Poland in the EU: challenging times for a dream come true


Warsaw (AFP)

Poland's entry into the European Union in 2004 was a dream come true just 15 years after it shed communism, but today its rightwing government is posing an unprecedented challenge to the authority of Brussels in enforcing democratic standards, including the rule of law.

Poles are overwhelmingly EU-enthusiastic, with nearly 90 percent backing membership of the bloc that has given the country billions of euros in subsidies, turbo-charging its economic development.

But tensions came to a head this week as the EU launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings over Warsaw's judicial reforms, which Brussels insists threaten democracy by putting the courts under government control.

Warsaw insists the reforms are necessary to root out the last vestiges of communism from the justice system.

But Brussels contends that 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years have created a situation where the government "can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning" of judicial authorities.

The EU's censure could ultimately lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the bloc.

Poland dismissed the EU's decision as being "political" while its president, Andrzej Duda, defiantly signed into law two hotly contested judicial reforms just hours after the censure process was launched.

He also accused Brussels of lies and hypocrisy for pushing ahead with the disciplinary action.

- Clashing ideologies -

While agreeing to dialogue with the European Commission, Warsaw has also made it clear that it has no intention of budging on its reforms.

Its boldness is likely rooted in the backing it enjoys from fellow EU rebel Hungary.

Budapest has promised to torpedo any possible sanctions against Poland, which require the unanimous agreement of all other EU members.

Warsaw-based political scientist Kazimierz Kik believes the current conflict is rooted in ideological differences between Poland's rightwing populist and nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party government and the liberal elites that dominate the EU.

Poland "is not in conflict with the European Union, but with its neo-liberal elites, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, who comprise the majority in the European Parliament and the Commission," Kik, who identifies himself as a leftist PiS supporter, told AFP.

For him, Poland's clash with Brussels also reflects the tensions between the PiS administration and its political arch-rival the liberal Civic Platform opposition, whose former leader Donald Tusk became EU president in 2014 after serving eight years as the Polish prime minister.

- Social gaps -

By developing Poland's social welfare system -- including a new child allowance and introducing a lower retirement age -- the PiS has cast itself as the party working in the interest of poorer Poles, Kik told AFP.

PiS voters feel they did not benefit enough from the transition to democracy and the market economy or EU entry.

The popular discontent in Poland is part of a larger European and global trend says Kik, pointing to similar socio-economic factors that led to last year's pro-Brexit vote in Britain and the presidential victory of Donald Trump in the United States.

The conservative and nationalist views of the PiS government and its supporters on issues ranging from refugees to abortion, are diametrically opposed to those held by liberal elites in western parts of the EU.

According to left-leaning Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski, powerful PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski "is not hostile towards the EU, but he feels it is getting in the way of the political vision he wants to implement in Poland."

Sierakowski also believes the conflict between Warsaw and Brussels is rooted in the conservative mentality of Catholic Poles and the lack of democratic traditions in Poland.

Its turbulent history of foreign domination and war "wasn't an ideal context for the birth of a liberal democracy," Sierakowski told AFP.

Poles are also very attached to the idea of national sovereignty and reject the notion of "Brussels replacing Moscow" in calling the shots for Warsaw, he adds.

- 'European puzzle' -

According to Igor Janke, head of the Warsaw-based Freedom Institute conservative think-tank, the timing of President Duda's signing of the two PiS judicial reforms into law straight after the EU launched its disciplinary action was intended to "demonstrate that there is no turning back".

But Janke says PiS leaders do hope to restore normal ties with the European Commission.

He quotes a recent policy speech by new PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, a capable ex-banker seen as someone who can mend ties with Brussels.

"Dear Europe, the Polish piece fits perfectly in the European puzzle but it should not be placed the wrong way or shoved in by force," Morawiecki told parliament ahead of a confidence vote that he won last week.

"That would destroy both the whole picture and our piece too."