The European Nightmare of Polish Opposition

In the elections to the European Parliament the Polish Opposition run united as the “European Coalition”. In their rhetoric, the leaders and the candidates warned the general public of the risk of “Polexit” that might be a secret strategy of the Polish government dominated by the conservative/nationalist Law and Justice party.

Returning MEP Krzysztof Hetman of PSL (EPP) and first time elected Radek Sikorski of PO (EPP) warned about the Polexit process. Other candidates, like Władysław Teofil Bartoszewski, son of the former foreign minister and Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner Władysław Bartoszewski (1922-2015), warned, too: “PiS wants to lead Europe out of Poland, but not Poland out of Europe” (RFM Radio interview in April). Grzegorz Schetyna, the PO leader, continued along the same lines: “I want us to show all those bad people who want Poland out of the European Union a Kozakiewicz gesture“.

The “Kozakiewicz gesture” is a famous 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics situation when Władysław Kozakiewicz displayed this gesture after winning the pole vault gold medal in front of a hostile crowd. It is also known as bras d’honneur. It is a sign of disagreement.

Kozakiewicz in Moscow in 1980

Will PiS open up to Europe?

The European Coalition lost the elections and has been soul-searching ever since. With the campaign based on us vs them, the European Coalition knowingly or not, has been saying to the Polish public: “we are Europe, Law and Justice is anti-Europe“. By presenting themselves as “anti-PiS” the dichotomy was between “Europe” and “non-Europe” as much as “anti-PiS” and “PiS“.

In the process and in the campaign PiS and anti-PiS agreed that the Western European establishment supported the Opposition. Hence Law and Justice campaigned on the notion of change that Europe needed.

Law and Justice won in Poland. Law and Justice lost in Europe. The true anti-Europeans of Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini won in places like France and Italy, while the slightly more moderate PiS European allies underperformed. Brothers of Italy, Forum of Democracy in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain and most visibly, the British Tories bring collectively only as many MEPs into the new European Parliament as Law and Justice. Not enough leverage to advance the reform of the EU with more sovereignty for member states and less power for the European Commission.

Since the elections are over there are reports that Law and Justice, the realist party rather than the populist one it is accused of being, is seeking rapprochement with the centre right European People’s Party, or the EPP. Not to join it, for this is not possible for domestic reasons. The Civic Platform (PO) is the cornerstone of the Opposition and together with the smaller party PSL together they are the second largest national delegation inside the EPP.

Since joining the EPP is out of question, the Law and Justice tries to persuade the non-Polish EPP that the European Left is the true threat. PiS does not want Frans Timmermans to become President of the European Commission. This would push the Polish government in the deep corner of European politics, as Mr Timmermans has been the main interlocutor with the Warsaw government on the rule of law. He has been accused by the PiS politicians of being partisan.

Today PiS politicians are said to navigate the corridors of both the Berlaymont and the European Parliament offering support for the EPP in its struggles with the left wing groups.

At the same time in many Western capitals the results of the Polish vote are met maybe with a disappointment, but with no emotion. Just last week I hear a German Christian Democrat say “I don’t understand Poland”. The results from Poland do not change the arithmetic of the European Parliament as long as PiS does not unite with La Lega and the rest of the group known now as Identity and Democracy (ID).

The PiS May results suggest an easy win in October national elections. This means the government in Warsaw is likely to continue its policies and the chance of change in Warsaw is now reduced.

To cut a long reflection short: should there be a new opening between Warsaw and Brussels? and on what terms, seems to be the organising question.

There is a number of issues which suggest a potential rapprochement of the Warsaw government. First, it campaigned and won on a pro-European platform “Poland at the heart of Europe” (yet with an EU critical voice) offering Poles a standard of living similar to those of Western Europeans.

Second, PiS feels cornered in the European Parliament and needs new allies, especially with the Tories soon to be gone (and for now, massively reduced). Hence the opening towards the EPP and a potentially conciliatory candidate for the Commissioner.

Third, the Polish government has not broken the European consensus on issues like a threat of US-EU trade war, the wars in Syria, Iran or the Russian sanctions. Yes, the February Iran summit was probably a mistake from the EU point of view, but also proved insignificant.

Fourth, the US-China cold war over technology comes to Europe. Poland seems to argue within the pro-American camp, but seeks a wider European consensus on the matter of 5G.

Fifth is the rule of law debacle. There is probably no one consensus on what to do next. The Justice Minister would like to advance the reforms and the Polish parliament just amended the penal code. The national Ombudsman warns today that the reform is in violation with human rights. Still, the next chapter in the rule of law story will be the ECJ ruling expected in the upcoming weeks.

The Polish government will almost certainly respect the ruling and is expected to follow the outcome of it. It will not end the process of dealing with the rule of law in Poland, the EU’s Article 7 procedure or with the judiciary reforms, or with the wider issue of independence of judiciary across the EU, but potentially it may turn the process into a dialogue.

Sixth, and the real problem of the last four years of the Warsaw government: the absence of European dialogue. Jean Claude Juncker publicly complained he did not talk with Jarosław Kaczyński for years. Angela Merkel met the PiS leader two-and-a-half years ago in February 2017. Polish leaders need to talk to their European counterparts. The last time a European leader met with Jarosław Kaczyński (besides Mr Orban, that is) was Matteo Salvini in January.

Seventh, the real challenge: climate change and energy transition. Law and Justice slowly realises that the future of Polish energy cannot be only coal. The transition will not be easy or cheap and Poland probably cannot do it on its own. Poland needs assistance for that transition into less CO2 polluting energy production. On the one side there are those who argue that the Polish government should withdraw from the 2020 climate package and the ETS system: it makes the energy prices spike and challenges the competitiveness of the Polish economy. On the other side there should be the option of transforming the Polish energy sector. Since 2014 the renewable energy is on the decline in Poland, according to the Forum Energii 2019 annual report.

The dead end

If Law and Justice talks to Brussels a.k.a. Europe to solve the issues as listed above, most notably the energy transition and the rule of law, then the Opposition may well feel to be cornered. The Opposition logic is “Europe = us” and in that logic Law and Justice is cornered into isolation. Should “Europe” and Law and Justice started to talk over the heads of the Opposition, that could be a disillusionment moment for the Polish Opposition.

The important part of the discussion that the Opposition may only observe is if the West stands by the European values and does not compromise on them when making political deals with the Warsaw government. You can only support one team in a game you do not play.

For Law and Justice additional reason to start this conversation is the MFF negotiations framework and the link with the rule of law situation and payments. To either to decouple the two (for example by linking it with the corruption situation not with the rule of law), or to solve the rule of law situation should ease out a compromise in which the regional policy support for Poland in the next MFF is not as limited as initially proposed by the Commission.

What will it be? Will Brussels negotiate a political compromise with the Warsaw government allowing it to be and break the rule of law, media independence or rights of people belonging to minorities so that it may focus on the bigger fish to fry: Italy?

That’s the nightmare of the pro-European Poles.

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