Polish Nationalism Gets a European Makeover

The new prime minister offers illiberalism with a worldly touch. It just might work.

Same illiberal policies, friendlier package.

Photographer: Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), is playing a sly game with the European Union, the party faithful and his political opponents. The idea is to keep consolidating control over the country while reducing tensions with Brussels and the major powers in Western Europe.

The latest attempt at this high-wire act began on Thursday night, when Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her deputy Mateusz Morawiecki switched jobs. On Friday, the Polish parliament passed legislation that effectively puts the Supreme Court under political control.

If the government reshuffle was an attempt to distract attention from the contentious court bill, as some commentators suspected, it didn't really work. The web page of Poland's top daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, focused on criticism of the court overhaul, mostly ignoring the cabinet moves. But Kaczynski is a strategist, not a primitive tactician. In terms of his long term goal of bringing illiberal policies into the European mainstream, this was a fruitful few days.

In September, the Polish opposition raised hell about the previous attempt to kick out most of the Supreme Court judges and install a legal mechanism handing control over new court appointments to the parliamentary majority. PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda vetoed the offending legislation and promised to submit a new version. This was interpreted as a split between the president and the ruling party leader, who played up this interpretation by complaining Duda was hard to work with. But the conflict soon turned out to be a bait-and switch operation: Duda's "compromise" version of the legislation -- approved by the parliament on Friday -- still established effective government control over the top court. It forces 40 percent of today's judges to resign and establishes a procedure whereby the parliament will appoint replacements. A second bill takes away control of a body that appoints lower court judges from the judicial community and hands it over to parliament.

The EU has been paying close attention to the Polish judicial reform. European Council President Donald Tusk, Poland's former prime minister and a Kaczynski foe, has channeled the Polish opposition's outrage to colleagues in the Brussels hierarchy. The European Commission, backed in this by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has issued multiple warnings to the Polish government to stop undermining the rule of law. Given Poland's other fights with the EU -- on issues as varied as Muslim refugees and illegal logging -- the adoption of the court bills is likely to entail an angry reaction. Consequences could include the loss of agricultural subsidies, of which Poland is a major recipient, and even the suspension of the country's EU vote.

That's not what Kaczynski wants, hence Morawiecki's ascension.

Szydlo, beloved of PiS activists, was the surly face of Polish nationalism. In Europe, the perpetually frowning prime minister was best known for her angry diatribes (in Polish) in response to Brussels' "interference." Morawiecki, by contrast, is a fluent English and German speaker who studied in Germany and the U.S., interned at the Bundesbank, and built a successful career as a banker. He's the worldly, refined son of a prominent anti-Communist activist, even serving as an economic adviser to Tusk when the latter was prime minister. The PiS rank and file mistrust him for that, and yet Morawiecki arguably did more than anyone else to make the PiS administration a relative success. 

As finance and economy minister, he has been responsible for implementing the party's social spending initiatives and boosting government investment -- and he's also boosted tax collection to ensure Poland had the funds to keep populist promises without major economic damage. The balancing act has worked nicely so far: Economic growth has accelerated, the budget deficit has shrunk. Prominent government opponents say it cannot last, but the jury is still out on that. 

Morawiecki is a PiS star -- and when he explains the party's policies to Western audiences, he gets respectful nods, even when he says Kaczynski's court reforms are necessary to weed out old Communists from the court system, not to hand the ruling party control over the judiciary. He's one of the very few members of the PiS who can actually talk to Tusk, and through him to the EU elite.

Polish media have reported that Kaczynski considered taking over the prime minister's post himself. Instead, he chose Morawiecki as someone better able to promote the normalization of the PiS government. 

Though European outrage about the court reform is inevitable, presentability and good negotiating skills go a long way in Western European capitals. Morawiecki's appointment is not exactly a sign that Kaczynski is willing to compromise on domestic policy; rather, he's willing to have a reasonable conversation about it and see where it leads. It might just work as Europe inevitably tries to come to terms with illiberal parties in government in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

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

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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