By Guy Verhofstadt
BRUSSELS – Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) party has launched a systemic assault on the country’s liberal-democratic institutions. The PiS government has undermined the Polish Constitutional Court and relentlessly attacked the independence of the judiciary, while taking steps to muzzle the press.
The European Union has launched a rule-of-law procedure against the Polish government, under a framework aimed at heading off the imposition of sanctions. So far, however, attempts to contain and reverse the PiS’s increasingly authoritarian polices have failed. With government officials in Warsaw evidently betting that the EU will lack the political will to follow through with credible sanctions, an uneasy stalemate has ensued.
Relations between the Polish government and the EU soured further at the European Council’s meeting in Brussels earlier this month. Against the backdrop of pivotal national elections in Europe this year, the United Kingdom’s impending withdrawal from the bloc, an uncertain relationship with US President Donald Trump’s new administration, and the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, summit delegates had planned to discuss the EU’s future.
But the talks were overshadowed by a last-minute Polish government request, issued at the behest of PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, that former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk be replaced as President of the European Council.
Most Polish citizens opposed the move, according to recent polling. But Kaczyński has long sought political revenge against Tusk, because he harbors a conspiracy theory that Tusk is somehow responsible for the death of his twin brother, former Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, Russia.
Fortunately, Kaczyński’s political coup failed. The Polish government left humiliated, and Tusk – with the support of 27 out of 28 EU governments – was reelected to serve another term.
Still, barring a decisive and united EU response, the current Polish government will likely continue on its illiberal trajectory. The PiS will surely push the country deeper into a constitutional crisis, and further weaken its democratic institutions, by cracking down on civil society and politicizing the justice system in its pursuit of Tusk.
The EU needs to stop hoping that the situation will resolve itself and start defending liberal democracy in Poland before it is too late. Toward that end, the EU should take a two-pronged approach.
First, EU policymakers should consider making all future structural-funds payments conditional on recipient countries’ adherence to the rule of law. According to official European Commission figures, Poland has been allocated €86 billion ($93 billion) in funds, through 24 different national and regional programs, for the 2014-2020 period. These funds – earmarked for infrastructure investments, environmental protection, and improvements to small- and medium-size enterprises’ competitiveness – amount to more than one-quarter of all EU resources allocated for such purposes. From now on, such finances should be withheld from members that do not uphold the rule of law.
Second, the European Commission and EU member states should take action to revoke the Polish government’s voting rights until it reverses its illiberal policies. More broadly, the EU must develop a more effective framework for protecting liberal democracy and promoting adherence to European values within the EU. As the EU’s inability to sanction Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his own violations of European values shows, the existing legal mechanisms for enforcing the rule of law within Europe lack sufficient teeth.
It is absurd that the EU now has instruments to enforce everything from competition policy to policing, but not to protect its core liberal-democratic tenets. The EU must take action now, not to punish the proud people of Poland, but to protect one of its founding principles. The rule of law is a product of each EU member states’ constitutional history. It should be afforded its proper place in the foundation of values upon which the EU itself is based.
European leaders must state loudly and clearly that the current Polish government’s brand of populism is incompatible with EU standards. Are the Polish people willing to stand by and watch as their country becomes poorer and more isolated, while Kaczyński pursues his own fantasies and disregards the liberal-democratic ideals enshrined in their country’s constitution?
Ultimately, only the Polish people can decide their country’s fate. For my part, I have faith that they will soon take to the streets to reject their government’s drift toward authoritarianism, and to ensure a brighter future for Poland in the heart of Europe. When they do, they should know that the EU stands firmly behind them.
Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.