Poland Takes Hard Line With European Union in Democracy Row: Q&A

  • Constitutional court, Venice Commission to rule this week
  • Decisions may influence EU probe, its relations with Poland

Poland’s new rulers are showing no sign of compromise in a row with the European Union over democratic standards. It’s escalating the country’s biggest political standoff with its Western partners since 1989, raising risks for its economy and security.

The Council of Europe is set to join the country’s Constitutional Tribunal this week in delivering critical assessments on the ruling party’s legal changes. Ruling Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski rallied against what he called “foreign institutions” seeking to undermine the “dignity” of his countrymen. “Nobody should count on us backing down,” he said on Monday. “We will change Poland.”

What’s happening this week?

Poland’s highest court ruled Wednesday that an overhaul of its operations breached the constitution, including decisions to increase the number of judges needed to pass rulings and the majority required for verdicts. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said the government won’t acknowledge the ruling because the tribunal didn’t adhere to the new rules.

The ruling party last year stacked the court with justices it appointed, while allied President Andrzej Duda is ignoring another ruling by the top court ordering him to swear in judges picked by the previous cabinet.

Separately, the Council of Europe’s advisory body, the Venice Commission, will publish an assessment of the tribunal row by Saturday. A preliminary report was leaked in the media, saying that “not only is the rule of law in danger, but so is democracy and human rights,” the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported. Kaczynski said the government had erred in inviting the Venice Commission to Poland. Opposition rallies are planned this weekend.

How could this impact relations with the EU?

The EU executive started the probe into Law & Justice’s democratic track record in January. The potential penalty for infringing rule of law, which is denying Warsaw the right to take part in EU decisions, may be hard to impose because it would require consent from the EU’s other 27 members.

Warsaw’s refusal to take in more immigrants has also irked EU partners, including power broker Germany. At the same time, Poland, the biggest beneficiary of the EU budget, would benefit from warmer ties with the bloc, including on fiscal policy, support for its unprofitable coal industry and energy security in the face of the conflict in neighboring Ukraine.

“If the government decides to play hard ball, over the long run it will be damaging to Poland itself,” said Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe in Berlin.

Are EU funds at risk?

The short answer is not yet. Poland has based almost half of its 1 trillion-zloty ($254 billion) investment program on EU transfers that the country is set to receive through 2020. The money will flow as long as the budget deficit stays below 3 percent of economic output or the government sticks to a credible program of meeting that target.

Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has been adamant that the government will keep the budget in check, even as the European Commission forecasts the shortfall breaking the cap next year as Law & Justice ramps up social-welfare programs. 

What about energy security?

Brussels’ consent is also crucial for Law & Justice’s energy policy. Home to the EU’s largest coal producer and dirtiest electricity, the government is seeking special status for mining, which it sees as its primary energy supplier for the foreseeable future. To boost coal demand, the party plans to make it harder for wind farms to sell electricity to the grid, a task that contrasts with the EU’s goal to reduce carbon emissions. In December, the EU referred Poland to the European Court of Justice over air pollution. Brussels’ position is also crucial to Poland’s desire to stop Russian plans to expand the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany, which circumvents Poland and other east European states.

How will the court row impact relations with NATO?

Poland is banking on the U.S.-led military alliance’s summit in Warsaw in July to station more Western soldiers to eastern Europe and deter Russia from the sort of aggression that has rocked Ukraine.

But it has irked the U.S., with diplomats visiting Poland telling officials they expected the government to implement the Venice Commission’s recommendations. Three U.S. senators, including Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain, sent a letter to the government in Warsaw saying the constitutional court changes “undermine Poland’s role as a democratic model for other countries.” The government rejected the correspondence as external meddling.

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