Poland faces pressure from the EU after ignoring warnings to back down on judiciary reforms, which are deemed undemocratic and a violation of the rule of law.
But EU efforts to defend democratic values and show resilience may have significant divisive repercussions for Poland.
The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland plans to emasculate its judiciary by giving ministers influence over hiring and firing judges and members of the supreme court.
This is currently the central battle, but Poland and the EU share a history of tension that ranges from disagreements over refugee intake to single market scepticism.
According to Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse, political scientist and professor at Warsaw University, what is thought to be internal reforms by the Polish government is classed as an “attack on the rule of law” by the EU.
“For Poland, national sovereignty is a fundamental issue,” says Professor Grosse.
“Interference by other member states in the internal reforms, or external support for the opposition against the legally elected government, is considered an infringement of this sovereignty,” he says.
The Polish government wishes to see a proper focus on subsidiarity and strengthening of national governments within the EU system, according to Grosse.
Due to receive €86 billion in the 2014-20 budgetary period, Poland has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU budget since its accession in 2004.
Its annual GDP grew by €195 billion between 2003 and 2013.
“European funding amounting to two to three per cent of the GDP per year has been a significant driver of Poland’s growth over the past 13 years,” says economist Anna Gromadi of the Polish think-tank, Kalecki Foundation.
Germany, a net contributor to the EU budget and therefore holding significant influence over its negotiations, has put forth proposals to freeze EU funding for states that do not align with rule of law standards.
Ms. Gromadi says that funding has been a “key driver” of support for the EU, which is currently at 88 per cent, but that sanctions could lead to further division within Poland.
“Possible sanctions are highly likely to be used as an ‘anti-EU’ political fuel by the ruling nationalists,” she says.
In August, Polish Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro told journalists that Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Vice President, needs to “stop speaking with such insolence and arrogance about Poland because we deserve respect.”
Although threats have been made by the EU to trigger Article 7, Jakub Janda of the Europské Hodnoty Think-Tank asserts that Poland is not leaving the EU, stating “that is out of the question.”
The implementation of Article 7 would result in Poland being suspended from voting in the European Commission.
As its triggering requires unanimous voting, its use as a subduing force may be considered empty, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán states he will veto any attempted sanctions on Poland.
But alternative pressures could still present considerable repercussions.
“If significant sanctions on reducing EU funds to Poland were applied, that would have a significant political effect, but it could open an endless spiral which might be unstoppable,” says Mr. Janda.
Repercussions of the current EU threats are instead likely to polarise Polish society, according to Ms. Gromadi.
“Fear is the fuel, it has greater mobilising power than hope or the protection of the status quo,” says Ms. Gromadi.
Picture: Euractiv, Kacper Pempel