Fear of backsliding.

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Poland's Right May Rue Defying the EU

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The relationship between Poland and the European Union is at its worst in years, as the two sides engage in a nasty war of words. That is a dangerous game for Poland's right-wing government. Although the EU generally is seen as a pretty benign institution, it has shown it can be tough on delinquent members, and in Poland's case, it has a strong hand to play.

The government led by the Law and Justice Party, known as PiS, began to assail the EU soon after taking office last month. Officials called for European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, to be put on trial for failing to conduct a proper investigation of the 2010 plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, the brother of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. And this week, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo demanded an apology from European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who had said her party's actions had "the characteristics of a coup d'etat."

Schulz isn't alone in criticizing the Polish government: Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, who is serving as head of the EU Ministerial Council, recently expressed concern that "basic rights and the constitution" were being trampled in Poland.

Mainstream European politicians, such as Schulz and Asselborn, are clearly irritated with the right-wingers' success and with what they view as Poland's obstructionist policy. The government is attempting to mobilize east European nations to fight against a system of refugee quotas and a single European border agency, two measures many of the nations that form Europe's core consider essential to the resolution of the refugee crisis.  

What happened in Poland doesn't amount to a coup, and basic rights are not really being trampled. Schulz's comments concerned PiS's move to replace five constitutional tribunal members selected by the previous parliament soon after it was clear that PiS was about to win the national election. The initial appointment of two of the tribunal members had been illegal, and so was the PiS's vote to replace the other three. The maneuvering revealed bitter domestic political divisions, but the differences are still resolved democratically, in fair elections.

PiS are Catholic traditionalists who call for breaking the liberal monopoly on media and culture, which has led to accusations of censorship. Culture Minister Piotr Glinski moved to ban the production of a play by a Nobel laureate because it featured nudity and openly sexual scenes. His argument was that his ministry provided half the funding for the theater that staged it. The scandal resonated across Europe, though, strictly speaking, the Polish government doesn't have to fund art that goes against its principles.

What's going on in Poland isn't particularly "dramatic," to use Schulz's description. Nor is the country on a path toward "civil war," as former President Lech Walesa recently said as he called for a referendum to cut short the current parliament's term. Nonetheless, the victory of the right-wing and PiS's defiant behavior are viewed as dangerous to EU cohesion, much in the same way as the victory of Alexis Tsipras' extreme leftists in Greece in January.

Then, the EU came together to squash Tsipras's illusion that he could pursue radical policies and still enjoy all the benefits of EU membership. In other cases, too, EU institutions have been tough on national governments in defense of common policies. Last year, interference from Brussels effectively topped a Bulgarian government that had defended a Russian gas pipeline project that EU officials saw as contrary to the bloc's energy policy.

The EU has plenty of leverage against PiS, too.

Poland is often portrayed as eastern Europe's success story: It's the only country in the EU where the economy didn't decline during the European financial crisis, and its output increased 3.5 percent last year. Yet that growth would have been impossible without generous European assistance. Poland is the largest recipient of such aid: For 2014-2020, it stands to receive almost 86 billion euros in structural and technical assistance, more than a quarter of the total allocated for the purpose. That doesn't include allocations under the Common Agricultural Policy -- another 28.5 billion euros. Altogether, these payments mount to about 3 percent of Poland's gross domestic product.

The rancor between Poland and the EU is natural: PiS is a nationalist, Eurosceptic party. Such political forces mostly have failed to win power in Europe; Marine Le Pen's National Front was routed in regional elections in France on Sunday. Anti-immigrant parties in Scandinavia win seats in parliament, but never enough to form governments. The one exception was Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party in Hungary, which had to lean even further to the right to outflank an extreme nationalist rival, Jobbik. 

Hungary is the biggest recipient of EU structural funds relative to GDP. In its case, too, Europe could easily demonstrate that right-wing populism isn't compatible with the union's values.

Orban and PiS should remember that their countries post-Communist prosperity wouldn't have been possible without the support of the "rotten liberals" who run Europe. With the help, however, came a sense of entitlement. Poland, for example, won't hear of curbs on the free movement of labor or the U.K.'s favorite idea, a crackdown on "benefit tourism" -- and the right-wing government won't fall into line on immigration and the joint protection of external borders.

East European populists don't seem to fear being cut off because that would undermine the European project. But, just as the Polish government doesn't have to pay for plays with nudity in them, Europe doesn't have to fund that government. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net