Mateusz Morawiecki insists his government does not want to take Poland out of the EU. ‘Eighty-eight per cent of Poles are in favour of EU membership and half of these are our (Law and Justice party) voters,’ the Polish Prime Minister told the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week.
But Morawiecki didn’t exactly seem committed to the EU on Tuesday when he locked horns in a fiery debate with the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over Poland’s challenge to the bloc’s legal order.
With Morawiecki refusing to back down and von der Leyen assuring MEPs that Brussels would move against controversial Polish legal reforms, it seemed, more than ever, that Polexit really could be on the table.
‘The highest law in the EU is the constitution of a country,’ argued Morawiecki. ‘If you want to make a non-national superstate out of Europe, first get the consent of all the European states and societies.’ He responded angrily to threats against Poland from von der Leyen – which include possible legal action, financial punishment, or even the suspension of members’ rights – saying ‘blackmail must not be a method of policy.’
Yet von der Leyen’s speech made it quite clear that the EU has no intention of engaging with Poland’s concerns about its sovereignty. By implying that the only course of action open to the EU is recrimination and punishment, she seemed to dispel any hopes there might be a dialogue of equals about the EU’s proper role in member states’ affairs.
‘We cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk,’ von der Leyen insisted. She then suggested that Poland could only be a democracy inside the EU.
Her remarkable speech – which implied that placing national law above EU law somehow runs contrary to democratic principles – displayed an extraordinary lack of regard for Polish concerns about national sovereignty. It was also grounded in the belief – which seems to be held by many in Brussels – that left to their own devices, ex-Communist member states will inevitably slip back into a mire of authoritarianism and corruption. Brussels appears to see itself in an almost messianic light in relation to these countries, forgetting that these states rid themselves of twentieth-century totalitarianism long before they joined the EU.
Poland’s recent legal challenges have threatened this impression that central European states are dependent on Brussels. They have also forced the EU to confront difficult questions about its own political identity. There is increasingly an ever-louder dissonance between the EU’s self-projected image – that of a benign organisation devoted to the betterment of member states – and a reality where Brussels must rule by fear to enforce legal and cultural conformity.
For centrists such as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an EU which can only keep members in line through threats and recrimination is a disaster. But voices such as hers are growing increasingly faint in the tumult of the European debate.
Up until now, the EU has been hesitant about matching its threats with action, perhaps because it fears what Polexit would mean. Even though it is very unlikely at this stage, if Poland did leave the EU it would be an unmitigated disaster for the bloc. When Britain voted to leave, the EU lost a member which was both a net contributor and a country which had long been uneasy about European integration. Poland, on the other hand, is one of the bloc’s biggest beneficiaries. Its departure would constitute a clear refutation of the fundamental principle binding the EU together: that the benefits of membership are worth the sacrifice of national sovereignty.
Fear of such a calamity makes it unlikely that the EU would ever consider kicking Poland out. The initiative for Polexit would most likely have to come from Poland itself. But given such huge levels of public support for EU membership in the country – polls suggest 87 per cent of Poles want to stay in the EU – could this ever really happen?
The answer, quite simply, is yes. According to the Polish Centre for International Relations, a law passed with a simple majority through both houses of the Polish parliament and approved by the nation’s president would be enough to take the country out of the EU; there is no need for a referendum. Indeed, given widespread public opposition to the notion of Polexit, perhaps the most realistic scenario for a Polish departure is one without direct democratic participation.
This kind of departure from the EU would be no good thing. Poland’s dispute with the EU is based on fundamental questions of national sovereignty. From a moral perspective a referendum, as a supreme act of national self-determination, must surely be required for Polexit to take place. Taking the Polish people out of the EU against their will would be a strange way to express a desire for greater democratic control.
Tuesday’s explosive session in the European parliament gave greater substance than ever to the spectre of Polexit. But the scepticism of the Polish people about the idea of leaving the EU makes gaining their consent for such a move even more vital. If such consent were ever given, it would be a blow from which Brussels would struggle to recover.