Europe’s post-pandemic future will be decided in Poland – POLITICO
Piotr Buras is Senior Policy Researcher and Head of the Warsaw Office of the European External Relations Council.
WARSAW – European Union leaders might think they can breathe a sigh of relief – the way now seems clear for the EU’s revolutionary effort for economic recovery.
After the German Constitutional Court dismissed an internal challenge to the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund last week, a deal this week between the Polish government and an opposition party appears to have lifted a political roadblock.
But the real danger for the EU was not what would have happened if the stimulus fund had sunk in Warsaw. This is what will happen now that it looks more and more likely to come into effect.
At first glance, it’s astonishing that Poland was a potential stumbling block for the € 750 billion stimulus fund. Admittedly, the right-wing government of the Law and Justice party of Jarosław Kaczyński is not known for its enthusiasm for the EU. Nevertheless, Poland is fast becoming one of the main beneficiaries of the fund, receiving 58 billion euros in grants and loans.
The adoption of the fund was hailed as a huge success by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who intends to spend the money on a reform project called “New Deal for Poland”. But the stimulus fund sparked a power struggle within the ruling coalition in Warsaw.
Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish Minister of Justice and leader of a junior coalition party, vehemently opposes the ratification of the fund, saying it threatens Poland’s sovereignty. His argument: he paves the way for the federalization of the EU. Without his votes, the government struggled to get the bill passed through Parliament. And because the stimulus fund requires the acceptance of all EU countries, it created the danger of sinking the whole thing.
For now, this seems to have been avoided. On Tuesday, the left-wing opposition party announced that it had reached a deal with the government, giving it the majority it needed. But while it’s tempting to dismiss this as an irritating example of the EU being held hostage by small domestic policies, the real challenge is just to raise your head.
Poland’s problems with the rule of law not only raise serious doubts as to whether the fund’s money will be well spent; they raise the specter that the money provided by the EU will be used to cement the increasingly autocratic party of law and justice.
In an open letter to the government published on Tuesday, a broad coalition of Polish non-governmental organizations criticized the government’s work on the national stimulus fund for its lack of transparency and ignorance of public consultations required by the EU.
But the real problem is a lack of judicial oversight.
Kaczyński’s government has a strong hold over the judiciary. The highest court of appeal for EU fund management cases lacks independence, according to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). There is increasing pressure on judges across the country.
The problem is getting worse. Even as the ruling coalition fought over the stimulus fund, it took steps to reject the supremacy of European law. On Wednesday, the Polish Constitutional Court will assess whether the CJEU’s right to control the independence of the judiciary violates the Polish constitution.
The court is government-controlled, filled with politicians and loyalists of law and justice. The Chief Justice is a personal friend of Kaczyński. The government’s objective is obvious: to introduce a constitutional barrier preventing the implementation of decisions on judicial independence by the CJEU.
If that were to happen, the controversial German Constitutional Court ruling last year challenging the supremacy of EU courts would be pale in comparison. The Polish ruling would effectively deny the role of the CJEU and the European Commission as protectors of treaties and the rule-based legal order. The fundamental principle of the EU’s mutual trust – which requires access to independent courts in all member countries – would no longer be true.
It should not be allowed. Poland is a pivotal country for the EU, and it is in the interests of the entire bloc to help it succeed.
The need to approve the pandemic recovery program cannot come at the expense of the EU legal order and Polish democracy.
In December, the EU introduced a mechanism that would block payment of recovery funds for rule of law violations that endanger the bloc’s financial interests. Today, these risks could not be more evident. Potential strong men like Kaczyński and Hungarian Viktor Orbán are preparing to challenge the European system. If the EU does not use its financial resources to stop the spread of autocracy, its post-pandemic recovery will become a Pyrrhic victory at best.