Translated by Nariné Igityan, proofread by Natacha Perrin
On December 20, 2017, the European Commission launched Article 7 of the EU Treaty in respect of Poland, saying that certain government reforms included serious risks of breaches of the rule of law. The outbreak of this mechanism marked the height of the crisis between Poland and the European Union (EU).
This relationship had already characterized by intense tensions, such as statements by the Polish government towards the European Commissioner responsible for respecting the rule of law and fundamental rights, Frans Timmermans. Points of dissension also appeared with other heads of state, especially Emmanuel Macron, on the question of posted workers, or Poland’s energy policy. During his visits to various states of eastern Europe (Austria, Romania, Bulgaria), the French President decided to “boycott” Poland, while continuing to criticize his policy. The Juncker Commission (2014-2019) has gone through vile friction between the Union and Poland, and more particularly since the coming to power in 2015 of the Polish “Law and Justice” party. Since then, it has appeared as a gap between the Polish state and the EU.
However, the last European elections in May 2019 brought about a political reorganization in the European Parliament and the establishment of a new executive power with the Von Der Leyen Commission. At the time of the launch of this new European cycle, it is legitimate to wonder about the strategy that will be adopted by Brussels and Warsaw to be interested in the evolution of their relationships.
A stigmatizing media treatment
Since 2015, many Western media have presented a Europe divided into two very separate poles: a Western Europe and Eastern Europe. A vision which can sometimes compare a simplistic and caricatured description, presenting the countries of Eastern Europe as simple authoritarian states having a “purely functional relationship with the European Union, which they see as a simple purse powered by Berlin ”. Poland is no exception to these criticisms. In recent years, we have found various articles stigmatizing against Poland, contenting expressing a “French-French” point of view and sometimes not hesitating to explicitly link the Polish Government to Nazism or to qualify the Polish power as embodied by “foul-smelling nationalism“. The over-media coverage of the Warsaw demonstration, gathering far-right sympathizers from across Europe, and the lack of media coverage of anti-fascist protests elsewhere in the country also illustrates this situation.
Certain aspects of Polish politics seem to be of particular concern. Indeed, accusations of non-compliance with the rule of law are not unfounded. The first president of the Supreme Court of Poland, Małgorzata Gersdorf, said in particular on this subject that the reform of the Polish judicial system resulted in a “destruction of the independence of the Polish Constitutional Court, in which the formations had defined manually to dictate the expectations of the ruling party“. On Tuesday, January 14, 2020, the European Commission went up the tone on the matter by asking the EU Court of Justice to suspend the disciplinary chamber of the Polish Supreme Court.
The fact remains that the media treatment of the Polish government resembles that of far-right parties, using terms such as “ultra-nationalist”, “populist”, “fascist”, and presenting it as a brake on European construction. As a reminder, in the European Parliament, the deputies of the Polish “Law and Justice” party never considered for a single moment to sit in the same political group and to be related to parties like the National Rally.
A diverse Europe or two opposite “Europes”?
Magdalena Hadjiisky, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Strasbourg Institute for Political Studies, says: “It is “counterproductive to confront two Europes, and better to speak of the different faces of Europe.” A European diversity characterized by a different history, different conceptions, different interests, different standards of living and with national specificities which must have taken into account. If we are interested in the root of the problem, we understand that these differences imply divergences in the community space. According to Magdalena Hadjiisky: “the EU does not accept that its enlargement to the East implies taking into account these differences, a transformation of the Union”. But in this case, the EU cannot keep the same logic as in the time of the Europe of the Six, at the risk of showing a form of contempt for the new entrants.
According to Jay Rowel, director of research at the CNRS, for the case of Poland, “what is important to emphasize is the difference in the concept of sovereignty. There is the idea that Poland has recently regained sovereignty long lost. And this idea of a guardianship of Brussels, or of being under the dictatorship of Brussels comes up against certain Polish citizens, which makes it a politically mobilizable argument.” For many observers, it is this singular vision of sovereignty, the result of a particularly painful history for Poland, especially during the 2nd World War, which explains this difference in the conception of what the European Union is. Finding themselves in a situation where the EU must react to the emergence of new challenges, this is the time for debate. Indeed, in the face of migration crises, the climate emergency, the terrorist threat, Europe is aware that it must provide solutions. However, since these policies haven’t included in the treaties defining the prerogatives of the Union, the establishment of real European policies in this area would imply a transfer of national sovereignty to the EU. This is a question which creates strong disagreement between states. Cédric Pellen, an orator in political science at the University of Strasbourg and a specialist in matters relating to Poland, said that the imposition of refugee quotas echoes these different conceptions of sovereignty. It would be further proof or potential questioning of a country’s ability to decide on its migration policy. The Poles have been forceful enough to change, to join the EU and they do not specifically want to community this policy.
The different conceptions of the European Union
With this situation, we find a debate inherent in the European Union between two conceptions of Europe: a vision attributing more prerogatives to the Union and related to a more federalist conception of Europe, confronted with a vision more based on state sovereignty. Faced with states like France, which is more prone to transfer more of its sovereignty to the EU, Poland is rather opposed to it. According to Jérôme Heurtaux, an orator in Political Science and Director of CEFRES in Prague, “Poland has a reluctance to the idea of a specific European sovereignty which they cannot manage to conceive in a lasting and sufficient articulation with national sovereignty. They are more about a Gaullian conception of Europe, a Europe of Nation States. ” A Gaullian conception which recalls in particular the episode of the empty chair crisis between 1965 and 1966, when France decided to “boycott” the European institutions.
To present Poland as a Eurosceptic state which does not advocate any vision of Europe seems derisory and wrong. This is the vision expressed by Christophe Grudler, French Euro-deputy of the Renew Europe group, who sees in Poland a State which feels concerned by European projects: “The system of economic integration of Poland today takes part in major European projects, there is a wish to act for problems like that of coal. They are in the process of agreeing to leave as long as we can help them with that. ”
Besides, as Cédric Pellen explains: “This hope that some people may have had of a recent change of government in Poland, was dashed with the victory of PIS in the last legislative elections, and which will most certainly win the next presidential elections.”
In this context, we can see the beginning of a change in strategy on the part of the European Union, but also of Poland which wants to “renormalize within the EU with the loss of its British ally.” It is too early to declare an easing of tensions between the EU and Poland, because as explained by French MEP Arnaud Danjean, member of the EPP, ”the Commission Von Der Leyen has just been implementation and has not yet really positioned itself on the Polish case. ” He also believes that “the improvement of the link with Poland is not only the fact of the Commission.”
Still, there are some promising signs that the tensions will reduce. Indeed, PIS deputies approved the selection of Ursula Von Der Leyen as President of the Commission. The latter also went to Poland on her second trip while her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, had made no trips there during his tenure. Frans Timmermans, who was at the centre of tensions between the Juncker Commission and the Polish state, has also had his case of respect for the rule of law in Poland withdrawn. Finally, Poland was able to obtain a waiver on the adoption of the “European Green Pact” with a certain complacency on the part of the President of the European Commission and President Macron. The French President, however accustomed to using a virulent tone against Poland, considered “legitimate that Poland asks the EU to show solidarity with climate change, in the context where the country is still very dependent on coal and that it will be harder than others to align with the new targets“. This desire to find a real European debate on major subjects seems to be also shared by a part of the European Parliament. This has explained by MP Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, member of the Renew Europe group: “The motto of the Union is” United in diversity “. I think there has to be a big debate, especially around one question: EU should act on which policies? On what subjects? Where will the EU get its real added value? On defence issues? On the issues of global warming? ” However, as far as respect for the rule of law is concerned, the MEP remains adamant: “It is necessary to avoid breaking off the dialogue, but for all that, we must be firm on certain points. You have to be able to say that there, the position you take, it is not good, it is not possible. ”
However, this adjustment trend remains weak in the light of recent events, particularly concerning the initial desire of the Polish government to maintain its presidential elections in May, despite the risks linked to Covid-19. However, the launch of a new European cycle and the dominant role that the EU can play in managing this health crisis could still portend the appeasement of caricature political quarrels with Poland, and the start of a real democratic debate in the European Union. A debate that would take into account the EU in its entirety, with its differences and contradictions, and put an end, at the same time, to this imbalance between the founding states and the newcomers: an imbalance that can be experienced by the latter, as a form of subordination.