The domestic political crisis in Poland has the potential to cause great destabilisation in the relations between Poland and the rest of the European Union and yet reporting in the British media has been scant.
Partly this is because of the obvious greater issues facing Britain as we go into 2016, but with the oncoming referendum and the delicate issue of Germany’s role in the union being seen by many on the continent as that of the bullying despot rather than the a natural leader through consensus. At a time when European unity is in short currency and Germany looks for more reliable partners than France, which is ravaged by massive social and economic problems, what happens in Warsaw will have consequences to be felt on these shores.
To sum the issue up briefly, in October the Polish election gave the traditionalist conservative and eurosceptic Prawo I Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) the first absolute majority in parliament since the liberation of Poland from Communist repression in 1989. The issue revolves around the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, who are appointed by parliamentary vote.
PiS attempted to appoint five new judges, three to replace judges who had reached the end of their terms, but two who were to be replaced had not yet reached the end of their terms. They also passed laws changing the way the court operated to give more power to the Prime Minister to dismiss them. More recently, the government has attempted to gain control over appointments to head the various state-owned media. This was seen by many as the beginning of a slippery slope towards the undermining of democracy in a country that, although with a proud democratic tradition, still has a young democratic system.
So why does all this matter? The answer is that it has opened up a whole can of worms – not only on relations between Berlin and Warsaw, which have become frosty since the new government in Poland took power. It has also raised questions of how far the European Commission should become involved in internal domestic affairs. On the 13th January, the European Commission announced a Rule of Law Inquiry into Poland, an unprecedented event which could see the workings of Polish democracy put under the microscope and scrutinised by the much-maligned Eurocrats. It is hard to come down with a hard and fast judgement on who is in the ‘right’ here and to what extent democracy in Poland is under threat, as it is the issues are relatively minor but fears of it going further cannot be completely unfounded.
However, the international response, particularly in Germany, has not been conducive to good relations between Berlin and Warsaw. In a country which has shed much blood and tears to preserve independence from its two larger and more powerful neighbours, Germany and Russia, it can be no surprise that any notion of Poland needing ‘supervision’ from the EU (strongly supported by Germany) has caused a strong backlash in Poland. Nazi Germany died 70 years ago and it is unfair to hold the Germans of 2016 to the actions of their grandfathers, but one cannot expect the tabloids and magazines of Poland to resist the sort of caricatures (such as Merkel and others in Nazi-esque uniforms) that have been printed when this issue of foreign interference is one that is uniquely emotive in Poland. Many individuals responses from government ministers and other politicians of the right-wing have alluded to fears of German takeover.
As much as Germany has moved on from darker times, to speak to a country that has suffered hugely historically at Germany’s hands in such a fashion and not expect a similar response is to try and whitewash the catastrophic effect of Nazism on Poland. This shows ignorance of Poland and it’s people, history and culture. Furthermore, any talk of supervision or special measures is counter-productive, causing backlash in Poland without any substance. Any such measures require unanimous approval, and the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, long a thorn in Brussels’ side, has stated he would refuse to support any measures against Poland. Partly this is because Orban faces the same accusations of being undemocratic from Brussels, he would be bitterly opposed on principle to any kind of supervision or special measures.
This is a relatively minor event in the grand scheme of the many issues the EU has to deal with. It fits into both the ongoing migrant crisis and Britain’s eternal quest for an acceptable deal within the EU. There is much agitation, especially from Germany and Sweden who instated open borders for migrants, for Poland and other Central European countries to ‘show solidarity’ in the migrant crisis. Much of this ire has been aimed at Hungary of late, with the Hungarian fence on their frontiers causing anger in many circles. The Poles, Hungarians and others don’t see it as their issue, the main magnet drawing migrants is the prospect of almost certainly being allowed to stay in wealthy Germany or Sweden with no limits or controls, but this is not an argument that washes with Germany or Sweden. Having gone to great lengths to have perhaps the most relaxed policy towards migrants in modern history anywhere, they do not want to be told that the problems caused are self-inflicted.
In conclusion, the problem is primarily that Germany would like to be able to act like there was no history of bad blood between Germany and Poland. There is still a cultural rift which is easily exposed by such ideas as Poland needing ‘supervision’. The new government in Poland may play more loosely with democracy than the EU would like, but this whole row has perhaps highlighted the importance of remembering history when it comes to international relations.