March 13, 2017
Poland and the future of the EU
The Polish government’s defeat over the re-election of Donald Tusk falls in the category of diplomatic own-goals. Yet when Beata Szydlo got home back from the summit, she was greeted by her party boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski with flowers, and praise for having stood against the rich and the mighty. The echo in the state-controlled Polish news media was similar. This was a historic victory.
We might smile at this posturing, but the bigger question is where will this lead? Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, told a Polish newspaper over the weekend that Poland will now start to block EU initiatives for which unanimity is required. They will, however, stop short of boycotting the European Council. The following is not a sentence you often hear from a top European diplomat.
“You have to show teeth, and demonstrate an ability to act negatively.”
He also questioned the legitimacy of the vote. The Maltese presidency asked whether anybody opposed Tusk. Only Szydlo raised her hands, and that was it. There was no debate. Not even a proper vote, he said. They didn’t even bother to cast a formal vote between Tusk and Poland’s counter-candidate. And he accused both Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel of lying. Both had apparently signalled that they were open to new candidates, but both turned against the Polish government in the last minute he said. This is, of course, not true. Merkel always supported Tusk.
Konrad Schuller recalls an episode from 2007 when Kaczynski, then prime minister himself, wanted to increase Poland’s influence through an EU-level voting system based not on the size of the population, but on the square root of the size. "Square root or death" was Kaczynski’s slogan at the time. Schuller’s FAZ article suggests that we are once again in an "or death"-type episode.
Schuller makes a comparison between the increasingly anti-German discourse in Poland and Racep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent Nazi outbursts. He quotes a religious MP, member of Kakzynski’s PiS, as saying that Tusk no longer had the right to associate himself with the red-white colors of the Polish flag. All he now has is the "brown tradition" - a reference to the Nazi color.
FAZ had three articles about Poland on its first two pages, a reflection of the concern in Germany about its neighbour. Another one, by Reinhard Veser, notes that Poland’s ability to forge any decision has been dramatically reduced since the weekend. Whatever you may think about Tusk, it is shocking to see how the government of a large member state can misjudge the power relations if it takes pride in its ability to forego any political alliances.
The question we are asking is whether this will bring a negative sentiment shift towards the EU within Poland. Support for EU membership is about 80% - so there is no groundswell of support for an exit - but the conspiracy theories of the Polnish government, if believed, could shift political sentiment.
Wolfgang Münchau writes in his column that the combination of Brexit, Poland’s antics, and extraordinary political and economic challenges, will ultimately leave the EU no choice but to pursue a strategy of variable geometry. This can take two forms - integration on the basis of existing treaty law, through the used of enhanced co-operation - or a separate legal framework. Münchau says that the enhanced co-operation route has not worked very well, and has been used only in a small number of areas. But a treaty revision is out of the question because it is likely to be voted down in at least one member state. This means that there is no alternative to muddling through under the current legal framework. Change would thus require a process of disintegration, followed by reintegration under a different legal basis - one that would foresee a closer political union among a core group of countries, and various concentric circles around it.