Cannes, October 28, 2021 (updated 02/11/21)
by Mark Porter
The ongoing chess match between Brussels and Warsaw has Western analysts chewing their nails. Poland’s right-wing government has worked out a nationalistic gambit for damaging the EU while insisting it doesn’t wish to leave nor deprive itself of EU largesse. And the highest-ranking grandmaster of such realpolitik, Russian President Putin, is no doubt encouraging Poland’s mischief.
Undisputed world champion of nuisance: Vladimir Putin
The latest and most serious round in the ongoing five-year battle started on October 7 when a constitutional tribunal in Warsaw ruled that elements of EU law were incompatible with Poland’s constitution. And that the country’s courts should trump the European Court of Justice.
Surely small beer to anyone living outside Poland? Not at all. The ramifications are profound throughout Europe. It will enable the anti-EU Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to adhere to laws as drafted and approved by the government’s placemen in the courts, rather than EU law. It is an attack on the very foundations of the Union altogether, as former Belgian prime minister, now MP, Verhofstadt made clear in the European Parliament.
PM Mateusz Morawiecki – Rebel without a Clue?
And it’s all dressed up to look like a plucky little nation is taking on an overbearing supranational institution riding roughshod over it by intervening in what is essentially a domestic matter. “It is usurpation and blackmail,” claimed Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s deputy justice minister on Twitter. Morawiecki, when interviewed in the Financial Times last week, said any moves to reduce EU funds would “start World War Three.”
Ignoring completely the Prime Minister’s hyperbole, the European Court of Justice responded on Wednesday by fining Poland €1 million a day for refusing to suspend judicial reform. Any resulting stalemate is likely to deny Warsaw fresh EU funding and will certainly mean a lengthy delay in handing out the €36 billion European recovery fund, plus tens of billions of other funding pencil marked for Poland between now and 2027.
This is potentially much more damaging to Brussels than Brexit ever was because, under Brexit, at least the UK left the EU. Poland, meanwhile, plans to stay in the union, undermining from within. Brussels fears that other countries – initially Hungary – will follow suit, effectively throwing gravel into the fine workings of the European body politic.
Ursula von de Leyen, Commission President
EU President Ursula von der Leyen was not overstating the case when she told MEPs in a heated debate alongside Morawiecki: “I am deeply concerned. This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union. It is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order,” adding that unless he stopped she would be forced to act to prevent Poland undermining the very core of the EU.
At the same time as politicizing the judiciary the soi-disant Polish Law and Justice party (PiS) has turned state broadcasting into an instrument of propaganda, sacking independent journalists and skewing the news schedule to praise the governing party and attack the opposition. And also to keep the people, 90% of whom support European unity, from understanding the true nature of the pending confrontation being fought in their name.
“Within days of taking power, they stormed in and took over as much of the media as they could. A new CEO of Polish television and radio was put in place and over 200 journalists were fired from public TV and radio, transforming those institutions with reputation and credibility into pure propaganda broadcasters, feeding into Russia and other satellite states. It is horrible what they do,” said Bartosz Wieliński, deputy editor of the leading Warsaw daily, Gazeta Wyborcza.
Bartosz Wieliński, deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza
“It is utterly toxic and bad for mental health, constantly hearing that the country’s opposition is evil, as is the EU and all it stands for. The government is really following in the footsteps of Viktor Orban in Hungary, who of course takes his lead from Vladimir Putin.”
Gazeta, like all voices the government disapproves of, is being sued left, right, and centre. It currently has 80 libel actions pending, part of the 187 actions initiated since the PiS came to power in 2015.
The Society of Journalists is monitoring and analysing vexatious litigation against journalists by politicians, the secret service, state-owned companies, and state institutions. Such actions are intended to encourage self-censorship and to dissuade journalists from pursuing difficult but important topics as part of their investigative reporting.
“Sued journalists are forced to present impossibly lengthy explanations as well as appear for questioning in prosecutors’ offices or courts. They are often required to waive journalistic confidentiality and one story can attract as many as four libel actions, depending on where it has appeared,” says Wieliński.
In the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for 2021, Poland has dropped from 18th place in 2015 to 64th place, out of 180 countries. Every year the country falls further.
“There’s a joke doing the rounds that the Russian president is so pleased with his Polish acolyte that he has – for the sake of his liver – given up toasting Morawiecki every time he and his party get one over on Brussels,” said Wieliński. “It is worse than living in Soviet times. These evil liars launched a campaign in 2018 against the Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, fearing he would win an election. They stirred up so much hatred against him that he was stabbed to death like those two British MPs.”
If PiS can smother opposition until the next election, in 2023, it stands a good chance of staying in power. Meanwhile, as many now see it – with the damage still oozing from Brexit – Brussels should call Poland’s bluff and kick it out rather than patch over differences and allow Warsaw to foment dissent from within the Union.
Meanwhle, Poland faces 146 active infringement procedures against it and is being fined €500,000 a day (plus interest) to be deducted from EU largesse it was expecting. This is for refusing to stop brown coal mining on the Czech border. It’s all a far cry from the days when Poland was the good boy of the East under Donald Tusk.
Donald Tusk – Prime Minister for seven years before losing to PiS
The match is far from over, but Poland’s bold sacrificial gambit looks a chess move too far. What’s more, it appears not to have any face-saving Plan B, except hoping the EU will, as in the past, throw fairy dust in the air and muddle through. Maybe not, this time round.
♦ Otmar Lahodynsky on Polish defiance about paying “a single zloty” of the 1m € a day fine handed down by European Court of Justice
♦ DW (English) on Polish impasse- Europe’s next domino? + rows over Polish treatment refugees forced out of Belarus
♦ DW (English) The rise of autocrats everywhere
♦ Will Hutton of the London Guardian – why this really is serious + destructiveness of UK govt