When a member state’s leaders do not engage in solutions to pan-EU problems, but prioritise national uniqueness, demand special treatment and promote antipathy towards the European project, we know the process to leave the EU has begun.
The seven-year EU budget is now agreed; the fate of the Recovery Fund is secured; the COVID-19 vaccination is in sight; the European economic recovery is coming.
Millions of Europeans can now look forward to the coming year with more hope.
But following the battle between Poland and Hungary on one side and the other 25 members states on the other over the 1.2-trillion-euro EU budget and recovery package, a new, less-encouraging chapter has also been opened: the possibility of Poland one day leaving the EU.
In November, for the first time, a sitting Polish prime minister delivered an openly anti-European speech in the Polish parliament, the Sejm.
On November 18, Mateusz Morawiecki, said of the ongoing negotiations over the budget, “it is all about keeping control over our own fate”, because “a few bureaucrats in Brussels want to decide our fate”.
Disillusioned, the prime minister lamented that the current EU “is not the EU we joined, and this is not the EU that has a future”.
A few weeks later, after a successful European Council summit, which agreed a compromise solution over the rule-of-law conditionality that EU institutions want to impose on EU funds, Morawiecki was hailing it as a victory for Poland:
“Thank you Viktor Orban for our cooperation for the best budget for Poland and the fight to keep the agreed conditions.”
One could simply shrug off the about-face of the Polish premier as negotiation tactics. But if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that while the budgetary veto might have been tactical for Viktor Orban, it was strategic for the Polish leadership.
Polonise, not colonise
Poland’s real leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, said in an October interview:
“Today, we are witnessing an attempt to take away our sovereignty… The EU institutions, their various officials and politicians who have never been elected by Poles, they demand we reassess our entire culture, to deny everything that is dearest to us, because they say so.”
The PiS leader even went so far as to accuse the EU of being worse than the Soviet Union, because under communism Poland was at least partially independent, but now the EU wants to get rid of Polish independence altogether and “colonise” it:
“We will defend our identity, our freedom, our sovereignty at all costs. We will not be terrorised with money; our response to those actions is a clear ‘No’.”
These remarks show the true colours of the PiS leadership. Tactically, PiS is pro-European, as some 87% of Poles support membership of the EU. Strategically, however, it sees the EU as a threat to Polish identity.
Some right-wing politicians of the ruling coalition expressed their disgust with the European Council compromise over the budget despite Morawiecki’s endorsement of it. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of Poland’s problems over the rule of law and fundamental rights, reacted negatively: “It will create the possibility of a substantial limitation of Polish sovereignty.”
A former defence minister and deputy leader of PiS, Antoni Macierewicz, was blunter:
“The road to abolition of Polish independence is now open.”
The same politician talked about the EU as “massively dominated by lawlessness and post-Marxist ideology”. Macierewicz is not a marginal commentator; he is a major figure among PiS parliamentarians.
Yes, there exist doves within the ruling coalition. The lifting of the Polish veto was possible because Jaroslaw Gowin, a deputy prime minister, reminded everyone of how much was at stake: he oversees the spending of regional funds in a country that has been the largest beneficiary of the EU cohesion policy since 2007.
Gowin’s opposition to the budget veto threatened PiS’s narrow majority in the Sejm. This empowered the premier to seek a way out in Brussels.
Yet it was not Morawiecki or Gowin who convinced Kaczynski and Ziobro; it was Viktor Orban who delivered the German compromise to Kaczynski during a working visit to Warsaw a day before the EU summit of leaders on December 10. The Hungarian strongman became instrumental in turning the Polish veto around and breaking the internal stalemate.
Meanwhile, the unconvinced Ziobro declared post-summit that his parliamentarians would vote against the ratification of the Recovery Fund in the Sejm. As justice minister, he will ask not only the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to consider the legality of the new rule-of-law mechanism, he will pursue a parallel process in the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s highest court.
Therefore, PiS’s distrust of Western European leaders as well as EU institutions is now entrenched and strategic in nature. PiS politicians seem to believe their own rhetoric that the EU is a left-wing project that aims to create faithless, rootless European citizens.
Poleaxed by risk of Polexit
During the veto period (November 15 until December 10), the threat of a ‘Polexit’ began to be raised by opposition leaders, business leaders, local government leaders, and former heads of state and prime ministers should the government maintain its veto of the budget and recovery fund indefinitely.
This is because a successful veto over the budget would mean paralysis for the 2021 budget and exclusion of Poland from the 750-billion-euro recovery fund. With no new European money to splash on voters, a push by PiS to exit the EU would be the logical next step, as for PiS the main benefit of EU membership has always been the financial flows.
Of course, that high public support for EU membership would make such a Polexit seem far-fetched. However, it must be stressed that Brexit did not begin with the 2016 referendum in the UK, it was a long process involving decades of negative rhetoric about the EU and obstructionism.
When the leaders of a country do not engage in constructive dialogue about how to solve pan-European problems, but instead cherish national uniqueness, demand special treatment and engage in promoting disgust with the European project, this is when we know there is a problem. This is when we know that Polexit as a process has already begun.
This process is about building new walls, not bridges, between Poland and its European partners.
Poland is not in the Eurozone and nowhere close to adhering to its membership criteria. Poland has not joined any of the EU-enhanced cooperation mechanisms since 2015. Its rule-of-law problems is paralysing the use of the European Arrest Warrant: the International Legal Assistance Chamber (IRK) of the Amsterdam District Court has stopped sending criminal suspects to Poland and asked the Luxembourg Court whether this means the surrender of suspects to Poland should be stopped altogether.
The Ziobro Ministry of Justice is flirting with the idea of disregarding CJEU rulings. During the last rotation of the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service, Poland banned its diplomats from even participating.
Poland has already entered the corridor at the end of which there is an ‘Exit’ sign. While the budgetary threat might have been postponed, the new rule-of-law conditionality over EU funds will persist for years to come. Will this Polish government bend or break?
About the author
Piotr Maciej Kaczynski is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Relations.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.