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EU rule-of-law clash helps Poland’s government

William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague.

It was never going to last. 

Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought about a brief détente in Poland’s rule-of-law dispute with the European Commission, relations are now, unsurprisingly, hitting a new low.  

Fury is building in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party at the European Union’s unbending stance on the withheld pandemic relief funds, and party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has unleashed a bitter broadside against Brussels, saying “we have shown maximum goodwill, but concessions have yielded nothing.” 

But with the argument more fraught than ever, Brussels’ refusal to compromise now risks shattering public faith in the bloc — all with the country’s general elections looming over next year. 

The European Commission and Poland had previously agreed on a series of milestones for the release of the country’s recovery funds, and the Polish government insists it has upheld its side of the bargain. The Commission begs to differ, however, arguing that the changes made so far still don’t sufficiently protect judicial independence. 

Now, Poland’s patience has come to an end. 

“It’s time to learn lessons,” Kaczyński said, warning that “since the European Commission is not fulfilling its obligations to Poland in this area, we have no reason to fulfill our obligations to the EU.” 

PiS’s general secretary has even delivered war-like rhetoric, saying that “if the European Commission tries to push us up against the wall, we will have no choice but to pull out all the cannons in our arsenal, and open fire,” with some suggesting this could lead to the destruction of the existing EU order — including an attempt to remove Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president.  

The rhetoric is, indeed, extreme, but the message is clear: Poland has shown its willingness to compromise and now expects similar flexibility from Brussels in return. Unless EU concessions are forthcoming, Warsaw will learn to live without the pandemic recovery funds, and shift to an openly hostile, “eye for an eye” strategy.   

Some rule-of-law advocates may celebrate this new impasse. Indeed, their fervor for change in Poland and Hungary often bleeds over into curious rage whenever agreements appear to be within reach.   

But those who care about the public perception of the EU in Poland should be worried. After a brief period of unity between Warsaw and Brussels on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Polish government is redeploying its portrayals of the EU as a quasi-imperialist force. And Kaczyński taking the rule-of-law dispute to a new level lays out the terrain for next year’s election battle. 

This is, of course, a tried-and-tested strategy, but two new factors in Poland’s domestic political environment will give it added potency, making the Commission’s position a potential boon to PiS.   

First, the war in Ukraine has permanently reframed the moral narrative of Polish-EU relations. Many Poles have been deeply unimpressed by the EU’s response to the war, and they see the hurdle to further significant punitive measures against Moscow —the bloc’s horrendous bind over Russian gas — as a travesty. In particular, many consider Germany’s previously insatiable appetite for Putin’s gas to be an international scandal of a magnitude bordering on criminality.   

As Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has argued, “Europe today is in the situation it finds itself in, not because it was insufficiently integrated, but because it refused to listen to the voice of truth. That voice has been coming from Poland for many years.” 

The other factor, however, is Donald Tusk’s return as the leader of the Polish opposition. Those who believe that the EU’s rule-of-law crusade stems from a desire to influence domestic politics would find it hard to imagine a more representative scenario: Funds are being withheld from Poland just as a former European Council president gears up to try and dethrone the country’s incumbent euroskeptic regime.  

Tusk plays up his belligerently pro-EU persona often. He’s responded to PiS’s new threats by warning that “Kaczyński really is taking us out of the EU. Consistently, and with the stubbornness of a maniac.”   

But his unashamedly Europhile stance also leaves him open to attack. Kaczyński has started portraying Tusk as a fifth columnist, claiming he’s “working on foreign orders” to “enslave Poland.” He argues that Brussels — directed, behind the scenes, by Germany and represented by Tusk — wants “a weak Poland, submissive to neighboring powers.”  

Such claims may be hyperbolic. But even so, if the Commission doesn’t soften its stance on funding, it will look disturbingly like the bloc is trying to help get its man into power in Warsaw. 

Brussels was well aware of the potential political pitfalls of its funding dispute with Hungary during that country’s general election in April, refraining from triggering its new rule-of-law mechanism until after the vote was over. Similarly, allowing the festering sore of Poland’s recovery fund to hang over the country’s upcoming elections like a black cloud would leave the Commission open to accusations of seeking to influence the outcome.   

A Europe-wide economic crisis is likely to form the backdrop for Poland’s elections, making questions of funding even more sensitive. But with its current stance, the Commission risks something far worse than becoming the scapegoat for hard times: Being seen as unfairly penalizing the Polish government, just as Tusk prepares to battle PiS for power, could permanently damage public faith in the bloc’s political neutrality, and cause lasting damage to the very institutions of democracy the EU is so determined to protect.

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