Polexit has been much discussed – even flirted with – by many commentators and Polish politicians over the last few years. But The Economist columnist ‘Charlemagne’ now thinks Polexit is unlikely. Why?
Beneath a rather unlikely cartoon of Ursula von der Leyen (the European Commission President) as superwoman, wielding new ‘superpowers,’ the column gives essentially two reasons:
- Geopolitics: there are currently over 30,000 Russian troops in Poland’s neighbour, Belarus, and Russia has now invaded Ukraine. These men will not be withdrawn, so Poland needs its friends right now;
- Legal: The EU court in Luxembourg confirmed on February 16th that the EU has the legal power to withhold EU funds from countries (including Poland) which the EU says are not abiding by basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.
Why did the EU court make the ruling?
Since the 2015 election of the nationalist PiS government in Poland, the EU says that the new government has been undermining the rule of law by sacking judges (including in the Polish constitutional court) who disagree with its legislation and policies. The current PiS government cannot change the constitution on its own but can do more or less anything else in Polish law. Recently, for example, it banned abortion in Poland in almost all circumstances.
Our columnist thinks it will take time for the EU’s new fining ‘superpowers’ to settle down: “Eurocrats wielding such awesome authority willy-nilly might raise questions about accountability.” However much its policies are condemned as undemocratic, Poland’ PiS government is democratically elected. The same cannot be said of the European Commission.
Nevertheless, the Commission has so far refused to hand over around €36 billion in EU funds to Poland under the EU Covid recovery programme. The Economist says that this could be the equivalent of 2% of Polish GDP in the coming years. This could look a lot like ‘punishing’ the Polish people for their electoral choice: rather undemocratic for a body upholding democracy and the rule of law.
It’s difficult to tell beyond the very short term. Charlemagne suggests that the PiS government could have a hard time getting any ‘climb down’ legislation required by the European Commission through the Sejm (the Polish parliament) as its hard-line members will object. The PiS could split – rather as the British Conservative party split following the 2016 UK referendum vote to leave the EU. The three years of UK Parliamentary wrangling which followed the British vote might be mirrored in Poland, with the PiS moderates (and liberals) pitched against a more nationalist faction in the Sejm.
Bickering with Brussels will not look very clever while there is a full-scale war being waged between Russia and the West.
But this seems unlikely: geopolitics will intervene. Bickering with Brussels will not look very clever while there is a full-scale war being waged between Russia and the West only a few hundred kilometres from Poland’s eastern frontier, on the territory of its neighbour, Ukraine.
With over 100,000 Russian troops only a few hours drive from Poland’s eastern border – and large numbers of Ukrainian refugees crossing daily with their horror stories of war — even the hardliners might see the value in sticking together with the EU. And the refugee crisis which now affects Poland directly will need EU funds to deal with.
So, Poland will likely stay in the EU but keep complaining about the ‘neo-liberals’ in Brussels trampling traditional Polish rights – and (as far as prudent) making a nuisance of itself in the EU institutions.
Who is next?
The Luxembourg court ruling doesn’t just apply to Poland: so, who is next? The obvious ‘bad boy’ target is Viktor Orban, head of the Fidesz government in Hungary. He too is accused of interfering with the judiciary and installing his cronies in top jobs in Hungary without proper authority. And Hungary was co-defendant with Poland in the EU’s court case in Luxembourg.
The Economist’s Charlemagne thinks that the EU’s leverage over Fidesz is less than over PiS. PiS spent the EU cash it has received fairly wisely, and the Polish electorate will miss the EU funds if they are withheld. In contrast, Charlemagne thinks that Viktor Orban used the EU cash to spend on his cronies rather than on Hungarians: so, he says, the money will be missed less in Hungary.
This theory seems rather to miss the point that Hungarians too will need support in recovering from Covid, and they are unlikely to thank a government which denied them support which Brussels thinks should be theirs.
And geopolitics speaks in Hungary too: there is a Hungarian border with Ukraine, and Ukrainian refugees are fleeing across it as well. So, even if the Hungarian border with Ukraine is a short and mountainous one, and Viktor Orban has so far had cordial relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, geopolitics will still speak…
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