Warsaw and Brussels take a time out

Warsaw and Brussels take a time out
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo claimed the compromise would "fulfill all the conditions to resolve the dispute around the constitutional tribunal".
By bne IntelliNews May 24, 2016

The Polish government is preparing a "compromise" solution to the constitutional crisis that has gripped the country since December, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo claimed on May 24 following talks with the European Commission.

The announcement followed a surprise meeting between the premier and European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, a day after the passing of a deadline earlier issued by the EU executive. The talks appear to have averted, for now at least, an even more damaging clash over the issue, as the EU threatens action against the Polish government for trampling democracy and the rule of law. The compromise reflects the fact that both sides have little to gain from an escalation.

Tempers had flared in Brussels and Warsaw in recent days, but both sides have pulled back, for the meantime. Szydlo - who railed against Brussels' deadline for a solution to the crisis over the Constitutional Tribunal (KT) last week claiming it is trying to take away Polish sovereignty - emerged from the meeting to announce the ruling Law & Justice (PiS) plans to arrange a compromise solution.

Calling the meeting “constructive”, Szydlo said Warsaw will now seek to break the deadlock that has all but frozen the constitutional court - the main institutional brake on PiS, which controls the parliament and presidency - since the start of the year. “The Polish government has proposed solutions that could be adopted by parliament, [and they] fulfill all the conditions to resolve the dispute around the tribunal," she claimed, according to Polskie Radio. She did not give details.

The EU, which has long called for the government to make the first move in the stand-off with the TK, has also taken a step back to allow Warsaw an opportunity to act. The fact that Timmerman visited, rather than enforce a May 23 deadline threatening to move forward with a damning report on the government's efforts to consolidate power in Poland, also illustrated the EU's limited options, and the need for cool heads.

With euro-scepticism at record highs across the bloc, and a referendum vote in the UK over leaving the union less than a month away, Brussels has little room for manoeuvre right now. Szydlo claims she agreed with Timmermans at the meeting that the crisis “is obviously a matter that Poland must resolve on its own, internally".

Limited options

However, just how much ground the quarrelsome PiS is willing to give up remains to be seen. Quoting unnamed sources close to Szydlo, Rzeczpospolita reports the ruling party is ready to agree to swear in three judges to the TK elected by the previous parliament, led by Civic Platform (PO). The new government claims the centre right predecessor set a trap by filling the court with appointees that would block the PiS' policies.

The refusal to recognise the election of the judges started the crisis in late 2015. However, it has been noted that PiS may now be looking to the near future, with the terms of several judges due to end, which would hand the party's appointees the majority on the tribunal.

The European commissioner hinted Szydlo told him about the compromise offer, but did not discuss details. Still, he said that for now, Brussels will support the process of solving the crisis in the Polish parliament.

But in reality, he had little choice. The EU’s concrete options look limited in the current climate. Without a solution to the constitutional crisis, the next step would be for the commission to issue a “recommendation” on how to solve the problem. If that failed, sanctions could be considered.

However, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban – on 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 could technically lead to stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU.

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.

Yet Warsaw is also paying for the spat. The zloty has dropped and yields have spiked since January, when Standard & Poor's downgraded the sovereign, largely due to the risk of lowered independence for institutions. Investors are also voting with their cash, as the uncertainty persists. 

The fuss will also not go unnoticed in Washington. Poland is set to host Nato's annual conference in July, and has set great store in the idea that its role will help persuade the military alliance to establish a greater permanent presence in the region. However, since the start of the year, the US has offered few positive signs.

The new nationalist government will not want to come away completely empty handed from its time in the spotlight alongside what it views as Poland's most important geopolitical partner by far, nor lose its role as the region's leading hawk on Russia. If PiS is euro-sceptic, it's positively paranoid when it comes to what Poland and its Baltic neighbours view as Russia's revived imperial ambitions.