Could there be a Polish exit from the European Union? Surely something is afoot in the EU’s row with Poland that extends beyond the usual bureaucratic jostling over directives from Brussels to a sovereign nation. The story might take a while to mature, yet it is becoming apparent that everyone understands that the logic of the EU is being tested.
How else to explain the alarm and vitriol with which the European Commission has reacted to a recent decision by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal that certain provisions of the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union are inconsistent with Polish law and that, ergo, Polish law is supreme? The tribunal itself has been a sticking point with Brussels since 2015, when Poland’s Law and Justice party won the parliamentary election.
Brussels would have it that Poland’s constitutional tribunal is itself illegal. The EU has gone so far as to order that it be dissolved. And it has ostensibly been fining Poland €1 million for every day that the tribunal persists. Countries have paid more for their sovereignty, but the PiS has refused payment. So Brussels is in a tizzy over what it sees as a cataclysmic rupture of the rule of law, ‘European values,’ and the very union itself.
This is not the first time that the EU’s interpretation of the Lisbon Treaty has been challenged as self-serving. The Dutch, the French, the Hungarians, and — paradoxically — even the stolid Germans, have all tussled with the European Court of Justice over the principle. The issue has also emerged as central in the coming French presidential election with former EU-Brexit-negotiator-turned-candidate Michel Barnier clamoring for French “legal sovereignty.”
Quelle ironie! Yet in none of these instances has the EU’s hysteria reached the levels it has in the case of Poland. One explanation is that yet another challenge to the project of forging a kind of United States of Europe, which is what EU partisans crave, and so soon on the heels of Brexit, is simply too much for Brussels to bear. The Polish ruling both represents and portends a “spillover effect” that cannot be allowed to stand, cautions EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders.
Yet when May 2020, Germany’s constitutional court ruled under German law against the European Central Bank’s bond-buying program, there was nothing quite like what had erupted over Poland. Though EU infringement proceedings have been launched, the fate of the union is evidently not so imperiled.
Another, more likely and Daedalian, accounting is that EU pressure on Poland has less to do with rules and more with ideology. The European project has long been usurped by a left-leaning agenda for which the conservative and Catholic temperament of the PiS is a threat to be managed, if not quashed. EU displeasure, after all, was being voiced long before the government was formed.
The latest focus of this ideological rancor is the union’s opposition to Poland’s LGBT and abortion policies and its associated effort to introduce EU-wide gay rights. Irrespective of one’s views, EU actions on such moral matters fall well beyond its legal competence. Still, the union persists, punishing by any means necessary those who do not comply.
Could it be that the essence for the EU is not only what is being challenged but who is doing the challenging. That it’s one thing for a German court to defy EU law, another for Poland, which, somehow, must be singled out, punished, and refashioned in the image of Europe’s internationalist left.
Nevermind that Poland’s government is correct in noting that the primacy of EU law is merely assumed but nowhere endorsed, and that the very notion of ceding national sovereignty in this way is illogical to anyone who values it. Still, Poland is accused of breaching a “moral commitment,” its government denounced as authoritarian, a “real danger,” and one that must be ausgehungert, “starved” financially, according to EU vice-president Katarina Barley.
Like any good drama, this tale will likely have several acts. MP Janusz Kowalski of the United Poland alliance has floated the idea of a 2027 Polish EU referendum, which an estimated 43% of Poles today favor. Polish support for a ‘Polexit’ is presently low at 15%. That’s way behind where Brexit was polling in Britain five years before the referendum. Yet it is still the highest that it has been in a decade.
In any event, with the EU exercising considerable financial leverage, the near term will no doubt see a rash of tit-for-tat concessions. Yet as the aims of the European project become ever–more apparent, Poles will likely start to wonder if Poland can be Poland while belonging to a club that is intent on its philosophical undoing.
This will be the shift for which to watch. So long as discourse remains confined to regulatory minutia, sovereign passions will, for the most part, remain subdued. Yet the Poles are a proud people that have throughout history risen to defend their nation from foreign offenses and it wouldn’t be the first time it was inspired, in part, by Britain. Why would this time be different?
Ms. Gadzala-Tirziu is a foreign policy analyst, political writer, and university lecturer in international relations. @awgadzala. Image: Detail of photo of the Polish and European flags by Pawel Kabanski via Flickr.