- “For us, Moscow’s financing is a red line that cannot be crossed” says Zdzisław Krasnodębski, vice-president of the European Parliament, MEP with ECR/PiS
- After elections, there will be more than one group right-of-the-EPP
- ECR has a Spitzenkandidat, too!
The Polish ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) is a large party in a populous EU member state. Like all other major national political parties in the EU it should play a major role on the European political scene. Until now, however, it was not the case. In the European Parliament PiS chooses to standby on many issues and periodically engage in “the defence of Polish interests” (usually unsuccessfully) without any major pro-active role. Will it continue to after the May elections?
Since the beginning of the year there were four major events thought to help to position PiS ahead of the May elections to the next Parliament. In January, in the spotlight of the European media, Jarosław Kaczyński met Matteo Salvini, the Italian minister of internal affairs in Italy, who paid a visit to the PiS headquarters in Warsaw. There were words about cooperation, but not much more came out of it. It seems that the paths of those two popular parties on the European political scene, Lega and PiS, have simply detached.
No wonder. On the right side of the European Parliament there is a clear emergence of two major groups, which could be labelled “the souverenists” and “the nationalists”. The nationalists are parties that today sit in with the most extreme group of the Parliament: here are the French of Marine Le Pen, the Dutch of Gert Wilders. There are also the Italians of Matteo Salvini. The common denominator for these parties is a total opposition to the Union. They would like to get rid of the Union altogether. Salvini used to say that Italy should leave the eurozone. On a day Le Pen is in favour of Frexit, or France’s exit from the European Union. Some in Eastern Europe may well remember Gert Wilders’ racist comments about Eastern or Central Europeans working in the Netherlands. What puts them together is not only scepticism towards the EU, many of those parties also share a sentiment towards Russia.
Next to the nationalists there are two other groups. Another major Italian party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) of Luigi Di Maio is trying their best with a “direct democracy” group. No much steam or momentum there; only Di Maio can be certain of a EP representation. Over the last nationalists summit in Milan there was a clash in the Italian ruling coalition about the nationalists’ relativism of history.
The Five Star Movement seems as disoriented as Poland’s Law and Justice. Both parties are abandoned by their British partners who have lost important founding functions for both groups (EFDD & ECR, respectively). M5S is an orphan of the departure of Nigel Farage’s UKIP. For PiS, there are the British Tories who are struggling to rule in the Brexit era.
PiS is preparing for the continuation of the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), although it tested its chances with the European People’s Party (EPP). This is where the PiS’ Hungarian friends of prime minister Orban’s Fidesz reside (still). The idea fell even before it was born and today Fidesz has its big problems in the EPP.
When asked if the adjective “souverenists” suits them, MEP Zdzisław Krasnodębski asks to use the adjective “conservatives”. The conservatives of PiS, therefore, meet since January, get acquainted, converse, and shall make decisions “in due time” regarding the shape of their next group in the next European Parliament.
“Our conversations have different character. We get to know each other. These are usually smaller, right-wing parties, but closer to the centre of the political scene than the radicals of the extreme right”, says EP’s VP Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a moderate voice among the Law and Justice lawmakers. PiS wants to get to know its partners as they are in reality, not through the lenses of their media representation. PiS distrusts the mainstream media and prefers to make up its own mind about potential partners. An important message: PiS prefers to talk to smaller parties.
Who are the people PiS talks to, except for the Italian League? In February, the second important “interrogation” takes place. This time not in Warsaw, but in Paris. By the end of the current term, the ECR presents itself as a “euro-realistic” group with MEPs from 19 countries. In February, arrival of new parties to the ECR is announced, including the French Debout-la-France (DLF, which effectively means “France, rise up!”) under the leadership of Nicolas Dupond-Aignan and the Forum of Democracy (FvD) from the Netherlands led by Thierry Baudet. The February Paris summit is important as it means extending the activity of ECR to France and strengthening its presence in the Netherlands. Ryszard Legutko, who is the ECR co-chairman in the Parliament, says after the meeting: “[These parties] share our belief that the EU has overreached and that the days of ever more centralisation in Brussels must end.”
The French partners have a problem. In last months they tend to lose out support (from a stable 7% to currently around 4%) and it is not unknown whether they are able to enter the new EP. In France and in Poland there are 5% electoral threshold. Meanwhile, the new Dutch party can be a major hit of this transfer season. FvD won the recent provincial election with 14.5% of the votes. In a fragmented Dutch system, such a result is enough to win. Recent polls give the Baudet party even 25% of support.
Still, there may be another problem with FvD. The FvD leader flirts with Nexit (the Netherlands’ exit from the EU), and the PiS avoids this subject like fire. In February, Baudet spoke with De Volkskrant: “I am ideologically against the EU, against the internal market, against open borders, against the euro, against all of it”. Following his adherence to the ECR he tones previous statements: “The ECR Group have proven themselves to be the only credible voice for a turnaround in Brussels and for a Europe that respects its Member States”. His popularity can be explained by the recent Utrecht shooting, when three people were killed. With freshness, youth (he is 35 years old), the Forum is sucking the energy and support out of the Gert Wilders’ party. Still, Krasnodębski tells me about PiS motives: “We want to reform the EU, not to break it”.
MEP Krasnodębski continues: “but I am not opposing to test, to meet, to talk”. It may be that partners from abroad can be excused of more. After all, the Tories introduced same-sex marriages in England several years ago. It is central to know what are the PiS red lines.
The third meeting is another visit at PiS HQ. This time the interviewee is Santiago Abascal, whose new VOX party took Spain by storm last year. In Warsaw Abascal talks about the fight against the loss of sovereignty. Few years back he opposed “Spain to be a vassal of Europe” of likes of Angela Merkel and the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. VOX did not enter the ECR yet, but Abascal is full of hope for further cooperation: “We are big fans of Poland, Spain is Poland’s sister, we have a lot in common: today Poland and other countries represent the core of Europe, including Hungary”.
As much as Abascal is controversial in Spain, where he undermines the rights of women, and wants to cancel same-sex marriages, in Warsaw he shows a gentler face. Or maybe the entourage is more accommodating for his views? PiS seems to like what they hear. There seems to be a community of values and the way of thinking about Europe between PiS and VOX: Abascal talks about sovereignty and Christian faith, he respects Poland and the whole of Central Europe, there are no Russian money behind the Spanish politician.
So far the last foreign visit at Warsaw PiS HQ is of a delegation of a smaller Italian party, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), the Brothers of Italy. At the head of the party is Georgia Meloni. FdI has been in the ECR since last year. The appearance of a delegation in Warsaw is a clear signal from PiS to Matteo Salvini: “we already have Italian partners”. Salvini’s response is the lack of an invitation to attend the Milan summit. Support for the Italian FdI is about 5%, while in Italy the electoral threshold is at 4%. Their trend is slightly upwards. After the meeting in Warsaw the FdI is very happy, the Brothers talk about “deep harmony” in thinking about society and national sovereignty. It is the Italians who speak of the “family of European souverenists in the next European Parliament”.
Four meetings, five partners. These conversations are not always effective, sometimes discrepancy reports are drafted. We shall not forget about the other major ECR partners, among whom there are not only the Tories. There are the Flanders’ NVA (28% in the regional polls and the first place), there are the Swedish Democrats (SD, 18%, second place in the polls), or the Czech ODS (13%, third place in the polls).
We shall not forget about those who have gone ECR and are with Salvini already. The new formation of the Italian minister is gaining traction and creates a competition for the ECR renewal initiative. The ECR got rid of the German AFD when the Germans started to cooperate with the extreme Austrian party of FPO a few years ago. Today AFD is with Salvini. PiS is abandoned by two smaller but important allies, the Finns (once “true”), who enjoy about 12% support in Finland and the Danish National Party (DF) with support of about 14%. Both left the ECR for Salvini.
If on the one hand a “new” ECR is being prepared with the participation of PiS, Spanish VOX, Italian FdI, Dutch FvD, French DLF, Swedish SD, Flemish NVA and Czech ODS, on the other hand the new alliance of Salvini is formed between the League and the French National Rally (ex-Front), the German AFD, the Austrian FPO, the Finns, the Danish DF. They will not have it easy: Le Pen did not come to Paris. “As experience shows, nationalists are able to get along for a week or so and we are awaiting for some spectacular divisions as in previous terms in the EP”, says Bartek Lech, a left-wing insider of European politics.
Two big European partners who look for a new contract in this transfer season, and who seem to be within the ECR range, are the Hungarian Fidesz, if there is a divorce with the EPP, and the other big Italian party, the Five Star Movement. As many commentators rightly point out, not all new parties in the upcoming Parliament are right-wing. Poland’s Spring is also looking for a place in the future EP. For today, the party of Robert Biedroń is getting closer to the S&D, but the final decisions will not be taken “before it becomes clear how many groups have seats in the EP, because only then will their impact on top-jobs be known”, says Lech. “Top jobs” includes the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament, as well as the High Representative for Foreign Policy and the new head of the European Central Bank. By the end of the year all institutions will have new bosses atop.
MEP Krasnodębski: “Parties such as FPO or AFD will most likely be in their own group”, and the European People’s Party should return to its roots. The PiS in the next Parliament will not only look for partners to form a political group, but will also want to talk with other groups to cooperate on policies. It is possible that in such discussions the Polish governmental party will sometimes be closer to the far-right than to the EPP. Why? It is easier to find a common understanding on issues like the rule of law, which PiS understands as an attempt to limit Polish sovereignty. Nevertheless, the EPP remains an important partner. Among PiS politicians there are hopes that the German CDU will correct the course under the new leadership of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
PiS would like to set European standards. The pre-conditions for forming an alliance with their partners is the expected respect for Central and Eastern Europe and for Poland. There is a different understanding of what European standards are between the Law and Justice and the outside world. For most people the European standards are the respect of rule of law. For PiS, this issue is about the EU’s lack of competence and “limitation of sovereignty”.
Standards in the process of identifying partners is also an important issue. For PiS, an important limitation is the Russian influence, but as Krasnodębski notes, “Russian influence is also in the European mainstream”, and the Second World War fascists are subject of relativity not only by Salvini, but also by the EP President Antonio Tajani of EPP.
“For us, Moscow’s financing is a red line that cannot be crossed”Zdzisław Krasnodębski MEP
Standards are a hard and delicate thing. On the one hand, they are broken often. Krasnodębski: “in Europe various political parties are treated differently, for example those that exercise power in Italy or Austria”. There are different standards for the Poles or the Hungarians.
On the other hand, ECR tries a federalist behaviour and nominated its candidate for the European Commission presidency, the “Spitzenkandidat”. There was a debate about the, but the decisive argument was to have one face in the European debate. The ECR Spitzenkandidat is the Czech MEP Jan Zahradil. Mr Zahradil is campaigning like other leading candidates such as Manfred Weber (Bavarian CSU, EPP candidate) or Frans Timmermans (Dutch Labor Party, PES candidate). He is a leading candidate, the voice of ECR in the European public debate. Zahradil will take part in debates of candidates planned for the end of April and in May. “He fulfils his duties”, assures MEP Krasnodębski.
There are many commentators in Europe who predict there will be one giant group from the far right to Fidesz leaving the European People’s Party. Others are scared of such a scenario. Meanwhile, a clear dividing line is emerging between these two strong camps. On the one hand, there is the Italian deputy prime minister and minister, a “strong man” Salvini. On the other hand, there is the Law and Justice, which takes care of its current message in Poland, saying indirectly: those who accuse us of Polexit are plain wrong. Jarosław Kaczyński once said about PiS’ alleged Polexit: “Lies, lies, lies”.
Law and Justice tried the possibility of joining the EPP. It did not work. PiS leaders met Salvini to get to know each other in person outside of the media spin. They did not get along. The third remaining option: their own political group with smaller partners in Europe. Together it is necessary to establish a rational group to talks about the future of Europe and EU policies, not to scare others or demand EU’s disintegration. There is no guarantee this idea will prevail. There can be subsequent flows of national parties in either direction. Five years ago the Flemish NVA joined the ECR after leaving the Green Group and the Five Star Movement tried to join the Liberal Group. For now we should assume there will be two groups on the right side of the European Parliament: one around Salvini, the other around the PiS. It cannot be ruled out that one group dominates the other, although a total unification is highly unlikely. It should not be ruled out that Fidesz joins ECR, or even the Five Star Movement. A delayed or cancelled Brexit could mean that the Tories remain in the European Parliament and in the group. Then, the ECR in the new Parliament may aim at even more than 100 MEPs.