Finally, Brussels has plucked up the courage to act in what is becoming a civil war for the soul of Europe. This struggle is threatening to fracture Europe along East-West Lines. The current battle is with the populist administrations in the Visegrad group (or V4), an informal alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Of these, Hungary and Poland have been singled out by EU officials and some other European governments for, inter alia, flouting core democratic EU values. Branding them ‘illiberal democracies’ is somewhat premature, except, perhaps, in the case of Hungary, where Victor Orban wears this label with pride. Both states are accused of systematically eroding the rule of law by attacking judicial independence over the appointment of judges, muzzling civic society and the operations of NGOs, and censoring free speech including freedom of the press. These concerns have recently been highlighted in a European Parliament briefing document of the 8th May 2018.
In December 2017, the European Commission triggered the first phase of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which empowers it to
deprive a country found guilty of violating EU values of its voting rights. This sanction is yet to be tested and could prove ineffective as if it is implemented against one member, the other has agreed to exercise its Council veto neutralising its outcome.
Brussels anticipates this tactic and is ready to deploy a stronger financial deterrent. Poland is keenly aware that adherence to the rule of law, which it ascribed to as part of the acquis communautaire when joining in 2004, may well be made conditional for getting its share of funds in the next EU budget round 2021- 2028. Poland is currently the largest beneficiary of European Regional Development Funds. But the bonanza cannot last. With the UK exiting the EU in 2019 allocations will be reduced. States such as Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands who are net donors are seeking to put budgets under tighter scrutiny.
Law and Justice?
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) in Warsaw, holding a mere 37.6% of the electoral vote, has presided over a buoyant economy, helped by generous EU subsidies, and has been largely sheltered from the Eurozone crisis. But with reduced funding on the horizon, it is anxious not to lose its share in the new round as this could jeopardise the completion of vital infrastructure projects that prop up its
This has caused a government rethink in seeking ways to reduce tensions with Brussels by making concessions. Krzysztof Szczerski, chief of staff to the Polish President, in what might be construed as a charm offensive, has been keen to convey Poland’s pro-EU credentials citing that 80% of Poles support the European family and acceptance of single market principles, the four fundamental freedoms. In a recent
BBC interview he defended allegations that the independence of the judiciary and the court system has effectively been placed under political control.
Accusations by members of the European Parliament of creeping authoritarianism by the PIS administration is vehemently denied. The ruling party has always argued that judicial reforms were necessary to eradicate the legacy of the former communist regime. Critics in Brussels and in Poland’s opposition parties disagree with this analysis.
Poland’s Importance to the EU after Brexit
Balanced against these political strains with its EU partners, Poland is recognised as vitally important for military and security purposes. It is a critical buffer protecting Europe’s eastern flank against Russia, and on its northern border via the Russian exclave, Kaliningrad. With the departure of the UK in March 2019, it will emerge as the EU’s fifth largest member, both geographically and economically. It shares a border with Ukraine in the south-east and with Belarus to the east, a country which is financially dependent on Russia but
increasingly looking to strengthen its economic ties with the EU.
Unlike Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, Poland has frosty relations with Russia and is keen to develop closer links with the UK post-Brexit, particularly on military and security matters. Like the UK, it has been a fierce critic of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, and its activities in the east of Ukraine. It is busy upgrading its armed forces and purchasing military hardware and actively supports NATO’s forward positioning of troops, on its territory as well as in Estonia, policies which serve the interest of both Europe and the US.
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