when a nationalist, right-wing government swept into power.
In May of 2015, Andrzej Duda of Poland’s ‘Law and Justice Party’ (PIS) was elected to the presidency. The PIS party was founded in 2001 on the ideas of economic intervention, socially conservative values, and strong Euroscepticism. His election was a sharp contrast from the centrist, pro-European ‘Civic Platform’ that had led the nation for the prior eight years. Then, in October of 2015, the PIS Party won 37.6% of the votes in a parliamentary election, giving them control over the legislative and executive branch.
After taking strong control of the government, PIS wasted no time in attempting to assert their power over the judiciary and the people of the country. Following the election of Duda to the presidency, PIS began a politically charged and largely unfounded investigation of the ‘Civic Platform’ Party on a myriad of charges, including corruption, collusion with foreign governments, and intentional actions against the Polish people. In the summer of 2017, PIS leaders introduced several pieces of legislation with the aim of making Poland’s judicial branch of government (The ‘Constitutional Tribunal’) subservient to its president and parliament. One of the bills would effectively push out all of the judges that were not nominated by PIS. Another would give parliament the direct ability to decide who can even be considered for a spot on the court.
While the streets of Warsaw and Krakow were flooded with protest against this descent into authoritarianism, 700 miles away, Brussels held its breath. The European Parliament gave repeated warnings that, were such legislation to pass in Poland, the country would no longer fall under the European Union’s criteria defining a democracy. Despite the objections of the Polish people and the EU, the bills passed. In a letter of condemnation to Poland’s PM, EU President, Antonio Tajani, said that Poland’s actions against their judiciary were “...against the fundamental principles of the EU treaties”.
In December of 2017, the EU gave Poland an ultimatum. Poland would have to restore the independence of their judiciary by March 20th of 2018, or face up against Article 7 of the European Union’s constitution. Article 7, although so far never invoked, is how the European Union can revoke the voting rights of member states that do not comply with standards of human rights and democratic values. March 20th came and went but no change was made, and the European Union began proceedings to remove Poland from the European Union. That was until Hungary stepped into the picture.
Back in 2010, Hungary had gone through their own wave of right-wing populism. In that year’s elections, Hungarians broke with the progressive presidents that they had consistently elected since the founding of the modern Hungarian Republic in 1989. The national conservative ‘Fidesz’ party had been around for years, but never received as much support as it did in 2010, being elected both to the presidency, as well as to a supermajority in parliament. The party’s leader proudly proclaims his intention to create an “illiberal democracy” aimed at rooting out ‘anti-Christian values’. The Eurosceptic party had used fears over immigration and cultural debates to rise to power, making them and the Polish PIS party natural allies. This natural alliance became their stated policies when, after the EU’s ultimatum, the prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki (The new leader of PIS), and Hungary’s prime minister announced that they would stand together against Brussels, vetoing any action against either country.
And when the time came to test this alliance, it held. Article 7 requires unanimous support to strip voting rights, impose fines, or take other punitive actions against member states. When all three were proposed against Poland, Hungary vetoed the resolution.
Now the European Union is stuck between two terrible options. To join the European Union, a nation must show that they a have free markets, respect for human rights, and an impartial and effective judiciary. But now, Poland’s membership is threatening these democratic traditions. They can’t kick Poland out, but keeping Poland in the union legitimizes a regime that is openly hostile towards accepted standards of government ethicacy. But as Poland continues to close the borders kept open by EU law, and openly disregard the founding principles of the EU, Brussels is struggling to determine what they can do. And unfortunately, it isn’t much.
At the moment, Poland is the EU’s largest receiver of funds from the organization. And although, compared to many former Soviet-bloc countries, Poland’s economy is strong, the money that they receive from the European Union is extremely important. Between 2007 and 2013, Poland received just over €64 Billion Euros directly from the European Union. These funds helped to increase the stable development of Poland, by assisting projects that rapidly modernized education and sanitation in the country. If the EU could reduce this aid, it would be a powerful deterrent against Polish authoritarianism, as Morawiecki’s regime would no longer receive direct funds for development, nor vital EU subsidies, such as those for agriculture. Without this international assistance, rural populations that keep the PIS party in power would be hurt the most, and see first hand the effects of rejecting Brussels’ requests. However, premature funding changes require a unanimous vote and thus are subject to Hungary’s veto ability. It won’t be until 2021 that EU funding will be open for debate again, and Poland’s funding can be punitavely reduced without unanimous approval.
But in the nearly three years until that happens, the EU may need to focus less on the defiance they have right now, and more on the potential defiance that may arise. If countries can openly refuse anything from environmental regulations to democratic ideals, without consequences, as Poland has, other nations may begin to wonder why they are still listening to the EU if it won’t take punitive actions. If the European Union is unable to enforce its founding principles, what real power does it even have?
As the Syrian Refugee Crisis and slow economic growth continues to plague Europe, the European Union can’t recede into the shadows. There is certainly no lack of issues for Brussels to address, but as countries drift towards nationalism and populism, if they can’t tackle the issues that they were created to stop, the Union’s very purpose may begin to fall into question.