Brexit is looming on the European Parliament. A few days ago the EP’s research service published a simulation showing how the Parliament changes on 1 February 2020, the day EU shrinks to 27 member states.
The main consequence for the delicate balance in the fragmented Parliament is the end of the minimal centre-left majority in the EP. The S&D-RE-Greens-GUE majority in the Parliament of 751 MEPs is just 376. Now in the re-calibrated Parliament this majority shrinks to a minority of 351 out of 705 MEPs.
It may not matter as much to the daily politics of the European Parliament as majorities are formed on ad hoc basis between the seven political groups. But the tiny centre-left majority was clearly in the back on the minds of the European decision makers over the past months: from the election of Mr Sassoli as the Parliament’s president and re-election of Emily O’Reilly as European Ombudsman to the EPP’s internal sentiment that the “left” had an alternative to the “grand coalition” and hence could be outvoted. Also, the cordon sanitaire against the PiS politicians was possible mainly because of the left-wing pressure.
Now the S&D is no longer in the driving seat choosing the majorities in the Strasbourg hemicycle. The “grand coalition” behind the von der Leyen Commission remains dominant and the three elements of it, EPP, S&D and Renew Europe, have no more reasons to double-guess their coalition partners.
Unless new developments, naturally, take place. In the next weeks or months the probable departure of the Fidesz MEPs from the EPP and their potential alliance with the ECR would bring new dynamics on the right-side of the Parliament.
Fidesz has 12 MEPs and the 13th Hungarian EPP MEP is György Hölvényi, a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, a satellite party of Fidesz. Hence there is a slim chance for Mr Hölvényi to remain in the EPP.
Still, 12 or 13 Hungarians is a major force. Hungarians joining the ECR (62 MEPs post-Brexit) would push the group’s size above the Greens (66 MEPs post-Brexit) putting the new ECR on a virtual parity with the Salvini-Le Pen group Identity and Democracy (ID, 76 MEPs post-Brexit).
This could be the new dynamics interesting to watch: between the EPP (187 MEPs post-Brexit, 174 without Fidesz), ECR and ID, as the border lines between the three groups are not set in stone. Not too long time ago Alternative for Germany (now an important member of ID) collaborated with ECR and Law and Justice tested waters to join the EPP. Between ID and ECR there is a competition for who is the “opposition” to the European mainstream. Inclusion of Fidesz into ECR provides this group a new momentum.
A year ago the main fear of pro-European forces was an influx into the Parliament of anti-Europeans who would dominate the landscape. This has not happened, but a tactical alliance between Fidesz, ECR and ID would bring them to over 150 MEPs. Such a united front of the “opposition” remains and will remain for the rest of the term a nightmare for many of the pro-European MEPs.
When the Council of the EU votes on energy transformation, environmental protection or transport, the PiS government is usually in the minority.
The Eternal Question
Since joining of the EU, Poland is facing the question of its own position in the Union. The question is linked to its size: Poland is the smallest among the so-called “big states”, being demographically e.g. 54% smaller than Germany. At the same time, it is almost four times more populous than the group of numerous EU countries with a population of around 10 million. For example, Poland’s population is larger than the other nine countries that joined the EU fifteen years earlier. The economic potential undermines Poland’s stronger position by the fact that the Polish economy measured at constant prices is comparable in size to the economies of less populated countries of Western (Belgium) or Northern Europe (Sweden).
However, the status of Poland is determined not only by statistics. Over the past several years, Poles – its officials, as well as leading politicians – have learned to use their own advantages and play disadvantages effectively to pursue national interests. “At the dawn of accession, the Spaniards taught us that one should not be ashamed of being poor,” is one of the many lessons of Polish diplomacy testifying to the strategy for Poland’s presence in the EU.
This strategy was based on a delicate balance. Being the smallest of the big and the largest of the small, the Polish EU strategy included incorporating the Central and Eastern European perspective in its own political relations with large partners such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Hence, French President Sarkozy spoke in the middle of 2000s about the need to create a G-6, a group of six major EU countries. Today certain European politicians have similar ideas, including the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who talks about the weaknesses of the Franco-German leadership in Europe and the need to include Italy, Spain and Poland in it.
This delicate balance was an effective approach. One of the leading European think tanks ECFR, placed Poland as the fourth, equal to Italy, among the most influential EU country. A richer Poland has negotiated more funds for its own cohesion policy for the years 2014–20 from a smaller EU budget than in the previous budgeting period. Over the past fifteen years, Poland has not only made up for economic development (from 47 per cent of the EU average GDP per capita in 2004 to 71 per cent in 2018), but also gained many political advantages. Successful negotiations led to a new political opening towards Eastern Europe (Eastern Partnership), and two Poles took key positions in the EU: Jerzy Buzek presided over the European Parliament (2009–11), and Donald Tusk was the European Council president (2014–19) .
The 2015 Change
This strategy was abandoned by the government elected in 2015. The curent Polish government treats the Union as a purely external issue, of foreign policy, so it does not understand the involvement of EU institutions in the issues of legal system reforms in Poland. Since the dismantling of independent judicial institutions, as well as the civil service or independent journalism in public media, Poland’s position in the EU has deteriorated rapidly. In the national debate, the PiS government accuses the opposition of turning the European partners hostile, and that the European institutions are acting in bad faith and want to harm “good” reform for ideological reasons.
Meanwhile, there are objective reasons for launching the infringement procedures. The government under the direction of Mateusz Morawiecki is trying to promote its own version of “Europe of Nations”. These arguments boil down to undermining the independence of the EU institutions from the national governments. The Prime Minister said in the European Parliament that “respecting […] national identities is the foundation for trust in the Union. … every country in the Union has the right to shape its legal system in accordance with its traditions.”
There are many examples of progressing marginalization.
First, votes in the EU Council. The data collected by VoteWatch.eu shows that the Polish government is increasingly losing votes in the Council. By the end of the PO-PSL (EPP) coalition’s government, the rate of losing votes was at 3.1 per cent, placing Poland at comparable levels of Austria and Germany. From PiS’s rise to power in November 2015 to the end of 2018, this ratio increased to 6.6 per cent, and Poland fell to the second to last place. Only the Brexit’s UK achieves worse indicators.
This should be read as the growing incompetence of PiS politicians to substantively resolve controversial issues. Sometimes voting is used in a populist narrative in the country – with the directive on copyright in the digital single market, the Polish government voted against knowing that it is in a minority. The ruling party used a populist argument in the campaign to the European Parliament and to the Polish Sejm: “that’s why we opposed the EU regulations regarding […] censorship on the Internet (ACTA 2).”
Between 2015 and the end of 2018, the PiS government was in a minority in 19 votes, which are most often related to the topics of energy transformation, environmental protection, and transport. Those files concern legislation which was processed mostly in the ENVI (5) and TRAN (4) committees of the European Parliament, while in the Council the most problematic files were addressed by the General Affairs Council (8 files).
Second, the issue of differentiation of levels of integration. Poland has always been against structural divisions between member states, and deeper integration meant deepening of Poland’s involvement in European structures. However, since 2015 Poland has not participated in any new enhanced cooperation. No attempt was made to join the new ones (European Public Prosecutor’s Office, recognition of divorce and separation documents). During this period, Poland also did not join any of the previously initiated forms of enhanced cooperation.
In 2017, the government joined the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which brings together all EU countries except for Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom. In 2019, as part of defence cooperation, Poland participated in 10 projects, while France in 31, Italy in 25, Germany in 16, and Spain in 24. This shows Poland’s position among countries of medium potential – Czechia participates in 9, Hungary in 10, and Slovakia in 6 PESCO projects (out of 47 possible). Moreover, Czechia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania have been leading at least one of the projects since 2018. The first project with Poland as a leader was accepted only in November 2019 (The Military Medical Training Center).
The European elections have also accelerated the marginalization of PiS politicians in the European Parliament. The PiS MEPs are with the ECR. This it the sixth largest political group. Before the elections, the ECR was the third force in Parliament. A sanitary cordon against the PiS candidates was applied during the election of the leaders of the new European Parliament: the PiS candidates for the chairmanship of the employment committee (EMPL) and for the vice president of the Parliament failed in voting.
Today’s Poland is at one of the last places in the EU in terms of commitment to European integration and is not particularly interested in deepening the EU in new areas. Thus – standing still – Poland is moving away from other European countries.
The weakening of Poland’s position is not insignificant. The Polish success is the success of the most important European integration process of the 21st century: the unification of Eastern and Western Europe. The Polish failures are a symbol of the failure for the entire region.
At one point this summer Ursula von der Leyen said her Commission will be “geopolitical”, as opposed to the “political” Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker.
There was no meaning to the adjective back then. There is little meaning to it today. Still, the adjective is growing on the Commission.
First foreign trip of the new President: Ethiopia. To mark the European strategic interest in the continent. But as the EU fights it’s own war on global relevance between US and China, it needs to chose its battles carefully. Africa will be an interesting field to watch.
The challenges are many for the Commission and the whole of Europe. The most important is unity. Brexit et al. do not help. Donald Tusk, the ex-EUCO boss and new head of the EPP says that the fight to preserve or protect the EU’s unity was a constant battle over the past five years. Little changed.
Provided unity is preserved, the outside world is as scary as promising. The same story, but changing. Terrorist threats, trade wars, migration flows, climate crisis, populist leaders and all the other challenges out there are met with business opportunities as new technologies come to the market, new greening of the economy constitutes a major push for innovation in Europe and new trade agreements open new markets.
Will fears dominate hopes? First days tell little of the future, but for the ball to be moved to the external field EU and its Commission needs to play bold and safe at the same time. Not to be reactive but proactive. To look for opportunities where others don’t.
EU is not and won’t be a security power. It’s magic is located elsewhere. Preservation of and expansion of the multilateral system is what EU wants. The not-so-secret weapon of the Union is the strength of its single market. Expansion and deepening into the digital single market will be matched with re-calibrating it on the sustainability tracks.
The more-secret-but-not-totally-unknown EU magic is its regulatory power. It may have lost the 5G battle to the Chinese and the Americans but the other two are nowhere close to the regulatory might of the EU.
Yes, the EU is the soft power. In the times of nationalism and populism and climate change it has been doing surprisingly well, despite the fall backs along the way.
At the end of the day what may determine our future is our free will and determination. I do not know if the Commission has it. But I hope the basic fact that 202 million people voted for this thing back in May means something.
“The EPP is dead”! Did Viktor Orbán plan a hostile take-over of the party? What are the plans for the future? Welcome to rainy Zagreb, where the European People’s Party holds its congress 2019. Hashtag #EPPZagreb
The Croatian capital is cold and rainy this time of the year. Grim are the moods in the great hall of Arena Zagreb, covered with great speeches on the main stage. Angela Merkel comes, her star shines among the 2000+ delegates, yet you can sense the deadline to her rule in Berlin. There are more people of a decaying glory here, and a few upcoming stars, too. Ursula von der Leyen is relaxed and multilingual. Sebastian Kurz is glowing. Donald Tusk is elected new leader. This is a grand theatre and the main play is to put a good face on a bad game.
Elections won, but…
Every five years since 2009 there are fewer EPP MEPs sitting in the Strasbourg hemicycle. Non only since last May there are only 182 MEPs affiliated with the EPP. The party lost a ruling majority in the Parliament alongside the Social-Democrats. For decades the two, EPP and S&D provided for a stable majority. “It takes two to tango”, but how to learn the dance with a third, or a fourth partner?
The electoral crisis is clear and debated behind the scenes. There is another crisis underneath: the identity challenge. In a moment of weakness one MEP cries, “The EPP is dead“, and asks not to be named.
Feet of clay
The EPP is still the largest political group in the European Parliament, but the future is not looking easy. “If you win the elections, you can’t say you lose,” soberly reminds me the Irish MEP Sean Kelly quoting the EPP leaders, new and old, Tusk and Daul. Michael Gahler, a German MEP, also praises his home party: “We retained political leadership on the European level. Where are the Socialists and the Liberals in their positioning?”
Mr Gahler is not alone, many people here think that the EPP is the best organized party in Europe. Over 2,000 delegates come to Zagreb to discuss new leaders, but also to debate and decide the agenda. Issues such as the climate and technological challenges, enlargement, international policy in Eastern Europe, transatlantic relations and the situation in the Middle East – all of these are important matters for the oldest European political party.
But what does the EPP want to be in the third decade of the 21st century? How to regain voters? It must have been difficult to swallow that Europeans like to vote in European elections, but not as much for the EPP. “We are not popular with the voters“, complains one EPP staffer, as if it was the voter who was the problem. Ideas are welcomed.
How to simultaneously and effectively resist populism of the far right, but also the internal populism from the Hungarian party Fidesz, is the unanswered question here in Zagreb. The Slovenian Janez Janša, former prime minister, says simply: “Punishing the most successful party in the group would not make any sense“. Last spring Fidesz scored 53 percent in Hungary.
The electoral result of other EPP parties outside Hungary is not as positive. “Populism destroys us from the right and the left,” tells me the leading Bavarian MEP Monika Hohlmeier, member of the Parliament since 2009. Not only the EPP members’ share of the Strasbourg chamber has fallen from 36 percent to 24 percent in the same decade, the number of EPP members of the European Council is down from 12 to 9.
What is more, the internal dynamics is shifting, too. As of May, the majority of EPP MEPs are Central European politicians. In countries such as Italy and France, local EPP parties suffered heavy defeats. In Zagreb Silvio Berlusconi walks surrounded by a smaller crowd of journalists, an echo of old glory. The French party was relegated to the third position. In both populous countries the extreme right populists replaced the EPP parties as the main right-wing force in the national public space.
The EPP’s nightmare is this: in Germany the AfD is gaining ground, in Spain the extreme VOX party is fast catching up with the centre-right, and it is possible that in Poland the Civic Platform (PO) – the party of Donald Tusk – will fight the newly united Left to maintain the position of the main opposition party. A few years down the line the EPP members could be relegated to no. 3 or worse in all of the most populous EU member states.
Orbán’s hostile takeover?
How to effectively respond to the challenges of a changing world? Last spring seven EPP members demanded to remove Fidesz from the EPP. Hungarians were suspended and were not invited to the meetup in Croatia. The only Hungarians in the Arena are the Hungarian journalists investigating when the throwing out will happen, if ever.
In Zagreb, one could hear the whisper of Orbán’s intent to make a “hostile takeover” of the EPP from the centre-right and turn the party into a right-wing nationalist family. The attempted hostile takeover failed, Fidesz is suspended. Clearly the Hungarian ideas of illiberal democracy run in opposition to the core values of the modern EPP. In such an orbanesque version, the People’s Party could accommodate the Matteo Salvini’s La Lega and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS).
However, the Fidesz affair weakens the EPP. There are also those, like Janša, who believe that there should be room for the Hungarian party. But for the Hungarians to be unsuspended, they would have to undo many of their changes. There is also the fear that the Fidesz exit from the EPP could have followers. One EPP member protests: “I absolutely do not believe this. This is a rumour spread by the Orbán supporters. There will be no domino effect“. Hence many delegates do not mind the suspension. A report on what to do with Fidesz may be done in December or maybe in the new year. Donald Tusk says the issue should be solved by the end of January 2020.
There is a wide consensus to reject populism. But there is no consensus on what to offer in return. How to effectively talk to Europeans and address their worries? “We must remain a people’s party,” says new Slovak MEP Vladimír Bilčík. “People demand answers here and now, and the answers to these challenges can only be European,” he continues. Bilčík is a politician with a profile comparable to the Croatian prime minister and host of the summit, Andrej Plenković. Both are in their 40-ties and are building their political position with a strong belief and ownership for the European project. “We are the responsible ones. Everything we propose is put into practice” Sean Kelly adds on this point.
Plans for the future
A sense of responsibility, rejection of populism and building an effective offer for Europeans, this is the plan for the future. The EPP wants to fight back for European values like never before. Especially for the rule of law. One MEP asked to be anonymous when he says: “Fidesz is a virus“.
Climate change is also important. It is impossible to escape from the feeling, however, confirmed by many interlocutors, that the EPP is defensive on the topic. The credibility on the climate issues lies with the Green parties, and to a lesser degree, with the Social-Democrats. In Zagreb the EPP is discussing how to balance the greening of the economy with the jobs and the economic performance. They seek for a golden snitch instead of promoting green innovation, some younger and some more liberal MEPs complain. In this political debate over the greening of the economy the EPP frequently accuse the European Greens of political populism, even if Joseph Daul, the outgoing party leader, says he supports to declare the climate crisis an emergency. Many more conservative EPPers do not like to talk climate, instead some prefer to talk sustainability.
Bilčík and Plenković see the issue of greening of politics in their home countries differently. Bilčík speaks bluntly about his party SPOLU in Slovakia, an EPP member, “We are the Greens of Slovakia“.
New kind of leadership
Against this picture Donald Tusk takes over the leadership of the party. Professor Steven van Hecke of the University of Leuven explains what just happened this way: “It is discontinuity, because this is the first [presidency] from the Central European country, not from the traditional Christian democratic power bases of Western Europe. But it is a continuity, because those power bases do not exist any more since May 2019. The strongholds of EPP are in Central and Eastern Europe, so in that way it is not a coincidence“. This explains the context of the Tusk’s ascent to the EPP power, but “why him”? Professor van Hecke continues: “The former president of the European Council has the authority. He will be more political and the litmus test is Fidesz“.
New stars and parameters of success
In the ocean of sorrow not everything is only negative. The recent successes of the EPP members in Greece (winning against the populist left) and Austria (successfully fighting the populist extreme right) promote the figures of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and former/future Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “The future belongs to them” can be heard when a crowd gathers around Kurz, the “right-wing conqueror”, who, between successive selfies with youth activists and subsequent interviews, tries to rebuild his position in the EPP. Earlier this year Mr Kurz gave up power as a result of a corruption scandal of his far right coalition partner, held the elections and won them decisevely. Mr Kurz is only 33 years old.
Retiring Joseph Daul (72), as well as Donald Tusk who replaces him in a few days, speak of rejuvenation of the EPP leadership. When the important words of the new leader on the defence of European values are spoken on the main stage, one of the EPP activists asserts on a side: “Tusk is a defender of these values” and adds that the success of the new leadership will be measured based on two criteria. First, he expects Fidesz to be removed from the EPP. Second, how aggressively the new EPP leadership will be seeking for new directions for the party and building a “positive agenda”.
Earlier version of this article was published in Polish on Onet.pl
Today there were hearings in the European Parliament. Extra hearings following the rejection of the initial candidates for Commissioners from Romania, Hungary and France.
The replacement candidates who did well are the two: Adina-Ioana Vălean of Romania, who is scheduled to be the Commissioner for transport, and Thierry Breton of France, who will be responsible for the internal market. All provided the von der Leyen Commission gets a green light from the European Parliament.
The Breton’s acceptance is a turn-around of the Social-Democrats. Clearly the new President’s magic worked out well with the left-wingers. Yesterday President von der Leyen announced re-branding some of the portfolios in her College:
protecting our European Way of Life is changed to promoting our European Way of Life
the jobs portfolio will include social rights
fisheries to be added to the environment and the oceans
Well played, Ms Ursula.
Still, there is a problem with the Hungarian candidate. Olivér Várhelyi is invited back to communicate with the foreign affairs committee (AFET). By Monday we shall know if there is another meeting necessary. First, Mr Várhelyi is asked to provide written answers.
Apparently, as Politico reports, Mr Várhelyi problems was to convince his interlocutors that he will be independent from the national governments. In particular, one was worrisome: Budapest.
The last missing puzzle is the British Commissioner. The British PermRep, or Ambassador to the EU, has sent a letter last night (13 November) saying that London will not send a Commissioner before the elections in the UK. The vote is scheduled for 12 December.
Can the Commission be voted without the British Commissioner? That’s the question without an answer for the moment. Clearly the lawyers at the Berlaymont have something to work on in the upcoming days.
For the von der Leyen Commission to take office, the entire College needs to be approved by the Parliament. This vote is now tentatively scheduled for the last week of November.
For the new European Commission to take office – initially scheduled for 1 November – we are still missing four confirmations and a final confirmation vote in the European Parliament.
Three Commissioners-candidates were rejected earlier by the European Parliament. The French Sylvie Goulard was denied after her hearing. The Romanian Rovana Plumb and the Hungarian László Trócsányi were stopped even before the hearing begun; they were found to have a conflict of interest.
The three capitals were requested to send new candidates. The Romanian candidate was “in limbo” due to a difficult political situation in Bucharest. Finally a new PM Ludovic Orban nominatedAdina-Ioana Vălean after consulting Ursula von der Leyen.
The Hungarians downgraded their candidate from a high-profile Trócsányi to the civil servant level, Olivér Várhelyi. Both Várhelyi and Vălean should be acceptable during the next line of hearings in the Parliament.
Worse for von der Leyen, the delicate gender balance of the initial college (13-14) is now shifting to 12-15; even a female British commissioner would not improve the situation much (13-15).
Boris Johnson was asked by Ursula to propose a British nominee as soon as possible. Will he comply? Clearly there should be a British Commissioner in a European Commission if the rule of one Commissioner per member state was to be respected. As long as Brexit has not happened there is room for a British Commissioner in the Commission, Juncker or von der Leyen.
But there is no new Commission without a final OK from the European Parliament to the entire college. The timetable is that next week there should be the missing hearings, and should everything go smoothly, the Commission vote could be scheduled still in November.
Ursula von der Leyen hopes for her College to begin on 1 December.
Almost two weeks after the Polish general elections the politics in Warsaw is fourfold. There is a fight for the control over the Senate where the united opposition parties snatched a tiny majority (51-49) over the ruling Law and Justice (PiS). PiS challenges outcome in six districts with limited chances of success.
The other three processes include the negotiations over the new government as PiS needs to negotiate with its junior coalition partners the details of the organisation of the next government.
The opposition main party Civic Platform (PO) is soul-searching and looking for – possibly – a new leader at their January congress when Grzegorz Schetyna is expected to fight for his re-election as the chairman of the PO.
The fourth is the campaign for the presidential elections scheduled for next spring, most likely in May. President Duda is already campaigning. The opposition is pondering its options and candidates. Most likely there will be 3 candidates for the centrist PO, the conservative democrats of PSL and the Left. The PSL’s and Left’s candidates are semi-obvious: Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz and Robert Biedroń MEP, respectively. The PO candidate is “in the talks”, as the strongest options are now Donald Tusk and Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska.
In the letter Mr Kaczyński writes to the PiS voters thanking for their support: “to you, who have supported ours during the electoral campaign I would like to express additional signs of gratitude“.
Mr Kaczyński writes about dreams and aspirations: “By voting for Law and Justice you have supported Poland Plus, that is our native version of a welfare state. You have chosen the model of development of our Fatherland, the purpose of which is to ensure that in the not too distant future all Poles can enjoy the same level and quality of life as the inhabitants of the wealthiest European nations.”
He continues: “By standing in favour of Poland Plus, you stood by the great support programs that the Polish families waited for 30 years” and he enlists the 500+ programme of child support, 300+ programme of school support, 13th and 14th payment to the pensioners, the increase of the minimal wage and reduction of the retirement age. “By voting against Poland Minus you have said ‘no’ to the politics of bad governing and inability, the politics of a repeated ‘there is no money and there won’t be any‘”, Mr Kaczyński writes.
By voting the PiS candidates, Mr Kaczyński writes, “you have voted for the Poland of dignified life” and uses adjectives like “solidary” and “just“. Poles have voted “forPoland guided in internal and foreign policy by our raison d’etat and our interests. For Poland, a community of proud Poles boasting about the heritage of their ancestors, nourishing our Christian identity and values fundamental in our cultural circle“, he adds.
Mr Jarosław Kaczyński is PiS omnipotent chairman who rules the party single handedly. He listens and cooperates with his peers, yet he is the ultimate decision-maker.
He seems to write, “Poland is me” like Luis XIV used to say about his state. What does he mean by “our”, is it Polish or PiS’, or – is it the same, in his and Law and Justice, mind?
In his letter to the voters after the vote he continues to divide the nation and the political class into Poland Plus and Poland Minus. “We are better” he seems to argue, not “our offer is better”. “We are better” as humans, “Poland is us”, because our values are “our”, and “our” stands at the same time for Law and Justice and Poland.
Mr Kaczyński argued, upon news that PiS lost the Senate, that maybe there was a way to converse with people who think differently. Some secret negotiations may or may not have taken place with the PSL. But in this letter it is clear that Mr Kaczyński is not about governing. It is about ruling. His letter is judgmental, he argues that only PiS advocates for “justice”, “solidarity” and “dignified lives”, as if the party had a monopoly on the vocabulary that caries heavy emotional and evaluative meaning.
“Poland Plus” and “Poland Minus”, which side are you on? Choose.
Law and Justice four years in power is not one sided litany of negative and wrong policies. It took for years for PiS to convince itself to invest into solar and wind power. By now, year-to-year, the solar panels installations increased in Poland by 100%. A happy minister says Poland may soon overcome sunny Italy in amount of solar panels. Great, you – PiS – learn, you converge to the current global and European standards. Too slow, but you actually seem to turn the ship around over the past four years. And hopefully into the future 4 years the decarbonisation policy will take off fully.
Redistributive policies are hammered in Poland by the liberals, but the social policies work. Not only they buy PiS voters; they elevate some impoverished families and create opportunities for the excluded parts of the society. But PiS social policies are not perfect either. The policies are frequently missing the objectives as the 500+ or the 300+ often go to families who simply do not need that kind of support. Hence the social aspect of the policy is positive, but the demographic aspect is lagging behind. PiS talks of “13th and 14th” pension, but those programmes were only fractions of pensions, not a full 13th or 14th one.
The world is not perfect. The world is not 0-1. The world is not “+” vs “-“. Poland is not “Poland Plus” vs “Poland Minus”. There is one Poland that requires certain stability, progress, unity and… safety. Instead the most powerful man in the country offers divisions where he could offer unity. He could try to comprehend “the other side” rather than to demonise it, or degrade it by calling it “minus”. It is not US v THEM.
Mr Kaczyński has a history of demonising minorities, ethnic, sexual and other, as well as opposition parties. He does not like to talk to people who think differently. He does not like to travel outside of the country. There are many things he does not like. Where is all this hate coming from?
There is a village called Poland somewhere in Kiribati. It is on an atoll island somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. Other villages on the island: Paris, London and Banana. There is one church in Poland.
In our Poland there are some 10 000 churches.
It is a Rainbow Friday in Poland today. Another “culture war”, as PiS likes to talk about it.
Just four days after the parliamentary elections in Poland and the new political reality in Warsaw is slowly settling in. What do we know?
A New PM in sight– unlikely
Mateusz Morawiecki was or is the candidate for the Prime Minister job. But before this question is answered by the PiS chair, Jarosław Kaczyński, he needs to appease his coalition partners.
As a surprise as it may sound the position of the PiS chair is… reduced after the victorious win on Sunday. Almost 44% is less that 45% PiS had in the European elections earlier this year, some critics indicate. More importantly, Mr Kaczyński’s coalition partners within the larger PiS family are empowered following the Sunday vote.
There are two of them. One is Mr Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister. He has 17-18 MPs in the new Sejm. Apparently he is in negotiation for an upgrade (vice-PM?), even if he denies it publicly. Also, his party, Solidary Poland, PiS’s ally, would like to see a new ministry allocation. Most importantly, however, there is a conflict between Mr Ziobro and Mr Morawiecki. The media report that Mr Ziobro would like to see Mr Morawiecki go.
The other PiS coalition partner is Mr Jarosław Gowin of the Agreement (Porozumienie) Party. He also has about 18 MPs and has been a vice-PM and science minister in the outgoing government. His party is considered a more centrist-leaning in the larger pool of PiS universe. Mr Gowin’s ministers talk decarbonisation and focus on the economy, rather than social giveaways or justice reforms. They still vote in line, though.
However, Mr Gowin was Mr Tusk’s justice minister… with 18 MPs he could sway the majority towards the opposition. However unlikely, the political arithmetic gives Mr Gowin an upper hand in his negotiations with the PiS leadership. Could be that the new foreign minister is an affiliate of Mr Gowin. It seems the days of Mr Czaputowicz, the foreign minister, are numbered.
Luring the Senators
“The loss of the Senate is not a grave thing” is the message of the PiS Chairman to the party. Yet, on Sunday night he proclaimes “we deserve more”. As unnecessary as the loss of the Senate might be, it gives a hope to the opposition, and is a signal that there is a way to defeat Law and Justice machinery: with a unity of the opposition.
Before this happens PiS does its bit to try to convince any two Senators elected within the larger diverse opposition to change affiliations and chose the Speaker of the Senate who is either a PiS Senator or a moderate. What PiS wants to avoid is a strong and skilful Speaker who could play the power game with the ruling party.
Jan Grodzki is one of the opposition Senators and a doctor. He says he was offered to be a health minister in the new government. He declined.
Over the past years Law and Justice was ruling with a machine. The Parliament was adopting laws in no time. This shall change now. The opposition-controlled Senate should increase transparency of the law making.
The opposition leaders are quick to denounce PiS attempts to lure in any of their Senators. But they quickly enter into a fight over the consultation process on whom to chose as the next Speaker. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz of PSL has 3 Senators. He rebukes the Civic Coalition (KO)’s attempt to elect Bogdan Borusewicz, who was the Senate’s Speaker before (2005-2015), without prior conversation. The Left (Lewica) and the Independent Senators are invited in this discussion, too. After all, together they form a 51 majority in the Senate.
Towards the Presidential Elections
Everybody agrees: the day the Sejm and the Senate are elected marks the beginning of the next campaign. The opinion polls are there, the opinions are there, the speculations are out there, too.
For months people were speculating who can match up Andrzej Duda, the PiS-affiliate President of the Republic. Mr Duda runs a rather successful term in terms of his popularity. Still, the opposition is empowered by the Senate vote: united they believe to stand a chance.
But who should be the person to unite the opposition? For months it seems it has to be Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. After last Sunday it does not necessarily have to be him.
Mr Tusk weighs in. He says that it is crucial to elect a President whose veto can stop detrimental policies of Law and Justice. He urges all the opposition forces to unite behind a candidate who has the best shot: “it is absolutely a strategic matter”.
Who has the best shot? Mr Tusk says it is important to chose the person wisely, not fast. Majority of commentators in Poland disagree: the sooner there is a good candidate, the better.
There is a new frontrunner. Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska was the Civic Coalition candidate for prime ministership and lost the moment PiS was re-elected. But her individual result is astounding. Over 400,000 votes in Warsaw was the best individual result last Sunday. The polls are in favour: she polls even with Mr Duda. Mr Tusk also polls even with Mr Duda.
Effectiveness matters. Mr Tusk agrees that he does not have to be the candidate. Gazeta Wyborcza writes that Ms Kidawa-Błońska candidacy is the Civic Coalition’s leader Grzegorz Schetyna master plan.
Yes, the ruling party came first to the Sejm with the result similar to the exit poll and the late poll: 43.76%. At least this is the result from 99% precincts. PiS will form a government and rule like they did so far… this is the message of last night.
It is not as simple. The Senate results make things a bit difficult for Law and Justice with their “revolution”. Apparently sticking together (KO+Left+KP) brought a result in which 51 Senators will affiliate with the opposition parties (43 for KO, 2 for the Left, 3 for KP and 3 Independents) and 49 with the ruling block (48 for PiS, 1 Independent).
What does it change? It depends. PiS is known for not liking to share the power. By not controlling the Senate it will not be able to change laws automatically and over night. The Senate is also necessary for confirmations and appointments as well as ruling with referenda. A minimal thing this may mean that the legislative process will be a month long instead of one night.
The next Senate Speaker will be a high profile person; nominally second in the state after the President.
Yet, there is a different development possible. Last year in regional elections in Upper Silesia (Katowice region) the opposition won by one seat. The same happened in Mazovia (Warsaw region). In Upper Silesia the ruling party was able to attract one of the opposition counsellors to switch affiliations. In Mazovia, however, this proved impossible.
So yesterday Poles went to the polls. And yes they did. Big numbers, some 61% (estimated) of the electorate showed up. The celebration of democracy continues.
As the results come in and they are distorted after 25% and 42% of the vote, I prefer to present the “late poll” result, which is almost identical with the exit poll from last night.
Law and Justice (PiS) wins with 43.6% of the vote. It shall translate itself into 239 seats according to the polling institution. 239 is a majority of seats in the Sejm composed of 460 MPs. As those are still estimates some scientists pulled different figures out of this poll suggesting PiS dominance to be slightly reduced, ranging from 227 to 231.
Law and Justice will continue to rule alone. Mateusz Morawiecki will continue to be PM. PiS had a number of controversial policy programme items including the judiciary reform, the media law and the cooperation with the local authorities. Yet the most important of the campaign promises were on the social policy: the minimal wage at a Western European standard by 2023.
The opposition lost and is weakened. It was virtually a concerto to listen to all the commentators singing the same tune last night, and it may continue well into the weeks ahead, that Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the Civic Platform (PO) and main architect of the Civic Coalition, should be the person to hold accountable for the performance. It does not help the PO that majority of their voters vote them out of opposition to the ruling party. The positive offer was lacking in the campaign. The narrative remains reactive to the PiS narrative. The voters prefer the original and the new. Marketing 101.
The Left is back. A coalition of three partners who present themselves as three musketeers. They promise a lot, actually underperformed against the opinion polls, and risk divisions. The three leaders say they shall remain united.
PSL, the farmers party and their partners, is deeply relieved. PiS has targetted its audience in its campaign. Today, almost half of PiS voters are based in the rural areas of the country. Traditionally this is where PSL was strong. Eradication of PSL could serve the PiS increased popularity. This did not happen also thanks to the brilliant campaign rhetoric of the young PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz. His star will continue to shine among the opposition politicians.
The alt-right is back. The Confederacy is a mosaic of far rights, nationalists, monarchists, libertarians and other movements. Will they stay united or disintegrate into individual atoms orbiting around Law and Justice? As long as Mr Janusz Korwin-Mikke is a vocal critic of the PiS rule in the Sejm it might actually be prevented from happening.
The Sejm’s new dynamics
The new Sejm will see a new balance to the public discourse in Poland. The dark ages of a debate between an EPP member PO and the ruling Law and Justice is largely behind us. Even with the PiS domination the renewed presence of the Left offers a fresh start. Among the key vocal debaters is Adrian Zandberg, one of the three co-leaders.
As the Left will check the redistribution policies of the government and will check the liberal values of the PO, the Confederacy will check the liberal economic offer of the PO and the conservative values of PiS. An interesting interplay, in which PSL does present itself as the “middle ground”.
If this was a game of thrones and the winter is coming, there are the Greens who arrive on the Polish political scene. Elected with the Civic Coalition the Green MPs will have, for the first time in history of the Sejm, a real chance of advocating the climate crisis, which may be global, but is also a local affair in Poland.
The Morning Questions
There are many questions, but let me ponder two. First, the future of the Senate is important. First indicators show that the upper chamber will be divided between PiS and the opposition. As the results are coming in and many races are tight, it is impossible to give the answer which way the Senate will go. The Senate elections is not proportionate, there are 100 seats and 100 electoral districts and the winner takes all.
Second, Donald Tusk’s future. The star of Mr Schetyna may be in decline, but is it also the case of Mr Tusk, whose term ends in December? Clearly the opposition will seek a unifier candidate for the next battle: for the country presidency, scheduled for late spring next year.
Today Poles go to the polls to elect new Sejm of 460 MPs and 100 Senators.
As the first exit polls come out, Law and Justice is the clear winner with 43.6% of the vote. The centrist Civic Coalition (KO) is second with 27.4% of the vote. The Left’s back in the Polish Parliament with 11.9%. The conservative Polish Coalition (KP) wins 9.6% of the estimated votes, and the alter-right Confederacy wins 6.4% of the vote.
The “but” is there as it is unclear at now if PiS wins the majority of the seats in both of the houses of the Parliament. The results are too tight to call it a clear win for either PiS (43.6%) or the collective opposition (KO, Left, KP, 48.9%), which was united in the Senate elections.
Jarosław Kaczyński talks about an upcoming reflection of what happened today. He notices millions opposed to his policies. He says “we got many votes. We deserve more”. He talks of credibility and keeping a given word that are crucial for this support. The next four years, even if PiS continues to rule, “will be more difficult”, says the PiS leader.
Grzegorz Schetyna of the Civic Coalition still waits for the Senate votes, but tonight he claims “there will be no Budapest in Warsaw”. A few years ago PiS was promising to recreate the Orban rule in Poland.
Robert Biedron, MEP and one of co-leaders of the Left: “we are back” in the Sejm. Adrian Zandberg, another co-leader of the Left, continues: “Jarosław Kaczyński has a problem because there will be a brave opposition. This is the first step towards a left-wing government.”
The Polish Coalition and PSL’s leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz is relieved as his party was hanging in the air for weeks. Almost 10% is a good result, that WKK sums up: “this is a strong mandate of confidence for a rational centre”.
One of many Confederates, Janusz Korwin-Mikke says to wait. Back in May they had 6% in the exit polls. Their final results was under 5%. Will it be the same today?
In four days Poles will chose their Parliament. There are 460 seats in the Sejm and 100 Senate seats to grab. Five electoral committees are competing for the votes: Law and Justice (PiS) is the ruling party, the Civic Coalition (KO) is the centrist opposition, the Left is the progressive coalition, the Polish Coalition (KP) is the centre-right coalition and the Confederacy is on the alternative right flank.
Wałęsa’s blows the KO’s chances
Since Sunday, 6 October, the campaign enters into its final week. On Sunday Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of the Solidarność trade union in 1980s and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate attends the final gathering of the Civic Coalition. From the stage Mr Wałęsa describes Kornel Morawiecki, who just died a few days go, as:
Lech Wałęsa on Kornel Morawiecki
Kornel Morawiecki (1930-2019) was an opposition activist during the Communism, who founded the Fighting Solidarity back in 1982. He was an MP 2015-19, and most importantly, his son is Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister and PiS golden boy.
Mr Morawiecki’s funeral is a state event. It takes place on Saturday. The KO’s final convention was initially scheduled for the same day. Out of respect to the PM’s father the event is postponed to Sunday. During the KO event speakers are respectful. Until Mr Wałęsa speaks.
Since the speech Mr Wałęsa witnesses a heavy criticism for being insensitive. Naturally he is criticised by the PiS supporters. Yet equally heavy criticism comes to him from the opposition forces.
It does not matter for the former President. He is known for believing he is always right. Still, under the heavy KO criticism on Tuesday Mr Wałęsa changes his mind. He no longer supports the KO. As of now he supports the centre-right Polish Coalition (KP). The KP is surprised, they say they did not seek Mr Wałęsa’s endorsement.
Biedroń’s a saviour, again
“Biedroń saves a kid from fire”, scream the headlines. Robert Biedroń is a co-leader of the Left coalition, alongside two other parties. Mr Biedroń’s original party is Wiosna (Spring), founded earlier this year. With Wiosna Mr Biedroń is elected MEP. Now, he campaigns for the entire Left, and for his life partner, who is a candidate for the Sejm in Wrocław.
Monday, 7 October, Mr Biedroń drives towards Warsaw. He sees an accident: a car is in flames on a side road. He stops to help. With his fire extinguisher he fights the flames before the fire brigade comes. They will praise him for it later. In the car there is a family with a 2 year old baby, the father takes them out of the dangerous car, looks for a good refuge for the kid… in Mr Biedroń’s car.
Mr Biedroń after the incident congratulates the fire brigade and says there is nothing heroic about his actions. Still, the attention this news gives him and the Left a few days before the vote, is invaluable.
Tuesday, 8 October, the TVN debate takes place. One of two TV debates these elections, it is poorly attended. Jarosław Kaczyński does not engage in debates since 2010. This was last time he was debating his opponents. He lost. Today his party is too powerful. There is nothing in a debate for him to win. There is too much in a debate for him to lose.
Hence PiS sends a no-name to the debate. Marcin Horała, a 38-year old MP tries to convey the party message: that the rules of the debate are unfair as he is “attacked” by the other four committees. He calls them “anti-PiS”. As one of the commentators will point out after the debate: to include Mr Horała in a debate is pointless, as his words are meaningless for the direction or the policy of the party. He does not call the shots in the party.
The KO sends a mid-ranking MP, too. Izabela Leszczyna is the only woman in the room. But if the KO wanted to send a lady, why didn’t they send the candidate for Prime Minister, Ms Kidawa-Błońska?
Or maybe the largest parties did not care about the debate as much as the smaller committees. Maybe it was an opportunity to promote the future frontrunners? To increase the chances of Ms Leszczyna to be elected and Mr Horała to become a minister?
The other committees send more relevant people. The Left’s Adrian Zandberg is one of the co-leaders of the progressive coalition. The KP’s key member, the PSL’s leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz came to the TV studio. The Confederacy’s Krzysztof Bosak is a leading face of his coalition.
And… they all did a pretty decent job. The conversation was on climate, energy, rule of law and economy, health care and the social policy. But it mattered not as much what they said: the true decision-makers were not in the room.
That is, unless Mr Zandberg and Mr Kosianiak-Kamysz play important roles next week.
PiS minister dies
Jan Szyszko dies on 9 October. On 8 October he speaks in a debate in Pruszków, just outside of Warsaw. There he voices his opposition to building new nurseries. According to the ex-minister the crèche system as the “heritage of the old system, Communism, and of the Civic Platform”. He conveys a traditionalist message that women’s place is not necessarily at work. “It is about the demographic security of our country”, he claims. The Polish society is ageing. He’d like his family to take care of him when he is older.
This will never come. Mr Szyszko, former environmental minister in three governments (1997-99, Buzek’s government, 2005-7, Kaczyński’s government, and 2015-18, Szydło/Morawiecki’s governments) dies unexpectedly at the age of 75. He will be remembered internationally as the black character in the Białowieża primeval forest battle. Locally in Warsaw he will be remembered for his opposition to the construction of the Warsaw’s Eastern road bypass. The road has been in planning for some twenty years.
With Jan Szyszko and Kornel Morawiecki gone in one week there is a strong signal of a generational transition in the Polish politics. The question is hanging about the future PiS leadership as Jarosław Kaczyński (70 years old) hints these could be his last general elections.
It is only Wednesday. Four more days until the big day.
Janusz Wojciechowski will be Ursula’s von der Leyen’s Commissioner for Agriculture, after all.
The Agricultural Committee of the European Parliament just heard the Polish politician for the second time today. After the second hearing was held with Mr Wojciechowski speaking at ease in his native language, the coordinators unanimously agreed to give him a green light.
The EPP coordinator Herbert Dorfmann said after the hearing: “he was much more committed. He was much more prepared. […] It was a completely different performance”.
The Wojciechowski confirmation was pending for a week. The next Commission’s still pending Commissioner is Sylvie Goulard (France). The details about the hearings of new Hungarian and Romanian Commissioners are unknown.
The entire College of Commissioners is to be voted through on 23 October in Strasbourg.
The 1 October Wojciechowski hearing is poor. Even when the chair of the AGRI committee asks for the MEPs to applaud the Commissioner-designate it is lukewarm, at best.
Mr Wojciechowski’s performance is the poorest of all the Commissioners heard to date.
It did not matter he is a PiS affiliate. It did not matter he had OLAF problems. Mr Weber of EPP is asking about Sylvie Goulard: “Why can’t you continue to be a French minister but can become a European commissioner?”. Nobody has to play that tune against Mr Wojciechowski.
Here’s the recap of the hearing:
Even those who wished Mr Wojciechowski well acknowledge that his showing is poor. Herbert Dorfmann, EPP coordinator at AGRI: “performance of the Commissioner-designate Wojciechowski was very weak. He did not answer concretely to a lot of questions. Some answers were […] really strange. […] Very strange ideas about animal welfare, on the green deal, on the CAP reform, which is on the table”. Full video is twitted by EPP:
Jarosław Kalinowski, an MEP with EPP and a fellow Pole wished Mr Wojciechowski well. His hearing reaction: “I am disappointed, I’d prefer for it to look better. I really hoped it would be better”.
So there is no cordon sanitaire against Mr Wojciechowski. It was just a poor performance.
Rzeczpospolita: Wojciechowski to be changed
The day after Rzeczpospolita, a conservative daily, has some breaking news: the Wojciechowski hearing was so poor that the written questions asked of the Commissioner-designate, is just a pro-forma. In fact by Monday it shall be official: the Parliament would like the Polish candidate to be replaced.
Every major news outlet reprints the news.
Asked, the government of Law and Justice (PiS) confirmed they do not foresee a replacement. A number of PiS politicians, including the government spokesperson Piotr Müller and deputy foreign minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk confirmed there will be no replacement.
Until Monday, that is. On Monday the AGRI committee and involved ENVI (environment and public health) MEPs will decide to give or not a second chance to Mr Wojciechowski.
The parliamentary elections in Poland are taking place 13 October. PiS rural campaign thus far was based on the promise of equalising payments to Polish farms with the Western European payments and Mr Wojciechowski was to guarantee that to happen. Should he be removed from the Commission college that argument might be shaky.
Ever since the replacement of the next Polish Commissioner, Mr Wojciechowski has kept a low profile trying to avoid the temper of the gods of the European Parliament who are on the hunt in this years hearings. Today he takes the centre stage; will he pass the Parliamentary hearing?
Janusz Wojciechowski is a 64 year old former Member of the European Parliament 2004-2016, a lawyer by profession, and most recently a member of the European Court of Auditors (2016-2019). His auditing experience goes back to his times as the President of the Supreme Audit Office of Poland (NIK), 1995-2001. He is an experienced politician, who has kept a low profile throughout his career. Controversial due to his political affiliation to Law and Justice (PiS) and prior transfer from the Polish People’s Party (PSL) to PiS in 2006. PSL is a member of the EPP; PiS dominates the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).
The 2016 ECA nomination did not go smoothly in the European Parliament. Mr Wojciechowski lost an EP vote, nevertheless the Council proceeded with his nomination disregarding the Parliament’s opinion.
What will happen today?
Ahead of the hearing scheduled for this afternoon there are two competing narratives. In Warsaw many are hopeful: OLAF just terminated a case against Mr Wojciechowski and the same JURI committee in the European Parliament that has twice vetoed the candidats from Hungary and Romania has cleared Mr Wojciechowski of any conflict of interests.
Even the centrist media in Poland report that because the Hungarian and the Romanian politicians have been rejected in the Parliament the chances of Mr Wojciechowski are better.
It is because the media, the commentators and the politicians believe that the Parliament requires sacrifices.
Meanwhile the atmosphere in Brussels is different than five, ten and fifteen years ago. The Parliament does not need to mark its political position against the Council or the Commission. The Parliament is angry. The Parliament is angry with the Commission-President for how she managed the vetting process of her Commissioners. The Commission’s response is weak by the EP standards: the von der Leyen transition team is small.
The Parliament is angry with the Council for how the member states dealt with the Spitzenkandidat system back in July. The Parliament wants to be at the centre of European political debate; hence the hearings this time are not a theatre. The hearings are the real vetting process. The Parliament has tools to use and shall not shy to use them. Or, will it?
The Parliamentary anger goes so far that this morning the Brussels media report that Sylvie Goulard could be scarified over her financial misbehaviour in the European Parliament. The normally neutral Parliament Magazine reports that Mr Wojciechowski has to pay back 11,243 Euros to the coffers of the European Parliament over his financial misbehaviour years ago.
If Ms Goulard is vulnerable, so is Mr Wojciechowski. Maybe even more so if we take into account that Mr Wojciechowski is supposed to be a long-time auditor at NIK and recently at ECA. There is a saying: “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot”. Voila.
And on top of things, Mr Wojciechowski is a representative of the unpopular current Polish government. Ms Goulard has Mr Macron to cover her back.
On a positive note, Mr Wojciechowski seems to have support of the Polish EPP Members. The EPP is crucial to maintain his confirmation chances alive in the Parliament.
The second to last element in the process of establishing the new European leadership is about to take place. The show will begin as each of the individual Commissioners-nominees will face the European Parliament committee or committees. In the committees public hearings are scheduled.
Here is the itinerary of the upcoming shows:
30 September: Commissioners Sefcovic, Hogan and Gabriel as a starter. Do not expect any major fireworks, all Commissioners are returning to the College, so they should know what to expect and how to swim through the murky waters of EP hearings peacefully.
1 October: the day to watch. There are 6 scheduled hearings of first timers: Schmit, Urpilainen, Wojciechowski, Johansson, Trocsanyi and Kyriakides. These people are so new that the EU services are unsure if the Cypriot Commissioner-nominee is Ms Kyriakidou or Ms Kyriakides. Even her Wikipedia page is unsure. One of the first issues to be addressed.
The hearings to watch are that of Mr Wojciechowski (14:30, AGRI committee) and of Mr Trocsanyi (18:30, AFET committee). Both have a potential to be explosive, as both nominees come from countries against which the Article 7 procedure has been initiated. On top of that there is a pending OLAF case against Mr Wojciechowski and Mr Trocsanyi is a former Justice minister in the Orban government, making him directly linked with the Hungarian rule of law situation.
2 October: Another set of first timers, including Reynders, Plumb, Dalli, Goulard, Ferreira and Lenarcic. Of them the most controversial could be hearings of Ms Goulard due to her recent financial misbehaviour. Also Ms Plumb is a candidate for some serious grilling due to her past in Romania. Mr Reynders is under a police investigation, which is not a particularly happy start for someone who should be dealing with the rule of law. The leadership of S&D has already voiced their concerns on the matter.
3 October: a combination of a returning Commissioner (Hahn) and first timers: Gentiloni, Simson, Sinkevicius, Schinas and Suica. On this day expect fireworks during the Gentiloni hearing (an Italian responsible for Italian debt management… conflict of interest?), the Sinkevicius hearing might be entertaining, as Mr Sinkevicius is to be the first European Commissioner born in 1990s. A millennial in the College. Let’s see what it truly means.
A conflict is already playing out about the Schinas portfolio. Clearly it will culminate during the hearing. “The European Way of Life” and migration portfolio prove to be highly controversial for many in the European Parliament, especially the S&D. On the other hand EPP defends the structure of the portfolio as it is.
7 October: two hearings of two vice-presidents: Ms Jourova and Mr Borrell. All could go well, depending on how Ms Jourova answers the questions related to rule of law of the government which has nominated her in the first place (Czechia). Still, she is a returning and experienced Commissioner. As for Mr Borrell the only issue of concern is his age (72) and the job of the High Representative is a job of three people. Can he manage? The former EP President is also known for his undiplomatic language.
8 October: the heavy weights, or – executive vice-presidents: Mr Timmermans, Ms Vestager and Mr Dombrovskis. S&D has some issues with the “executive status” of Mr Dombrovskis. The ECR has issues with Mr Timmermans. The Parliament might be questioning Ms Vestager on the potential review of the competition policy.
And then we will know if Ms von der Layen needs to make some corrections in the College composition.
The last element is the final approval of the entire College. Then the political part is over and only ceremonial elements remain: to swear in the Commissioners and to formally take the positions on 1 November, or soon after.
There might be also a last minute injection of one more Commissioner: if Brexit is delayed again the UK government has a right to nominate a Commissioner (to be heard and given responsibilities by the President, accordingly).
Ursula von der Leyen is proud. Her College is gender almost-balanced. There are 27 members, 14 men and 13 women. There were never as many ladies in the European Commission college.
Yet, is this truly her College? Yes, she asked for female candidates. She also asked for two candidates to chose from. In the past presidents Barroso and Juncker were able to change individual candidates in order to increase “the female quota”. This time round there was no need to increase the number of ladies – hence this time round there was no questions about replacement.
But why there was no question “where is the second candidate” from Ms von der Leyen to the governments, including the one in Paris? Only Bucharest sent two candidates to chose from.
Instead there were some secret negotiations between Madame La Presidente with the national leaders about the portfolios and the names. At the end of the day we got this:
On the basis of this graph we can work out what Ms von der Leyen has been talking with the national leaders about: how to accommodate their desires.
This is the main problem of the incoming college: will it truly be interested in pursuing the European interest – otherwise known as “mission impossible”? Or will the job be to manage the desires of the member states?
In the graph there are 27 names. The President and three Executive Vice-Presidents look like a true political leadership between the new, yet a national heavyweight of von der Leyen, and politically experienced, competent and embattled Timmermans and Vestager. The fourth is a secret-weapon-come-handy: a former Latvian PM who proved to be an effective Commissioner. One lobbyist opinion of him I have heard this month: “He gets things done”.
Still, the liberal Vestager and the social-democrat Timmermans are said not to be in the seventh heaven as apparently there were expectations there would be three people in the leadership representing three main parties of this “ruling coalition” between the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe. Instead Mr Dombrovskis “represents” the EPP and the President is somehow above the party petty politics.
Mr Dombrovskis represents also the Central and Eastern Europeans. This is a regional perspective on the College, which nominally should not be. The treaties are silent about a geographical balance in the College as long as there are as many members of the College as there are member states.
This Council-like perspective (geographical, “Central and Eastern European”) is worrisome. The Commission should be, as the treaties say, “completely independent”, which means that “the members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution, body, office or entity”.
NO INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENT
Mr Dombrovskis, however, is not a problem. He is a proven solid Commissioner who is able to think independently and be effective. Much could be expected of him.
The real worry is elsewhere. Is this a Ursula von der Leyen Commission or a member states Commission? Is this a patchwork of national interests-Commission, a mini-European Council, or is there a chance to turn this group of accidental people into a collective, European team?
Jean-Claude Juncker talked his Commission was “political”, meaning his. The President is responsible for activities of all the Commissioners, for their views, for what they say and how they perform. This is why the President has the power to fire a Commissioner. Ursula von der Layen says hers is the “geopolitical Commission”. For now, the adjective needs filling in with a meaning.
At the same time I hear among the Commission services people that all is “in the mission letter”. Yes, there are the mission letters that the President has addressed to all the Commissioners.
Yet somehow many people do not rest assured. Hopefully “not yet”, but worrisomely it seems the next College might migrate away from the Union interest into some sort of a coalition of national interests. This would be very worrisome.
This is an accusation that Eurosceptics like the Polish government’s Law and Justice (PiS) politicians have had against the Commission for years: that it represents the interests of a few, largest and most relevant nations.
On the other hand, in the past the services people were also kept out of the loop at this time in the process. The process is political and the Commission needs to go through a delicate process of being chosen. Once the confirmation is there, life should be normal, again.
Below the Executives: the Others
Below the Executives there are the 23 “other Commissioners”. Some of them will be very relevant, among them Phil Hogan responsible for trade, Paolo Gentiloni responsible for economy, and Kadri Simson for energy. There is also the VP/High Representative Josep Borrell, as well as the Sylvie Goulard’s portfolio internal market and a few others.
Still, the distance between the Executives and the Others seems relevant for the years to come. By the same token, Señor Borrell aside, all other VPs are rather equivalent to a “minister without a dossier” status, as they shall not have Commission services directly under their command. Unless their theme becomes relevant and uncontested, they risk marginalisation. Take VP Jourova, whose task includes one of the hottest potatoes in town, the rule of law. Yet there is also the Commissioner-to-be Reynders (Justice) and the legacy of another College member, Frans Timmermans.
This makes a lot of people of the opposition and judges in Poland worried that the rule of law, instead of gaining momentum, risks actually to be relegated from the list of political priorities. I do not share the worries, instead I do expect new synergies. Those sceptical should remember that it was not Mr Timmermans who led a ride against the PiS government (this is how he is portrayed by the ruling party in Warsaw), but it was a Commission-led process in which Mr Timmermans found a political role. As long as the rule of law issues do not go away, they shall continue to be addressed. And should the Commission fail in the task, the Parliament is there to remind the College about its role.
The Parliament Hearings
The hearings will begin on 30 September. There are two issues at hand right now. First is the empty discussion about the title of a portfolio for Mr Schinas, “Protecting Our European Way of Life”. I view the discussion empty because however relevant it may sound for the left-wing politicians, shouldn’t more relevant be what the Commissioner-to-be plans are for how he wants to protect the European way of life? What his approach to migration will actually be?
And the job title should be a secondary, not a primary issue for the criticism.
The second is looking for a new “victim” the European Parliament can reject. In 2004, 2009 and 2014 there were victims of excessive self-belief and ignorance. This time there might be a political game involved, too. The strongest candidate to be a victim ahead of the hearings is Mr Trócsányi (to be heard on 1 October, 18:30), a Hungarian candidate for the portfolio of Neighbourhood and Enlargement. His main vulnerability on paper is that he was Mr Viktor Orban’s justice minister, overseeing all the judicial reforms undermining the rule of law in the country.
Left-leaning commentators and politicians already ask if Mr Trócsányi shares the EU values and how he envisages to promote the EU value of rule of law in EU neighbourhood and in Eastern Europe.
Hungary is in the procedure of Article 7 of the Union Treaties accused of violation of Union values.
Another potential “victim” of the hearings might be the Romanian candidate Rovana Plumb. There is a corruption scandal allegations against her going back to 2017.
Financial problems are also with the French and Belgian candidates. Yet, the podium of the “weakest links” belongs to the Polish candidate Janusz Wojciechowski.
Mr Wojciechowski’s weakest points are two: first, he is a PiS candidate. All PiS candidates seem to lose in a political vote this Parliament: Ms Szydło, former PM, failed twice to be elected chairwoman of the EMPL (employment) parliamentary committee, and Mr Krasnodębski, a former EP VP, lost his seat to an unattached countercandidate.
The other weakness of Mr Wojciechowski are his financial problems, which are examined by the anti-money-laundering agency OLAF. To have an OLAF case pending – and the news broke earlier this month – is rather disqualifying in its own right. For now the official Commission response? “Innocent before proven guilty”. PiS members applaud.
Still he has some chances. First of all, Mr Wojciechowski was not in the PiS government (like the Hungarian candidate). Instead he has hid himself in the Court of Auditors as a member of the Court. Even though he lost an opinion vote in the Parliament, the Council confirmed him to the position. In the Court he worked also on agricultural issues. And the portfolio is a perfect match for the Warsaw government: agriculture is relevant in Poland politically, and the issue no. 1 is to equalize the payments between Eastern and Western EU farmers. A Polish agricultural Commissioner could have an ambitious and realistic goal. A surprising, win-win in sight?
Another window for Mr Wojciechowski is the committee. AGRI is not as party political as some other committees and it is presided over by a German EPP politician. The EPP is known not to share the “cordon sanitaire” against the Law and Justice politicians.
We shall know more after his performance in the committee on 1 October 14:30.
But if the European Parliament truly wants to have something to say politically this season, there should be blood this October.
It is 14 September. In a month, on 13 October, Poles will go to the polls to chose their parliament. The Sejm has 460 members and there are 100 Senators. Who will rule Poland for the next four years? What are different political actors fighting for in this elections?
The stakes could not be higher. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) fights to continue to rule alone. The party received 37.6% and a majority in the Sejm last time round. This was possible as the Left failed to meet the 8% threshold for coalitions. The last time turnout was only 51%.
Since Law and Justice took over the government the politics became highly controversial. The opposition accuses the ruling party and the President Andrzej Duda of breaking the Constitution, compromising the independence of judiciary, partisan take over of the public administration and turning the public TV into a propaganda machine propagating hate speech and smear campaigns. At the same time the quality of public education and public healthcare decreases under the PiS rule.
With the use of public money and private money of state-controlled companies the Law and Justice rules with a tactics of carrots and sticks. It introduces massive social policies like the 500 zł payment per child per month. It’s latest reform included payments for all the children, including the first ones. PiS increased the minimal wage from 1750 zł (in 2015) to 2250 zł (in 2019), which is an increase of 29%. In the same period the inflation was minimal. The minimal pension increased by 25% and in 2019 the pensioners received a 13th pension just before the EU vote.
PiS does not rule with a Marianne Williamson’s love message. Au contraire, the politicians of Law and Justice engage in smear campaigns against their opponents, be it political or societal. It is a distant memory today that the 2015 PiS scare tactics against the imaginary migrants coming to Poland was an important element of the victorious campaign. Over the years there were smear campaigns and vilifying against feminists and what PiS calls “gender ideology”, against the judges (with the latest instalment of the Piebiak affair), the handicapped persons, the teachers, the paramedics, the entire opposition, green activists, bikers, vegans and the LGBT community.
Law and Justice does not reach out to the other side. It does not have to. It has a propaganda machine (TV station), where a few days ago in one of the regional studios the PiS rule was debated. Invited guests: PiS politicians only.
PiS has its allies, most notably the Catholic bishops, some of whom have been exposed earlier this year as covering up the paedophilia cases. “The Church is under attack” and PiS is its prime defender.
Among the clergy is Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs his small media empire based on Radio Maryja and receives major subsidies from the state.
Another ally is the legendary Solidarność trade union, which won PiS for their motion to close down shops on Sundays. Ever since this motion was adopted, Solidarność in PiS’ debt. The move, however, remains highly controversial with the general public.
PiS runs to win. It wants to maintain its 230+ seats in the Sejm. It wants to control the Senate. It dreams to reach the 2/3 majority to change the constitution, yet it’s 2015/16 taking over the Constitutional Tribunal has effectively subjected the Tribunal to the political will of the ruling party. As the constitutional majority might be desired, it is not necessary to control the “eradication of post-Communism”, to use the PiS leader’s words.
The Opposition fight for the Senate
In the process PiS win is largely expected (the party is polling 40-45%). The opposition is divided. There are three groups running parallel campaigns: the centrist Citizen Coalition (KO) is the biggest of them, the Left is on the one side of the KO, while on the other is the conservative Polish Coalition (KP) composed of mainly the farmers party PSL, as well as the remnants of anti-system Kukiz’15 and a few liberals of the ALDE member Democratic Party.
The three coalitions agreed to support a team of 99 candidates for the Senate. In the European elections earlier this year they realised that going together they were an easy target for PiS, who was able to play out the internal divisions of the opposition. Then, they hoped to run on a pro-European platform against a Euro-sceptic Law and Justice. PiS adjusted its message, put EU flags everywhere during the campaign, moved the debate to other issues divisive for the opposition and, won.
This time round KO, the Left and KP run separately. Their messages and stakes vary individually. The KO fights PiS and hopes for a majority in the new Sejm of KO-Left-KP. In this process the leader of the KO changed, surprisingly. Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the Civic Platform the party and the entire Coalition announced that the KO candidate for the prime ministership is not him, but Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska. The move was a surprise for PiS. The public took the decision with a relief, energising the KO campaign. Ms Kidawa-Błońska is a politician who has not been as vilified by PiS as often as others. Her message is to take a step back from hostilities in the public discourse. KO polls at 22-27%.
The Left coalition is a group of three leaders: Robert Biedroń, MEP and leader of the new party Spring, Włodzimierz Czarzasty of the traditional left-winger SLD and Adrian Zandberg of the Varoufakis-leaning party Razem (Together). Unlike 2015 this time the threshold the Left is facing is 5%. The Left’s fight is to return to the Sejm, from which they have been absent for four years. The Left polls at 11-14%.
Incidentally the next Sejm can see also first Green MPs as the Green politicians are running from the KO list.
The Polish Coalition’s stakes is survival. If PSL fails to enter the Sejm this will be the next step in PiS successful campaign to replace PSL in the Polish countryside. Kukiz’15 failed to win a seat in regional elections in 2018 and in the European elections 2019. Hence Paweł Kukiz decision to enter this coalition. The KP polls at 5-6%.
Collectively the united Opposition knows that it will be difficult to stop PiS from winning the Sejm. They know, however, that the fight for the Senate is open. As there are 100 electoral districts for the Senate and “the winner takes it all” it helps that in 99 of them there is one candidate supported by all three opposition forces. They hope for well over 50 mandates.
In some districts there are independent candidates, too, so the vote is not PiS-Opposition always.
The other opposition
The Confederacy of ex-MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke is also in the mix. Their message is anti-system and openly adversary towards minorities and foreigners. This far-right group polls at up to 6%.
PiS Electoral Offer: minimal wage at 900 Euro
Knowing that PiS carrots and sticks approach works, in this campaign the ruling party politicians demonise LGBT people, portray themselves as defenders of a traditional family, and have a new social offer.
Jarosław Kaczyński says that PiS will raise the minimal wage from the current 2250 zł to 4000 zł (equivalent of 900 Euro in today’s money) by the end of next parliamentary term. The country debates now how realistic his plans are for the state budget and for the economy, over all. Will this move force the companies to modernise? Will it mean that Poles move to the grey economy? What about inflation? Etc. The Polish average salary in 2019 is about 1,150 Euro, yet the median salary is at 980 Euro, and the dominant salary at 580 Euro (current minimal wage, 2250 zł is about 520 Euro).
The political wars are best for politicians and political commentators. The society is interested in something else.
As divided the Poles might seem between the Law and Justice and the opposition, there is a general agreement on what the Polish society next goal is. This goal is taking the society out of a transition fatigue, many argue the society was caught up with in the first half of the current decade (Tusk II government and its famous inertia). PiS divisive rule has mobilised a society on both sides of the public discourse to realise who they are and what they want.
In the process PiS kills the political inertia. Poles broke the national records in regional elections last year as well as this year’s European vote. The October 2019 turnout should be significantly higher that 51% four years ago.
So, what do Poles want?
The Poles want their welfare state. PiS is the first party to realise this dream and tries to make it happen. The PiS rule thus far was concentrated on assisting the groups underprivileged in transformation since 1989: undereducated, less mobile, workers in smaller towns, unemployed, technologically and territorially marginalised, and the farmers.
PiS might be blind, or slow to realise that the underprivileged are also the women on the labour market, the handicapped and their families, and other groups who have taken to the streets in recent years. Yet for time being the focus is on forging this new welfare state. Not for everybody, but definitely for “the Polish family”. And it works, at least at the level of public support.
This is why PiS is popular. PiS aspires to the inner dreams of Poles and tells them “it can happen”. PiS also says: “the alien, the different, the migrant, the non-believer is a threat to you, to the Church, to Poland. You are a Polish family and you are who and what we worship”.
A populist is a politician who does not recognise the power of nuance. Who says “good” and “bad” without seeing the details. As much as this can be understood in a campaign mode, it is unacceptable in governance. PiS is a populist party.
But the populist party argues the same way as the European Commission: for the ex-post legitimacy. What does it mean? “We deliver”, says PiS.
Will they deliver the 900 Euro minimal wage, 13th and 14th pension, as scheduled?
Or, will they fail to see the detail? Economy might be growing, but the inflation of daily products is noticeable in recent weeks. Education is a key for economic growth, too. Instead of improving the quality of schooling, schools are now politically indoctrinated and mid-schools operate in logistical chaos. Healthcare waits to be financed. And there is all this rule of law debacle, the issue which is minor for the elections, but a major issue to rule the country effectively in the future.
It is evening, 19 August 2019. Another sunny, hot day. The climate change shows its positive side for holiday-makers, as there are thousands of people on the sunny sandy beaches over the southern Baltic coast and thousands more hike the hills and mountains of south Poland. 30 degrees in the shade, and the political campaign ahead of the 13 October elections is only about to begin.
With high temperatures storms are expected. The big storm will hit the popular Giewont mountain in the High Tatras in a few days. 4 people will die and 150 further will suffer. This will be the largest tragedy in the Tatras in the recorded history. Here’s a recorded lightening of 22 August.
The lazy summer day ends at 6 PM on 19 August. Onet.pl, the largest online news portal in Poland, publishes an investigation story that will be read over 40 million times in the next seven days.
It is a story that makes people drop their jaws. Remember Cambridge Analytica? Go and see the Great Hack on Netflix. The Onet.pl story is the Polish equivalent.
Poland is a country where the political discourse has been poisoned with hatred for awhile now. The deep divisions have led both sides of the political argument to far-reaching accusations of lies and misinformation. There were victims, like the late mayor of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz, brutally murdered in January.
Onet.pl reveals that the deputy minister of justice, a judge Łukasz Piebiak, is running a coordinated hate speech group that chooses as its targets judges opposed to the judicial reforms introduced by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Once again: a deputy justice minister was involved in preparing smear campaigns against people who were in disagreement with them. Onet.pl talks to a woman, Little Emi, who shares stories how things were done. She shares WhatsApp conversations with the journalists, where the minister is seen as giving instructions, rewards, sharing burden with Emi, who is the executioner of the hate campaign.
Among the victims are some 20 judges, including judge Krystian Markiewicz, who leads the work of an independent association of lawyers “Iustitia”, and Małgorzata Gersdorf, head of the Supreme Court.
Over the next days it becomes public that there was a WhatApp group where coordinating action took place. The group’s name: “Kasta”, or “The Cast”.
The Gang Talk
Emi: Good morning Minister. Is the information useful? What should we do with it?
Piebiak: I have received the material some time ago, but I had no idea how to use it, so I didn’t use it. If you have ideas, that’s splendid!
Emilia: I have the following idea. Send it anonymously to all the branches of Iustitia. And to the addressee. The newspapers are off as we have no proof. I have a phone number to the husband of the mistress. We could use one of the Internet gates or a sim card, but I do not have one and I do not have anyone to register it with. I can talk to R. [a tv journalist of a pro-government TVP]. Maybe he can go through it but there is no source and proof. It doesn’t look good. What do you think? And more generally, will it help us?
Piebiak: I think it will help us. It is important to drive over Iustitia, we have to deal with them. People will talk, and Markiewicz will go down a little bit knowing what we have on him. Maybe Kuba [another Ministry of Justice employee] has ideas how to disseminate it without any traces?
Piebiak: The journalist and the material would be great, but I am not sure if there is such a courageous person.
Emilia: I think Kuba is a little afraid. Those are his ex-pals, you know. Ok. I will do what I can.
Piebiak: Thank you.
Emilia: I’ll talk to the journalists and will send the papers around. Anonymously, by email. And by post. The one problem is I do not have the addresses and the emails. I will do everything as I can, as always. I cannot guarantee the final outcome, but I will try. I hope I will not go to jail for this.
Piebiak: We do not put people in jail for doing good.
Minister Piebiak resigns. Other justices involved resign or are fired from the Ministry of Justice. The ruling party says that all that scandal is a proof that the judicial system in Poland is degenerate and that Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of the PiS judicial reforms, did not know a thing about the hate group.
The judges come to the streets to demand Mr Ziobro’s resignation. Either he did know and is complicit. Or he did not know and is an ignorant. In either way, there is a political responsibility for the ministry one runs.
Over the summer a suicide of Dawid Kostecki, a criminal who was once a boxing champion, draws more questions than answers. Mr Kostecki’s suicide is questioned, and his testimony was instrumental in another of Law and Justice scandals. Mr Ziobro oversees the entire justice system and safety of prisoners is his political responsibility, too.
Will the people care? The elections are in little over a month and a half. The first opinion poll suggests that PiS enjoys its dominant position, regardless of the scandals. Majority of the public would like to see Mr Ziobro go, but they will not punish the entire party for one person’s mistakes, clearly.
The nightmares of many became a reality. Hate speech is procured in Poland, not only in the churches by priests talking about the LGBT community. Hate speech is crafted and targeted against individuals who are on the opposing side. It is not only a group. It is an individual. Be warned, for you can be next. Is this an EU member state or Russia? Clearly there is no one who can prosecute this situation properly, because the Ministry of Hate is the Ministry of Justice and the Public Prosecutor is the Justice Minister and all the prosecutors below Mr Ziobro fear him for he has a history of rewarding the loyal and punish the insubordinate.
In a country without an effective independent prosecution, in a country with a paralysed justice system, the public loves the government of Mr Morawiecki because of the economy and social give aways.
PiS may well win the elections in October as all the scandals make the party even more scandal-proof. But the question is not on who wins. The question is about the low standards of public life. Can we go lower? Yes we can. Expect the worst, work for the better, dream for the best.