Dare Poland stand up to the EU? The leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced on Saturday that the country’s controversial disciplinary chamber for judges, the subject of a long-running dispute with the bloc over the ‘rule of law’, will be disbanded. The climbdown seems at first glance to be a humiliating defeat for the Polish government in the face of pressure from Brussels.
The European Court of Justice gave Poland until 16 August to disband the disciplinary chamber. Politicians in Warsaw say the chamber is a means to root out corruption but the ECJ believes it undermines the independence of the Polish judiciary. With the EU threatening to withhold funds from Poland, the case was an early example of Brussels’s new strategy of frightening misbehaving member states with the prospect of financial punishments.
The method seems to be working. After the EU’s threats the head of Poland’s Supreme Court froze activities of the chamber on Thursday despite being ‘deeply convinced’ that it does not threaten judicial independence. The chamber will now be disbanded and a modified version launched in September. Kaczynski claimed that his government still did not recognise the EU’s August deadline and suggested that the chamber had been wound-up because it was failing to perform its duties. But he hopefully suggested that abolishing the chamber in its current form would mean ‘the subject of the dispute [with the EU] will disappear’.
The climbdown may not be the end of Poland’s rule-of-law dispute with the EU. Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal still has to rule on whether Polish or EU law has primacy in the country. Yet the government’s stance on the dispute seems to be softening for other, political reasons.
It also raises the question of why the Polish government began such a high-stakes game of chicken with Brussels in the first place. Poland is one of the most Europhile countries in the EU, and it’s widely accepted here that there is little political mileage to be gained in being explicitly anti-EU or openly discussing the idea of ‘Polexit’. Polish voters know how dependent the country is on the rest of the EU – around 80 per cent of the country’s exports go to the bloc, while 60 per cent of imports come from within the EU.
In failing to stand up for their principles on Polish sovereignty while alienating large swathes of the population by raising the spectre of ‘Polexit’, Kaczynski’s PiS party seems, at first glance, to have made a terrible mess of things.
But have they? As anger over the legal dispute drives more Eurosceptic parties in the ruling United Right coalition to talk openly about ‘Polexit’ it is possible that Kaczynski’s climbdown may actually benefit his party by repositioning PiS as the moderate voice of the Polish right.
Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister and leader of the Christian conservative United Poland party, has become increasingly hawkish when talking about the EU of late. A day before Kaczynski announced the dissolution of the disciplinary chamber, he argued that Poland should not stay in the EU ‘at any cost’. He meanwhile characterised the EU’s strategy of financial punishments for member states as ‘illegal blackmail’.
With the United Right coalition splintering on domestic issues too, Kaczynski may have spied an opportunity in Ziobro’s heated rhetoric. By resolving the conflict with Brussels, PiS comes across as the grown-up member of the coalition and hopes to be seen as the party fighting for Poland’s rights within the EU while stopping short of provoking ‘Polexit’.
This stance may help the party win over voters from its more openly Eurosceptic rivals. It is also promising given Donald Tusk’s recent return to Polish politics as the leader of the opposition. Voters who are at all sympathetic to the government’s stance on sovereignty are likely to be alarmed at the prospect of Tusk: the arch-Europhile may be suspected of being more on Brussels’s side than Poland’s. It is, indeed, all too easy for Polish Eurosceptics to portray Tusk as a stooge of western powers. With Poland’s conservative Christian values putting the country at loggerheads with Brussels on issues such as LGBT rights, many will wonder whether Tusk is actually against the bloc’s attempts to intervene on such issues.
In effect, PiS may have now arrived at an EU policy which actually reflects what the majority of Poles think. They are ready to fight with the bloc over matters of sovereignty – but prepared to compromise in order to preserve their EU membership. PiS may appear humiliated by the rule-of-law climbdown; but in the rapidly evolving Polish political landscape, they may also have stumbled on an electoral masterstroke.