Poland is testing the limits of Europe’s 70-year-old experiment in conferring peace and democracy on this once bloody continent by the soft power of cooperative integration.
The European Union’s confrontation with Warsaw concerns nothing as tangible as austerity (as with Greece) or taxes (as with Ireland). What has brought the first-ever disciplinary action against an EU member is Poland’s political encroachment on the intangible principles of rule of law and democratic separation of powers that Warsaw vowed to uphold when it joined the EU in 2004.
Far from contesting specific charges, the ultranationalist government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) revels in its expanding influence over the judiciary, media, military, civil service, education, and civil society since it won the general election of 2015. PiS achieved a 38 percent plurality in votes, which gave it a parliamentary majority. That then gave the PiS, in its own eyes, majoritarian rights. It is increasingly exercising these rights to police both state-owned and private media; to form a new branch of the armed forces that resembles a political militia in embryo; and, in legislation that came into force in mid-August, to appoint and dismiss local judges with no vetting by the professional judicial council.
For Poland’s most powerful politician, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the opposite of authoritarian Russian rule is not democracy, but authoritarian right-wing Polish rule, say critics.
Warsaw’s populist defiance of the EU and its democratic norms violates the EU ethos in two ways.
First, the manifest vulnerability of Poland’s infant democratic institutions to political expropriation mocks the old conviction that the EU’s quiet allure would naturally persuade even Central Europeans with no democratic history to embrace democracy. And the government’s denunciations of the EU for meddling in Poland’s internal affairs flouts the EU’s innovative trade-off of “pooling” small states’ sovereignty to buy a more powerful global voice (and get vastly richer in the process).
Second, the PiS’s periodic demonizing of the EU and Germany belies EU faith in constant progress toward the mandated “ever closer union” that should make future wars on the continent unthinkable. Last spring, the weekly Wprost portrayed Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on its cover in Nazi-style uniforms, in a pastiche of an iconic photo of Hitler and Mussolini, with the caption "They want to control Poland again." And in August, Mr. Kaczynski again demanded reparations from Berlin for World War II damage; one pro-PiS weekly suggested a sum of $6 trillion.
Poland’s other feuds with the EU include Warsaw’s noncompliance with a European Court of Justice ban on logging in the primeval World Heritage Bialowieza Forest and its refusal to accept a token 6,200 asylum seekers the EU asked the 38 million ethnic Poles to absorb during the upsurge of a million new refugees in Europe in 2015.
Illiberal problem child
How did Poland, which three decades ago spearheaded Central Europe’s democratic revolt against Soviet hegemony, morph into the EU’s illiberal problem child of today? How could the fierce Catholic patriotism – which in the 1980s galvanized a moral Solidarity coalition between pious Gdansk ship-welders and Polish intellectuals – slip into a polarization that rivals that of the United States? How could the country that has so far received EU development funding of some $200 billion and risen in one generation to become the 24th richest country in the world, bite the hand that feeds it?
One Solidarity veteran, who asked not to be named because of the polarization, offered some tentative answers. He noted that it’s easy enough for a catchall protest movement to agree on opposing a common foe – in this case, the half century of Communist, anti-West domination of Poland by Moscow. After a victory, however, it’s very hard for a movement to agree positively on a common way forward.
Moreover, after Solidarity’s historic triumph in breaking up Moscow’s external empire in Central Europe, the next generation of young Poles grew up taking their own freedom as West Europeans for granted. They disliked the tactical political maneuvering of the technocrats who brought about the Polish economic miracle in the early 21st century, regarding them as the fusty establishment. A majority of them turned apolitical and simply did not vote in the 2015 election.
More broadly, Polish politics has become volatile in playing out against the backdrop of the West’s crisis of confidence in democracy. China’s meteoric rise, under autocratic rule, from extreme poverty to the largest economy in the world in purchasing power has dented Western assumptions that only democracies can produce mass prosperity. And while Russia, stuck in the rut of oligarchy and an extraction economy, seems incapable of replicating Beijing’s feat itself, the Chinese model validates Moscow’s aggressive propaganda in Europe about the flaws of democracy and the superiority of authoritarianism. The virtues of liberal democracy are no longer self-evident in Poland and near-neighbor Hungary.
Many Poles trace their domestic political chasm today back to the divergence between “Poland A” and “Poland B” that arose in the 17th century, when the Polish state was extinguished for the next 123 years by powerful neighbors, and Polish lands were parceled out to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In the west, an urban, pro-West Poland A modernized and grew more prosperous. In the east, a rural, anti-Europe Poland B stagnated and remained poor.
By the time the 20th century’s East-West cold war ended in 1989, Poland A emerged ready to take advantage of generous EU subsidies to triple GDP and make Poland richer than Belgium. Poland B’s left-behinds recoiled against all the turbulence and gave PiS its 38 percent plurality in 2015. Kaczynski saw as his main enemies Poland A – as personified by outgoing Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the centrist Civic Platform party and Lech Walesa, the electrician who led the Solidarity shipyard strike in 1980 but is today reviled by PiS partisans as a supposed Russian agent.
What most inflamed Kaczynski’s wrath against Mr. Tusk was the death of his identical twin brother, then President Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010. All official reports on the crash of the Polish Air Force TU-154, with almost 100 senior Polish officials on board, called it an accident in thick fog. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, by contrast – without offering evidence – labeled the crash a political assassination involving Tusk, prime minister at the time.
A veteran Polish journalist explained, “He is obsessed with avenging his twin’s death. He lives alone and has no other, normal life. He lives only to avenge his brother.” The journalist asked not to be named, since he is already on his editor’s purge list as PiS pressure builds on media to sack reporters deemed deficient in nationalist passion.
This year Kaczynski’s first act of revenge on Tusk, who is now president of the European Council of EU member states in Brussels, was Poland’s sole nay vote as the 28-member European Union reappointed Tusk to that post last March. Simultaneously, Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a confidant of Kaczynski, accused Tusk of treason in mismanaging the investigation of the Smolensk crash.
The most recent replay of the PiS-centrist feud came in August, when the Polish state prosecutor summoned Tusk to come to Warsaw to answer questions about the plane crash. The prelude to this hearing was Kaczynski’s appearance on the Sejm dais (even though he is not himself a member of parliament), to shout at the centrist opposition, “You are scoundrels! You murdered my brother!”
As of this writing, the EU deadline for some sign of judicial restraint by the Polish government has just expired, with no response from Warsaw. The European Commission still hopes that Kaczynski might show some flexibility after the summer parliamentary recess, perhaps by postponing enactment of the pending bills that would let the government fire not only local, but also Supreme Court and judicial commission judges. Yet even if the PiS does defer further curbs on judicial independence, the European Commission could on present evidence legally suspend Poland’s voting right inside the EU or trim EU financial aid to Warsaw.
Now, the EU will have to decide whether it prefers the risk of igniting a hot new EU crisis by disciplining Poland or the risk of starting a slow-burning crisis if it does not defend its democratic bedrock of rule of law.
Elizabeth Pond is an author and former European Bureau Chief of The Christian Science Monitor.