The European Commission has Missed a Good Opportunity to Keep Silent

What has not happened in Poland

Vít Dostál
2 February 2016

From the outset, I must make myself clear! I am not a fan of Mr. Kaczyński! Nevertheless, I believe that the European Commission is, in fact, hampering the democratic process by launching a monitoring procedure seeking to ascertain whether or not the Law and Justice government has breached the rule of law. The Commission in this instance has bitten off more than it can chew. Instead of bashing Poland, which in the end encourages the radicals in Warsaw, Brussels should have kept faith that the spirit of democracy remains strong in the heads and hearts of ordinary Poles.

It seems that Poland has suddenly re-emerged on the European political map as a trouble spot. This is the case because the current course of reforms are being carefully detailed and elaborated on, and yet there is very little awareness or appreciation of what preceded all of this. With this in mind, two historical points need to be considered for a better understanding of the current Polish puzzle.

Firstly, the Law and Justice Party won the elections in Poland because it was promising something very contrary to what it is doing right now. In fact, it emphasised economic development and building up the welfare state, as opposed to its present policy of laying siege to public institutions. Of course, we have to ask ourselves why PiS won once again. Apart from a smart campaign, its victory was also secured by the failures and weaknesses of the former governing party, which had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens.

Moreover, it is important to underline what has not happened in Poland. Polish society has not become more conservative or Eurosceptic. As the latest Eurobarometer survey has confirmed, Poles are still among the most ardent supporters of the EU. The Union conjures up positive imagery for a larger share of the population (55%) than the EU average (37%) and compared to Western European states such as Germany (34%), The Netherlands (34%) or Luxembourg (45%).

My second historical reminder concerns the November 2007 general elections. Polish voters not only ousted PiS from office after only two years, but they also kicked the xenophobes of the League of Polish Families party and the populist Self-Defence party out of parliament. The whole of Europe was then unanimous in its praise for Poland and its pro-European stance.

So we need to calm down a little. There has been no coup d’état in Warsaw and democracy there is faring pretty well.

Attempts to bring public institutions under government control are nothing new to Poland, to the region or to Europe as a whole. Even so, doing this usually takes months; it is hindered by the number of hidden deals and secret coalition agreements required, and the rulers are seldom 100% victorious. PiS has secured a majority and has its own president, so they think they can do this bluntly and openly. Unfortunately for them, the voters were bound to react against these measures. Elections as an instrument have not been and will not be dismantled.

Actually, the Poles have already responded. Opinion polls show that support for PiS has plummeted as the government faces the civic disgust manifested at the many public rallies taking place in Poland’s major cities.

Bad conscience about Hungary

In the middle of all this, the Commission has started a monitoring procedure and the European Parliament is debating the Polish case. It seems that many in Brussels or Berlin (or Prague, as I’m told almost daily) are of the opinion that Polish democracy is at stake. They still remember their hesitation over Hungary and they have convinced themselves that this must not be allowed to happen again. However, we should not seek to take out our frustration over Hungary on Poland, as the two are rather different cases.

Firstly, Fidesz in Hungary obtained a constitutional majority, which PiS lacks. Moreover, Hungarian society was exhausted by years of poor economic management before their society opted for Orbán. He was able to find a way to get the middle classes on his side and thus was given the ability to cement his power. Poland is different. The Poles have never liked the politicians within the Civic Platform, but they came to the conclusion that their personal situations were better during the time they were in power. Orbán cannily chose not to rush through his changes – as opposed to Kaczyński. As a result, his measures – which go far beyond what PiS has achieved – did not draw as much attention as the steps taken by the new government in Warsaw.

The Commission’s failure

In this light, the Commission’s step is, in my view, irresponsible. The Commission will now probe what has happened in Poland. They will tell the authorities in Warsaw that the review is just a routine bureaucratic procedure. Nevertheless, a political decision has had to be taken to set these wheels in motion. Therefore the process cannot be glossed in terms of red-tape and routine. They may end up concluding that everything is fine, or they may bring the case before the European Council.

If it’s the latter, then Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries will veto any decision, with damaging consequences for Poland. The main result of the Commission’s reaction would be the deepening of the East-West divide that has already arisen in the EU in the wake of the refugee crisis.

If the story ends in a typical Luxembourgish style compromise, and the Commission declares that nothing too untoward has taken place, this could be used by the government as a shield from further criticism. It would also antagonise those who are now demonstrating in Poznań or Gdańsk and may undermine the pro-European Polish mentality. Is this what the Commission really wants?

As was the case in 2007, Poles are capable of dealing with their affairs by themselves. In my view, the problem is that Western Europe persists with a pre-enlargement paternalistic attitude, and thus cannot bring itself to accept that central Europeans can win such battles on their own. As a consequence, some EU politicians and institutions have overestimated their legitimacy, power and their ability to deliver any tangible results.

As Michal Kořan put it in his article ‘Central Europe in the European Union: A story of hypocrisy’, which appeared in the previous edition of Visegrad Insight: “A critical review of Central Europe must take on a different form that of an emotional bashing from the West.”

If there is the need for any international reaction to the events in Warsaw, it has to be smarter than this. An emotional outcry combined with a politicised decision will only provoke a fiercer backlash. Both sides will become more deeply entrenched. The will to follow the West just because it is the West is not as powerful as it once was.

We do not live in the 1990s anymore.

Vít Dostál, Research Director at the Association for International Affairs (AMO)

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