If anyone thought that Brexit meant the end of fundamental arguments within the European Union over principles such as the proper scope of its remit and its relationship with national sovereignty, this week will have proven them wrong. The European Union was once again racked by controversy at the core of which was a question that has been problematic from the inception of the bloc – where does the proper competence of the EU end and to what extent can its institutions meddle in the internal affairs of the member states. This week Poland, as well as Hungary, was at the centre of that argument.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
· Poland and Hungary withhold consent to the new EU budget and Covid-19 economic rescue fund over linkage of funding to the ‘rule of law’ question
· Differing visions of the role of the European Union and well as internal political dynamics within the ruling bloc in Poland feature in the reasons for the current impasse
· Prime Minister Morawiecki says there is no need for a national lockdown now as Covid-19 case numbers ease back somewhat and
· A man is charged over the apartment fire arising from an incident at the Independence Day March.
On Monday Poland and Hungary withheld their agreement to the EU’s six year budget covering the period 2021 to 2027 as well as to the new €750 billion fund designed to counter the economic impact of Covid-19. The move by the two countries, who’ve both been the target of enforcement action by the EU Commission over the alleged undermining of democratic standards and judicial independence, is in response to the adoption of a new mechanism to link payments from the EU budget with adherence to such standards – of course as judged by the EU institutions – a move both countries were powerless to stop as it was agreed under qualified majority voting.
The move at a meeting in Brussels of national ambassadors to the EU is being widely described as a veto as the package required unanimous consent. The ambassadors had earlier approved the new rule of law mechanism by a majority vote. As in all EU matters the affair will likely end in a compromise with both countries receiving some political assurances as to how the new mechanism can be used. Nonetheless the row marks a major escalation in the conflict between some of the member states and those in the EU institutions who want to use the EU as a mechanism for advancing their view of what they perceive as modern democratic and human rights standards.
“Poland and the European Union” by alex.ch is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
The veto won’t have come as any surprise as both countries had signalled their intentions well in advance. On Monday of last week Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel, as Germany is the current holder of the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, saying he did not see the possibility of ratifying the budget in the Polish parliament. In his letter Morawiecki warned that ‘The law on the protection of the EU’s budgetary interests is secondary to the Treaty on European Union. It can neither circumvent, replace nor modify the principles set out in the Treaties – including Article 7 of the Treaty that does not allow for discriminatory action against any Member State upon a political request of any other Member State, the European Parliament or the European Commission. Unfortunately, such discrimination may arise out of the proposed regulation – and that not only violates the Treaties but in itself is a threat to the rule of law in the EU’.
Poland and Hungary believe the linkage of EU funding to the ‘rule of law’ agenda is directly aimed at them, and risks undermining their national sovereignty. Both countries have to date protected each other from sanctions under the EU’s Article 7 procedure – the official mechanism for dealing with threats to democratic values – by preventing unanimity on sanctions against either country. Formally the new linkage mechanism is primarily targeted at cases where the undermining of the rule of law poses a threat to the proper dispersal of EU funds, but is capable of wider application. Hungary has reacted even more strongly than Poland – some would argue that on the issue of the proper allocation of EU funds Poland has little to fear in that particular respect as the country has a good record on the proper use of those funds, while there have been claims of systematic abuses in Hungary.
Many members of the dominant groupings in the European Parliament have made clear their insistence on the implementation of the new mechanism and would themselves accept the argument of Poland and Hungary that they do actually want to use the ability to withhold EU funds as a political lever to force both countries to change their domestic policies. On Tuesday, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, reiterated that the country would not agree to the linking of EU funding to the rule of law question saying ‘This is a red line that must not be crossed if the financial framework for the coming years is to be agreed.’
Some observers believe the prospects for success of the Polish veto, beyond the likely receipt of meaningless cosmetic assurances, are limited. Poland is one of the largest net beneficiaries of the 2021 to 2027 budget, whose adoption, unlike that of the Covid-19 rescue fund, does not require ratification by national parliaments. The country is also due to be among the top beneficiaries of the rescue fund. Poland is unlikely to actually want to derail either tranche of funding.
Internal political machinations within the ruling Zjednoczona Prawica bloc may be a consideration with Solidarna Polska leader, Zbigniew Ziobro, in particular urging a tough stance, and for Poland to veto the budget as a way of blocking linkage of EU funding to the judicial independence questions. So also reportedly is ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, with Morawiecki himself regarded as more moderate, but now feeling that the EU’s approach has left him no choice but to take a tougher line. Last week a Deputy Minister from Solidarna Polska, Janusz Kowalski, claimed that the rule of law mechanism is part of a plan for ‘Germany to colonise Poland’ by ‘violating the EU treaty to take our sovereignty.’
In comments which help explain the context and some of the Polish governments’ thinking on the current political situation President Andrzej Duda told a congress of groups linked to the right-wing Gazeta Polska newspaper that ‘We know perfectly well that the elites – most often liberal-leftist, or even with leftist views – are trying at all costs to change the government in Poland.’ He claimed that after failing to defeat him in the presidential election, they’re now seeking to force early parliamentary elections by attempting ‘to cause social unrest and divisions in the ruling camp’.
Yesterday the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, warned that linking EU funding to the rule of law would mean ‘the end of the European Union’. He was quoted as saying that ‘The Lisbon Treaty establishes instruments to ensure respect for the rule of law in Europe’ adding that ‘Nevertheless, an attempt has been made at technical coordination between the leadership of the EU Parliament and the Presidency of the EU Council with the aim of establishing an additional instrument.’ He said that with this instrument ‘a majority in the European Council will decide whether the rule of law is respected’ by ‘a political majority’ and that ‘If that happens, it will be the end of the European Union’.
Poland appears this week to have stepped back somewhat from the threat of a national lockdown with new reported daily Covid-19 cases not breaching the 30,000 a day level expected to trigger such a step. On Tuesday, the Cabinet Minister at the Prime Minister’s Chancellery, Michał Dworczyk, claimed that the latest round of measures which include the closure of many retail outlets in shopping malls except for grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as even primary education moving online are working. Dworczyk said that the recent figures show ‘that we have some stabilisation’, adding that ‘This stabilisation allows us to be cautious optimists today, looking to the future.’
Last Friday Prime Minister Morawiecki said in a Facebook post that at present ‘We do not have to introduce a national quarantine’ because the number of new infections had begun to fall for the first time in two months. Having reported a record 27,875 new cases on November 7th, subsequent figures have edged lower. Yesterday, Poland reported 19,883 new cases with 603 deaths, bring the total since the outbreak commenced in March to 772,823 cases and 11,451 deaths. Wednesday’s figure for the number of deaths is the highest to date.
The fallout from the violent scenes which marred this year’s Independence Day march in Warszawa on November 11th continued this week. Speaking to Polsat News on Sunday, a senior Presidential aide, Andrzej Dera, said this years’ event was a ‘very sad picture’ and blamed the organisers saying they ‘did not rise to the challenge’ of ensuring a peaceful event. He said that ‘November 11th should be a holiday that unites all Poles.’ Police reported that more than 300 people were arrested at the march.
Meanwhile, Warszawa prosecutors said on Sunday they’d charged a man over one of the worst incidents on the day in which a flare was apparently aimed at an apartment building in which LGBT and women’s rights banners were displayed, causing one apartment to be set alight. A spokeswoman said the suspect was charged with potentially endangering life by throwing a flare at the building as well as causing damage to property. He’s denied the charges. Police said the 36 year old suspect, who could face up to eight years in prison if found guilty, was arrested in Białystok as he was preparing to leave the country.
That’s all for this week.