Poland – what direction for Europe’s enfant terrible?

flagsA conservative government is enjoying for the first time in Polish modern democracy an unequivocal mandate to govern alone, supported by a loyal president. But the first 150 days have prompted a wave of concern about developments in Warsaw.

The ruling Law and Justice party is complex: socially conservative but left-leaning on economics. It all sounded quite promising, with the government promising lower corporate tax, an increased minimum wage, reformed national employment plans for youngsters, free medication for elderly people, raising the income tax threshold and  introducing pro-family monthly payments to improve Poland’s demographic situation.

Although one could debate the economic costs and impact of those reforms, these are not the main cause for concern among Poland’s neighbours and partners. It is more the government’s intervention in media independence and the freedom of the judiciary that have attracted attention.

Poland’s actions prompted the European Parliament to debate application of the rule of law in an EU Member State for the first time ever. The Commission also weighed in, with Frans Timmermans emphasising respect for Poland’s constitutional court and its rulings. As if this were not enough, the Venice Commission – an advisory body to the Council of Europe – said that some of the changes to Poland’s constitutional court and media laws are a threat not just to the rule of law, but to democracy and human rights.

But for the moment the Polish authorities seem oblivious to such international pressure and protestations.

Brussels is meant to defend democratic principles, but Poland may be able to push the boundaries of Brussels’ patience given its healthy economic performance in a sluggish EU economy.  GDP is expected to grow by a robust annual 3.5% in 2016 and 2017, well above the European average, and unemployment is at its lowest level since 2008.

Poland approach will cause headaches in Brussels and other European capitals at a time of increased instability, growing euroscepticism and escalation of geopolitical risks. Opposition to accepting refugees, calls for an extensive debate on EU reforms, and a strong resistance towards EU’s ambitious climate approach is just a taster of what we may expect over the next three-and-a-half years.

But the government may have to capitulate to some of the external pressure. From an economic perspective, it can be argued that Poland needs the EU more than the EU needs Poland. The government and population is also acutely aware of the perceived threat of the great bear to the east and rely on European and Atlanticist cooperation for their security and protection. Cooperation with Europe, NATO and the US is essential to avoid international isolation and stigmatisation.

With the upcoming NATO summit and Catholic Church’s World Youth Days to be held in Poland, the government will clearly use these as photo opportunities to demonstrate how it’s defending the country’s security and traditional values. This will align well with its populist messages. But will this be enough to paper over the cracks of attacks on press independence, weakening of the rule of law and the separation of powers in the country? Just how tolerant will Poles be of the undermining of their democracy from within?

Mateusz Stankiewicz-Szynka is Senior Consultant and editor George Candon is Senior Director at FTI Consulting in Brussels.

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