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Eastern Europe: the week the biters got bit

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High Noon on EU’s Eastern Front?

Cannes/ Vienna, October 16, 2021

by Mark Porter and Edward Steen

The past week has at last brought hope for those worried about the future of European democracy in the darkling wake of rampant populism. 

Krakow – fed-up with nationalist nonsense

Most striking was the huge crowd thronging Warsaw – 100,000 pro-EU protesters marching to the cry of ZOSTAJEMY (“we are staying”) – as well as protests in other major cities. The mass reaction reflects widespread anger at the idea of a potential “Polexit” after a Polish court ruled that parts of EU law were incompatible with the constitution, a ruling which is a direct attack on the EU’s legal order and ultimately on the cement which holds the EU together. It is all the more puzzling given that over 80% of the population are pro-EU.

Remember the European Donald? 

Opposition leader Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, told the crowd in front of Warsaw’s Royal Palace that Poland’s nationalist government wanted to leave the bloc – and had engineered the current crisis in order to do so.

He warned that a “pseudo-court … by order of the party’s leader, in violation of the constitution, decided to take Poland out of the EU. We know very well why they want to leave the European Union, in fact in order to violate citizens’ rights with impunity, to violate democratic principles and to steal without restraint,” Tusk said, summoning up shades of Russia.

Given away by indiscreet chats on mobile phones

Two further unexpected twists of good fortune for European democracy hit the headlines, after a decade which has seen some determined undermining of EU law, when two skilful manipulators of the system lost power on the same day.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s snake-hipped Knight of the (Centre) Right, was forced to resign as Chancellor for the second time in three years. At 35 the world’s youngest head of government, Kurz stands accused, after revelations from various “Team Kurz” mobile phones, of perjuring himself before a parliamentary inquiry and of abusing state funds to bribe the free tabloid Österreich for manipulated coverage and publication of dubious opinion polls. The paper’s owners, the Fellner brothers, both face trouble too.

Government capture of the media is an issue the AEJ will be investigating in the coming months – across Europe 

Kurz’s close ally Alexander Schallenberg, 52, a career diplomat who was until now foreign minister, received his surprise offer of a new job by SMS in the early hours of Sunday morning. The Greens had threatened to leave the coalition if Kurz stayed. Schallenberg is seen in Vienna as little more than a placeman. He committed what is seen in Vienna as a political neophyte’s mistake by insisting on Kurz’s innocence in his very first speech.

He has no political base in the “new” turquoise Austrian People’s party, which he only recently joined. 

Kurz remains very popular, and powerful. He has taken over the parliamentary leadership of the dominant and rebranded Österreichische Volksparte (ÖVP), as well as remaining its head. This will enable him, he hopes, to continue exerting power, as President Putin did when he “stood down” in 2008 to make way for his puppet, Dimitry Medvedev.

Kurz is the first sitting Austrian Chancellor to face criminal charges, but only the latest to fall foul of a web of interlocking scandals. “Ibizagate”, as it is known, brought down his far-right deputy, Heinz-Christian Strache, 52, and saw the Greens replacing the rightist Freedom party (FPÖ) in the governing alliance. He was secretly filmed meeting a Bosnian agriculture student (with dirty nails, he noticed, too late) posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. He sought to buy with her money the largest circulation Austrian daily Kronenzeitung, drunkenly listing the reporters and commentators he would sack immediately. 

Around the bloc

Babiš, billionaire ex-spook. Sebastian Kurz (right) ex-Wunderkind

In the Czech Republic the long tenure of its billionaire Prime Minister and  newspaper magnate  Andrej Babiš, 67, has come to an end. Three years ago the man who made his name as a campaigner against corruption faced 250,000 people on the streets protesting about his corruption. He narrowly lost the parliamentary election following evidence in the Pandora Papers of flagrant misuse of EU subsidies.

Miloš Zeman, the populist Czech president, remained in hospital as news of the shattering general election defeat just days after the release of the Pandora papers, sank in. A chain-smoker and, by his own admission,  a man who likes to drink a great deal, the political champion of the prime minister may be too unwell to save his protégé.

The Pandora papers which clinched things for Babiš, a former Communist spook, showed he had set up a network of offshore companies to buy a mansion and other properties in the south of France for around 15.5m € in 2009. A Czech Television poll suggested 8% of ANO (‘YES’) supporters dropped their support for him.

But the immediate, perhaps crucial, battlefront for Brussels is provided by Poland’s government, led by another populist, openly Eurosceptic party, Law and Justice (PiS). They have invested years trying to wrest political control of Polish courts from the EU. 

On October 7 its constitutional court declared that parts of the EU’s founding Treaty infringe the Polish constitution and that the final say in such conflicts belongs to Polish judges, not to the EU’s highest court.

According to The Economist, such a break with EU treaties could force the European Commission to deny Poland access to €36bn in Covid-recovery funds, amongst other measures. “That would be the biggest escalation yet in the EU’s internal feud over the minimum democratic standards that all its members should uphold,” comments the influential magazine. “If the Commission goes ahead, it would signal a strong resolve to bring wayward members into line – and thus mark a big escalation in the long conflict.” 

What will banishment to the EU “naughty step” mean?

The Commission has not yet decided how to implement tougher standards for distributing cohesion funds. The rules to be implemented could be decided before the end of the month, though any tough decisions could take months to implement.  

Jourova – head-on collision with EU’s class of 2004?

Věra Jourová, Commission Vice-President for EU values, said that the Commission was taking the new powers “very seriously”, adding: “We are working now internally to ensure how this will work in practice.” The EU charter codified basic rights for citizens and that national governments, which administer cohesion funds, “now have to explain upfront how they take the Charter into account”. This is a divisive challenge to Member States, none of whom are especially keen on backing the Commission when it comes to reducing their own authority.

But then there’s the money issue…

As things stand, Poland would benefit to the tune of just over €156 billion between 2021 and 2027 in EU funding for cohesion, regional development etc, plus Covid. Its national budget provides for just over €100 billion for the same things. In the case of Hungary, Europe provides a more modest, though hardly miserly €43 bn, compared with a national budget pledge of €65 bn.

It was only when the European Commission took legal action against Poland over its failure to comply with the EU judicial precedence that Warsaw turned against the EU late last year.

Polish challenge a first, and looks doomed

Poland is not the only country to question the supremacy of EU law. Germany’s own constitutional court last year ruled that the European Court of Justice had acted beyond its powers when it endorsed bond-buying by the European Central Bank. The German court, too, overstepped the mark.

But the German ruling was different, a proper legal case considered by an independent court. The Polish one was a politically-inspired intervention by Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish prime minister. The German court also has a long history of challenging ECJ judgments for not protecting fundamental rights enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law. In the Polish case, it is the government that is abusing the rights of Poles to fair judicial redress.

The German court in effect said the ECJ had not done its job properly; the Polish tribunal in effect rejects a key element in the Treaty of Rome. Poland may yet pull back by not officially publishing the ruling; otherwise, it will have to be superseded, set aside, or simply ignored, as some Polish judges have already vowed. As the song goes, there may be trouble ahead…

LINKS:

France 24 debate on Polexit (ENG)

Aljazeera on Polish debacle

Aljazeera on a possible exit for Hungary

DW Does the end of CDU alliance mean the end of Germany as the key pillar of the EU?

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