Poland loses interest in EU

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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).

Et alors?

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.

This blog post is a translation and adaptation of the Gazeta Wyborcza article of 28-29 December 2019 as well as the a chapter of the book “Priorities of the New European Commission and the Polish Interests” published last month (Warsaw 2019).

Political Europe & Me

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Dear Reader,

In a form of a letter, let me try to cover the ongoing political issues related to the European Union. You are free to ask and to comment. You are free to disagree.

Today is the last day of the old world. Today is the first day of the new world. Obviously. So, what’s new?

I am reading that Croatia is reading itself to join the Schengen. How wonderful to enlarge the passport-free to the Croat paradise and integrate the 28th EU country one step more. Did you know, Croatia is the next most likely – if anybody – to join also the Eurozone within the next 4 years? Truly, this is the wunderkid in the EU corridors of power.

I still cannot get over the Macron veto over the EU enlargement to North Macedonia and Albania. The French President is so wonderfully pro-European. Defending the European interest is his objective. Why is he risking the delicate peace in the Balkans over some French stubbornness like this? Sometimes you have to prove you are European, not only talk about it. Fingers crossed for Slovenians not to derail the Croat hopes.

Brexit is eyebrow rising. Prime minister Johnson is Mr Jackal and Dr House at the same time. Clock is ticking, British media are ecstatic, the British Parliament is more fun to watch than the Late Show with Colbert. Most likely Brexit will be delayed again, 5 minutes before midnight. Next?

The US President who truly does not like Europe. Exhibit one: the Kurds and the broken alliance over… what exactly? Is Turkey still in NATO? What is NATO? Some strategists in Moscow and Beijing must be laughing at how fast the American leadership in the world is shrinking.

Exhibit two: US just introduced sanctions against the EU. Allies?

The world is not getting safer when the Germans are planning their security with Russians and the Turks, is it? Well, Mr Trump, counting your days in office for America’s and Europe’s sake. Meanwhile good news come from Canada where Mr Trudeau survived the vote and will continue his government. And from Israel where the populist Netanyahu gave up on forming government.

I do not care if the government is liberal, green, social-democratic or conservative. I care if it is democratic. I am allergic to populism.

In Spain riots. Or, in Catalonia riots. These days even how you write is political. And this issue is for the locals to work out. An interesting thing I have heard the other day and could not verify: that about 7% of Spain is already a desert and the desertification continues and that the Catalan independence move is effectively linked to the distribution of water on the Iberian peninsula. Interesting theory. Greta?

Funny how the liberal media fast forget about difficult places hoping they will self-regulate. Well, they don’t and they come back to you twice worse. Exhibit one: Italy. Ever since Mr Salvini is out of government we hear less of Italy. Peace.

Exhibit two: Poland. Before the elections there was some buzz. There were articles about the country. There was interest. Now it is somehow limited. And imagine this: since yesterday night there is the battle over the Senate. You may remember that last week Law and Justice won the Sejm, but the opposition won the Senate. Well, yesterday the ruling party decided to appeal to the court over a recount in 6 districts where the opposition candidates won. In a normal situation you’d think “recount”, what’s wrong with that? Yes, that is the democratic impulse. But it turns out the recount is going to be managed without a public scrutiny by a chamber of the Supreme Court that was created anew by PiS. There are serious doubts over its independence or the validity of the appointment. One of the ECJ cases against Poland on the rule of law situation is about the National Council of the Judiciary (politically appointed, hence judicial independence compromised?). It was the new NCJ which chose the Supreme Court’s new chamber composition. The chamber’s name is Chamber of Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs… we’ll see about the judges true independence. Still, no scrutiny?

Mr Schetyna, the leader of the opposition says he wants an international supervision over the recount.

Democracy is a funny system, where some decisions hung on a undemocratically elected official decision. Thinking Poland? Think Florida 2000. Think Boris Johnson. Not voted by the British Parliament. Appointed.

More Polish news: remember the K Towers? The “independent” prosecution just decided there is no case. PiS promised transparency of spouses tax returns before the elections last week. Yesterday the country’s president Andrzej Duda just took the issue for a legal check by the Constitutional Tribunal. When the obvious problems with the law were pointed out by the opposition MPs during the adoption of the act, the ruling politicians rejected every argument. Now they are proven right. But we are a week after elections. Nobody will remember little lies, right?

There is an Austrian angle to the K Towers affair. I guess we will see how that goes in due time.

It seems the influence inside the Law and Justice is changing post-elections. Jarosław Gowin and Zbigniew Ziobro are up (each gentleman has 18 MPs within the ruling majority) and Tadeusz Rydzyk is down. Mr Rydzyk runs his right-wing Catholic media empire based around the Radio Maryja. Listenership of the radio is record-low and now Mr Rydzyk lost two of his prominent MPs, who failed to be re-elected from the PiS lists.

In Switzerland the Greens are making headlines after a major increase of public support. Do you know that 3 Greens made it to the Sejm last Sunday? This is truly good news. With the return of the Left into the Sejm the number of MPs who are responding to the urgency of climate crisis is on a massive increase in Poland. Since this is a long-haul fight, we are in it to win it, right? As Greta says, however, this is also a race against time.

We are absurdly beautiful and warm October in Warsaw. It is 22 October and it is 22 degrees outside. Enjoy the climate change!

The dream for today: a moratorium in Poland for new coal-based power plants. Please someone take this issue to advocate in the discourse! The next battle on the issue is the new power plant in Ostrołęka, north of Warsaw. It is being built, to be based on coal. There are problems with financing of the power plant. Hopefully the power plant is there but not using coal as its resource material.

What is amazing is how this country changes bottom up, not top down. The turnout last week was 61%, the highest in 30 years! In Warsaw the turnout was 77% The highest in the country. Over 1 million people voted in the city. First time ever, too.

The bottom-up civil society organised a protest in my home district yesterday: because of a car crash in which one person died. Clearly changes are necessary in the way roads are build and drivers drive. Now people protest demanding it.

Bottom-up energy: in the first 9 months of 2019 the amount of micro-installed solar panels in Poland increased by 96%! Their power making capacity increased by 100%. Good news. There is also something new on my street, for the electronic waste.

This blog is called “Political Europe” for it shall focus on the new upcoming Commission’s theme, being “geopolitical”. The Commission is late on arrival as 1 November as its commencement date has been thrown by the window by the assertive and somehow unpredictable new European Parliament.

Yes, it was Juncker’s theme, political Commission. As opposed to the administrative one before, I guess. Why? Because of the political mandate the Commission receives from the general public. The general public of some 512 million Europeans chose the European Parliament and the Parliament will chose our Commission.

“Our Commission”, so someone should scrutinize it, right? Here I am and here’s the blog. About the political developments in Europe where I am. Where am I? Who am I? Those who read this blog since the beginning of 2019 may know, it was focused on the European elections. The elections are gone. Next elections will take place in 2024. It seems far away. It is not. I shall do what I can to share information from my Europe and see how the Commission, if the Commission responds.

This blog is written without any financial support. As a true independent I occasionally train people on the EU decision-making process. I do it within the EU institutions assisting the personnel of the Parliament and the Commission. Sometimes. Occasionally I also train businesses. I do it in English and Polish. If you’d like to get access to the internal proceedings of the EU institutions, let me know.

I am also an affiliate of Team Europe, a group of experts of the European Commission based in Warsaw. I am not paid by the Commission, I am not a Commission employee or representative. Team Europe-Warsaw takes me places like corridors of power in Brussels, but also schools and universities all around Europe. I have been privileged to talk with all kind of groups of Europeans in all corners of our Europe, also when I worked with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw and the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. That’s the past, as I worked there over 7 years ago.

Today I travel to villages and towns and cities on invitation, mostly. This year alone (thus far) I am grateful for the opportunities to talk with the citizens of Douchy-les-Mines (France), Bruxelles, Tallinn, Belgrade, and in Poland: Wejherowo, Słupsk, Kołobrzeg, Ciechocinek, Kwidzyn, Dzierzgoń, Morąg and Biesal, Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Załuski and Bończa, Katowice, Tomaszowice, Wrocław and Warsaw. Wherever I go I learn from the people I meet as much as I hope they find interesting what I have to say.

Until the end of the year I know I am speaking in Brussels a few times, as well as in Biecz and Nieporęt in Poland.

Thanks to all those who keep on inviting me.

If you’d like to hear me speak, contact me. I receive some spectacular feedback knowing that those who did not enjoy me speak won’t say it out loud. But it is nice when a group of 60 teenagers (16-17 year olds) listens to you and no mobile phone is in use for good 40 minutes. Another testimonial: “this was the most insightful presentation we have had in 7 years. Thanks” from people dealing with EU affairs.

I love those feedbacks for they show me that there is something I know others don’t and they prove people want to listen.

I also write and talk on the media, sometimes. This year alone Onet.pl and Euractiv.com published a number of my opinion articles. I invite you to read my opinion piece about the Polish elections of 13 October published with the Balkan Insight and on Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel published by Euractiv.com.

Larger reports were published in Madrid by Real Instituto Elcano and in Prague by Europeum.

More from me to come. Please contact me if you’d like to cooperate, either by contributing to the blog “Political Europe“, co-creating it, or in any other matter.

Cordially yours,

Piotr Maciej