By Alexandra White
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) surged to victory in the EU elections at the end of May, leaving Brussels to further contemplate how to maintain relations with an increasingly erratic member state.
On the 26th of May, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski celebrated his party’s EU election victory at a party conference in Warsaw. His party had increased their victory from 31.8% of the vote in 2014, to 45.6% this year. Despite Kaczynski not actually having a formal role in the government, he is considered to be one of the most influential men in Poland.
Since his party’s victory in the national elections in 2015, PiS has frayed their once strong relations with the EU, by comprising the rule of law through judicial reform and media censorship, yet their popularity remains strong particularly in rural Poland, where their nationalist platform is very popular.
To understand why this nationalism has struck a chord with the Polish people it is worth delving into Poland’s tumultuous 20th century. In World War II Poland was invaded by Germany where a fifth of the population perished and 85% of the capital, Warsaw was destroyed.
After the defeat of the Germans, Poland then came under the control of the Soviet Union and Poland became a communist state. During this time the country developed very little and citizens were banned from things like travelling outside of Poland and lived off of food rations.
‘It is quite dramatic the changes we’ve had in the last 30 years, my parents grew up never being able to leave Poland, yet I can live in 27 other countries if I would like to’, said Elzbieta K, a 23-year-old Polish student living in Warsaw.
However, in 1989 after a Polish non-violent resistance movement known as ‘Solidarity’ put pressure on the Soviet government, Poland was allowed to have multi-party elections, established themselves as a democratic republic and introduced the free market.
A new era
Due to their strategically important location in Europe and potential economic growth, Poland was one of 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004. Elizbieta K remembers the day Poland joined as a young girl.
‘There were people celebrating throughout the streets of Warsaw with EU flags everywhere, I think there was a lot hope for our country, that after such an awful 20th century that this membership would bring about growth and prosperity for Poland’.
For the first decade of membership Poland was an EU success story. Since 1989, their economy has tripled in size and they were the only EU state whose economy kept growing in 2008 according to IMF, despite the global recession. They are also currently the highest net recipient of EU funds as of 2019.
Another big part of the EU’s success in Poland was the election of Donald Tusk for the role of Prime Minister from 2007-2014. Tusk, along with his centre-left party Civic Platform, wanted higher levels of EU integration for Poland, including the controversial plan to join the Eurozone.
Tusk resigned from his role as Prime Minister in late 2014 and was elected President of the European Council in December 2014.
New ideas, new challenges
However, in Tusk’s absence people with a very different idea of Poland rose to power in domestic politics. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Tusk’s political rival, of the PiS party, planted the seed that after decades of German and Soviet control, that Poland was now under the control of the EU. That Poland should stop trying to improve their European relations and focus on themselves.
Another major political sticking point in Poland is the 2010 plane crash in Russia that killed the president at the time, Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s twin brother. Jaroslaw Kaczynski has consistently blamed Tusk for the crash, despite the official report from the accident saying pilot error caused the crash.
When speaking about the accident on the 6th anniversary in 2016, Kaczynski stated that “The former government was responsible for that, Donald Tusk’s government”.
In 2015, PiS and Kaczynski shocked Europe by winning an absolute majority in the Polish Parliament giving them the ability to pass laws with little chance for opposition.
‘An erosion of the rule of law’
The new government wasted little time in passing laws that began to concern the EU.
The most notable of this being the judicial reform which began in 2015, where the government passed 13 laws that blurred the lines of separations of powers between the judiciary and the legislative body of the government. The rule of law is one of the key founding values that the European Union was created upon.
The most concerning law was passed in 2017, that changed the retirement age of judges of the Supreme Court from 65 to 60, critics claim this law was designed to force out multiple judges who didn’t agree with PiS policies and replace them with Pis loyalists. This law was later ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice however the intent to pass the law in the first place alarmed the EU.
This reform led the European Union to trigger article 7(1) proceedings for the first time in its history against Poland in December 2017. Article 7 is a punishment clause that if successful can strip a member state of its voting rights.
‘The article 7 proceedings are purely symbolic, to actually strip Poland of our voting rights there needs to be a unanimous vote from all member states and due to our strong alliance with Hungary, this will almost certainly never happen,’ says Elżbieta Kawecka-Wyrzykowska, a professor at the Warsaw School of Economics.
What can the EU really do?
However, for EU citizens this can diminish their view of the union’s ability to really keep their member states in line with their values.
‘It is pretty frustrating I have to say, knowing that my country is supporting significant economic growth in Poland, yet they are undermining the rule of law but nothing is being done, it definitely changes my view of the EU a bit,’ says Anna Meyer, a German student studying in Warsaw.
When pressed for a comment on the current situation a press officer from the European Commission responded saying:
‘The Commission is following the developments and is concerned to see the new amendments to the law on the Supreme Court being adopted with such speed – which did not allow for a consultation of relevant stakeholders. We are carefully monitoring the developments and are waiting for the next report on the implementation of the interim measures required by the European Court of Justice’.
Where to from here?
Polish citizens are also concerned about these developments by their government. Despite the Eurosceptic government, Poland has one of the highest EU approval rates in the union sitting at about 72% according to Pew Research Centre.
‘I think it is a bit embarrassing for Poland, I did not vote for the current government but it is frustrating when I have family members and friends who do, yet benefit from being EU members, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you’, says Antoni Kulcyzk, a student from Warsaw.
‘It has definitely diminished our position within the EU with our ability to negotiate and enter into agreement with other member states, this is of particular concern with the ongoing budget negotiations, says Elżbieta Kawecka-Wyrzykowska.
However, with support for PiS showing no sign of waning after the recent EU elections and national elections due in Autumn this year which PiS is expected to win, Brussels and Warsaw will have to learn how to manage this increasingly frayed relationship.
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