Poland launches broadside against Brussels

Poland launches broadside against Brussels
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said Warsaw will defend Polish sovereignty and never bow to ultimatums.
By bne IntelliNews May 20, 2016

Reacting to attempts to raise the pressure on her government to solve the country’s constitutional crisis, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo launched a broadside against the EU on May 20, insisting Warsaw will defend Polish sovereignty and never bow to ultimatums.

The blast turns up the heat in the battle with Brussels over the Law & Justice (PiS) government’s efforts to swiftly consolidate its power in Poland, and in particular over a fight with the constitutional court that has all but frozen that check on its lawmaking. Warsaw has long insisted it will not back down, betting on the weakness of EU institutions and stresses dogging the bloc, and the PM’s tirade makes that all but impossible it seems. It will also accelerate the deterioration of Poland’s reputation in Brussels.

“Poland will never succumb to any ultimatum,” Szydlo thundered during a debate in parliament. “The Polish government will never allow for anyone to impose their will on Poles,” she added, warming to a theme that echoes the populist mood around much of Europe.

“I am the prime minister of the Polish government, and my compatriots’ opinion is and always will be supreme,” said the PM, widely seen as controlled by PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski. “I am a European, but above all I am a Pole.”

Szdlo’s fury came as the Polish government was reported to be “surprised” by the critical tone of the European Commission’s draft opinion on the state of the rule of law, which is part of Brussels' ongoing probe into the issue. The European Commission has been probing Poland’s adherence to the rule of law – which is one of the cornerstones of Warsaw’s accession treaty to the bloc – since January.

At other points, Szydlo was careful to try to direct her fire. “There are some in the European Commission who want to destroy the European Union rather than see it develop,” she also claimed, leaving little doubt she was targeting the – mostly German – critics of her government’s policies, which also include efforts to take a grip of state media.

Nuclear option

However, the crisis over the constitutional court is top of the list. Brussels has raised significant concern due to the ongoing standoff between government and the Constitutional Tribunal (TK), during which the government has attempted to diminish TK’s position for fear it would block its policies. On May 18, the European Commission told Warsaw it had until May 23 to show “significant progress” on the constitutional conflict, or the draft will be officially adopted.

The opinion is harsh in tone, according to Rzeczpospolita, which says it has seen a copy. The document states Poland does not observe “democratic standards", and warns that without an effective constitutional tribunal, key European Union values, such as freedom, democracy, rule of law, or human rights, cannot be protected.

According to the Polish newspaper, the government is “surprised” by the tone. Warsaw apparently expected Szydlo's recent meeting with European Commission Vice-President Jan Timmermans, at which she offered compromise solutions to end the constitutional standoff, to soften the opinion. Warsaw was also angered that Timmermans went public with the deadline for improvement after he spoke with the PM.

However, faced by mounting euro-scepticism across the bloc, Brussels appears to be trying to stress that it is no push over, and this time it means business. Responding to Szydlo’s words, Gunther Oettinger, the commissioner for digital economy and society, told reporters during a visit to Katowice that “just like the Polish government has its prerogatives and duties, so do we. Our duties come from treaties, including the duty to safeguard the rule of law in EU states,” he added, according to Reuters.

However, the bloc’s concrete options look limited. Should no solution to the constitutional crisis be found, the next step will be to issue a “recommendation” on how to solve the problem. If that fails, sanctions could be considered. However, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban – whose “illiberal democracy” model the Polish government has based several of its polices since coming to power in November – stressed again on May 20 that Budapest will veto any such move.

It was Orban’s confrontational approach to the EU, and Brussels’ lack of options to censure him, that led to the design of the big stick: the Article 7 Procedure, a process that may lead to stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU.

That could theoretically be invoked should Poland refuse to back down. However, Article 7 is not known as the “nuclear option" for nothing. It has never yet been used, and with the stability of the EU under enormous strain right now, that’s unlikely to change, a fact of which Poland is only too aware.

Meanwhile, PiS continues to prove divisive concerning both external and internal relations, with large demonstrations for and against the government now a regular sight in Poland. The leaders of Poland’s liberal opposition party, Civic Platform, blasted Szydlo at the parliament debate for “desecrating the constitution” and “burning more bridges with Europe", Euractiv reports. An MP from the conservative Polish Peasants’ Party went so far as to charge that the actions of her administration risk “civil war”.