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The possibility of Polexit

Oct 19,2021 - Last updated at Oct 19,2021

WARSAW — After the Soviet Union collapsed, Poland’s greatest dream was to join the European Union and NATO. Scarred by Nazism and then communism, Poles longed for a fresh start, and membership in NATO and the EU became a goal that transcended politics.

EU membership was considered so important that Polish liberals pointedly refrained from taking up divisive issues concerning Polish history or the Catholic Church. Even Pope John Paul II (a Pole) got involved, pushing the slogan “from the Union of Lublin to the European Union”, in reference to the 1569 pact that finalised the unification of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (under which today’s Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine comprised a single, democratically governed state). In 2003, more than three-quarters of Poles voted in favour of EU membership.

Eighteen years later, Polish support for EU membership stands near 90 per cent. The EU thus enjoys a democratic mandate stronger than any achieved by a Polish government since 1989, owing primarily to two factors: national security and the economy. The EU is widely seen as the guarantor of Polish independence, which has for centuries been threatened by Russian imperialist ambitions. When Poles see Ukraine being tormented by Russia, they see their own fate were it not for the EU and NATO.

Similarly, Poles rely heavily on the EU for economic development. In 1989, Ukraine had a higher per capita GDP than Poland. Today, Ukraine’s per capita GDP (based on purchasing power parity) is $13,060, whereas Poland’s is $34,265. If Poland had followed the Ukrainian path, its economy would currently be performing at the same level as in 2001.

Mirosław Gronicki and Ludwik Kotecki of the European Financial Congress (and previously of Poland’s ministry of finance) calculate that from EU accession in May 2004 through July 2021, Poland received more than 206.8 billion euros ($240 billion) in cohesion funds. That is more than twice the country’s entire 2021 budget. And with the Law and Justice (PiS) government having negotiated 160 billion euros for Poland over the next seven years, the country will likely remain the largest beneficiary of EU funds within the bloc.

In typical fashion, the government has already plastered the country with billboards proclaiming the astronomical sum of zł770 billion in new funds, without mentioning that the money would be coming from the EU. Yet while the billboards have already been paid for, the EU funds have not been secured, because the European Commission has since suspended its approval of Poland’s National Reconstruction Plan.

EU Commissioner for the Economy Paolo Gentiloni has said that the European Commission is suspending the approval of the Polish National Reconstruction Plan, owing to the steady erosion of the rule of law in Poland. A recent decision by the Constitutional Tribunal, which denied the supremacy of EU law, the basis of EU membership itself, was the last straw. Having already agreed to support the debt mutualisation through which the National Reconstruction Plan will be financed, Poland now stands to bear the costs of the EU recovery fund without sharing in the benefits.

The EU has every reason to worry about the illiberal and anti-democratic reforms that Poland’s PiS government has implemented during the past six years. The government’s politicisation of Polish courts, for example, has implications extending far beyond Poland, because judgments in one EU member state are expected to be recognised and enforced in all others. Moreover, Poland has signaled that it does not want to implement EU court rulings intended to protect judicial independence.

By design, numerous PiS politicians sit on the Constitutional Tribunal, including the authors of the government’s judicial reforms, Stanisław Piotrowicz and Krystyna Pawłowicz, who once called the EU flag “a rag”. Leaked emails from the chief of the chancellery, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s right-hand man, provide strong evidence that PiS directly controls Julia Przyłebska, the head of the Tribunal. In the leaked messages, PiS politicians report on their meetings with Przyłebska, during which they discuss judicial appointments and other decisions. One therefore must assume that PiS leaders dictated the Tribunal’s decision rejecting the primacy of EU law.

The European Commission has made clear that Poland must back down in order to receive EU funds. But the PiS government has doubled down. According to Adam Glapinski, the president of the National Bank of Poland, “We will manage very well without EU funds.”

But why would the government gamble with its reconstruction plan? One factor is the recent decision by a group of MPs led by Jarosław Gowin toquit the ruling coalition. The government thus has become even more dependent on a group of MPs led by Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, who staunchly opposes any agreement with the EU in which funding would be made conditional on Poland’s compliance with the rule of law. Because Ziobro is competing against Morawiecki for the mantle of aging PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski, he stands to benefit politically from the failure of the current government’s signature economic initiative, the “Polish Deal”, which was to be financed by the National Reconstruction Plan.

On the other side is the opposition with its new leader, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council. Tusk’s strategy is to publicise the fact that PiS is steering the country toward a “Polexit”. His message appears to be sinking in. On October 10, immediately after the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, as many as 100,000 protesters turned out in Warsaw, and similar demonstrations were held in 120 other cities.

It is hard to say what the government will do now. It has painted itself into a corner with the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, depriving itself of the money it needs to shore up its chances in the 2023 elections. It is becoming increasingly possible that PiS is willing to sacrifice not only EU funds but even Poland’s EU membership, just to cling to power.

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. 

www.project-syndicate.org

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