Wolfgang Münchau

Merkel knows how to stop Polexit. The EU won’t listen

Brussels can't learn from its mistakes because its unable to recognise them

Merkel knows how to stop Polexit. The EU won't listen
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The EU is notoriously bad at learning from its own mistakes, mostly because it is unable to recognise these mistakes in the first place. A notable exception is austerity. There is now a consensus that it was a disaster, which blighted Europe’s economic resilience for a generation.

A mistake the EU has not recognised yet is its role in Brexit: how it negotiated with David Cameron, and how it sided with the second referendum after the election, thus helping to create the political backlash that has destroyed even the faintest hope of a rapprochement with the UK.

In what may be her last European Council, Angela Merkel yesterday spoke truth to power when she warned her fellow leaders not to treat Poland in the same way. There are many reasons to question Merkel's legacy, but she is right in her scepticism of the rule of law mindset at the heart of European politics right now:

A cascade of lawsuits at the Court of Justice does not constitute a solution to the problem. It’s the question of how the individual members envision the EU. Is it an 'ever closer union' or is it more about the nation state? And this is certainly not only an issue between Poland and the EU, but also in other member states. We have to find ways of coming back together.

This plea will likely fall on deaf ears, if only because the rule of law mechanism is a legal procedure. For now, the Commission will not take action beyond writing letters. The decisive moment will be the EU Court of Justice ruling on the case, which is expected not before the end of the year.

Polexit remains an unlikely event, given the overwhelming support for the EU among Polish voters. However, support for the EU in the UK was also very high — but then dropped suddenly during the referendum campaign. We should recall that right up to the end, the opinion polls systemically underestimate the support for Brexit and for politicians that advocated it. The overwhelming lesson of Brexit is that excessive confrontation can quickly produce anti-European majorities.

There is a not unlikely set of circumstances that would bring Polexit far closer to reality, sketched out first by the academic Sławomir Sierakowski. The ruling coalition loses its majority in the parliament and becomes reliant on a small group of MPs led by someone like Zbigniew Ziobro, the eurosceptic justice minister. He would naturally attempt to take over Law and Justice. Like the UK Tories in 2015-2019, there would be a race to the eurosceptic fringe inside Law and Justice, with even relatively europhile politicians shedding their support for Brussels. Poland stands to benefit vastly from the recently agreed €750 billion recovery fund, as it has benefited from EU funding since its accession in 2004. But interests of the country and the party would diverge. It is entirely possible that Law and Justice might sacrifice EU funds, and even EU membership, just to cling to power.

Donald Tusk, now Poland's opposition leader, was president of the European Council. He, perhaps more than anyone else in the EU, got Brexit wrong. Tusk even campaigned during the 2019 European elections for candidates that supported a second referendum. What swung the Brexit vote was not the strength of eurosceptic opinion but the shift in moderate, previously pro-European voters away from Remain. The EU is now relying on the same man to stem the eurosceptic tide in his own country.

As Germany has just shown, politics is a mixture of zero-sum game combined with some luck. If Law and Justice mess this up, Tusk might triumph. But then again, if he makes the same mistake as he did during Brexit, we may be only a few turns of a random walk away from Polexit. It is time to heed Merkel’s warnings.

This article was first published in the EuroIntelligence morning briefing. For a trial subscription click here.