Vidya Ram

European Union’s eastern disturbances

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 08, 2018

The recent wrangle between the European Commission and Poland’s right-wing regime challenges the trade bloc’s stability

In the eyes of much of the world, the biggest recent threat to the European Union has come from Brexit, and the threat it poses to the future stability and integrity of the world’s largest trading block. However, the most serious future challenge may lie further east in Poland, where the European Commission’s tackling of the direction of Polish politics threatens to resuscitate old divides and stoke new ones.

In late December, the European Commission (EC) took the unprecedented step of issuing a formal Article 7 rebuke to the eastern European nation, over its concerns about the “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law”. The rule of law is one of the so-called “common values” set out in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, and is one of the key features of the European project — attempting to ensure broad alignment of countries when it comes to fundamental democratic values, including respect for judicial independence — the current issue at stake in Poland. “When the rule of law in any member state is put into question, the functioning of the union as a whole, in particular with regard to Justice and Home Affairs cooperation and the functioning of the Internal Market is put into question too,” said the Commission as it set out its position on December 20, following a dialogue that commenced with Polish authorities in January 2016. The commencement of the process is significant, potentially leading to political sanctions on Poland in the longer term, if no compromise is found.

Disturbing changes

The concerns centre on changes brought in by the new government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which came to power in 2015, decisively beating the centrist, pro-business Civic Platform party. Since coming to power on a platform that included a promotion of conservative values, and anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment, alongside policies around lowering the retirement age, and tax cuts for small businesses, it also set about carrying out fundamental constitutional changes. It began with the appointment of its own chosen judges to the nation’s Constitutional tribunal.

Over the past two and a bit years, the EC says, 13 laws impacting the judicial system have been brought in — affecting everything from the Constitutional Tribunal, to the Supreme Court and prosecution service. “The common pattern is that the executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch,” the European Commission said, in its fourth and its strongest statement on the issue to date, also setting out a number of recommendations for change.

The European Commission’s overtures have been angrily rejected by Poland, which has accused it of succumbing to political pressure. The EC move has also been criticised by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned he would block any efforts to introduce sanctions against Poland. Hungarian politics has also taken a rightward shift, with the EC announcing in December plans to sue Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for not taking part in an area-wide initiative by which member states committed to taking a certain number of asylum seekers based on population and wealth (part of the EU’s response to the huge number of refugees who entered the union, particularly Greece, and Italy). The Commission has also taken up a legal challenge to Hungary’s recent amendments to higher education legislation, which it argued ran against rights to academic freedom.

Going right

The recent developments in Eastern Europe have highlighted the challenges facing the EU: it was less than ten years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis and the travails to rescue the Greek and other economies, that its main challenge had appeared to be the difficulties in aligning such fundamentally different economies with differing needs. However, it is clear that fundamental political differences also remain, challenging the union’s most fundamental principles.

The rise of populist sentiment and the consequent impact on national politics will be an issue that the EU will have to contend with swiftly, given the rightward shift elsewhere in Europe too.

Over in Austria, the far-right Freedom party has been given prominent defence, foreign office and home ministry positions as it entered the coalition government. “The presence of the extreme right is never trivial,” warned Pierre Moscovici, the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, who called for “vigilance” of the Austrian coalition government.

Democratic institutions have come under attack across the continent: for example in Britain, right wing media have dubbed MPs who have attempted to seek parliamentary accountability for Brexit as traitors and mutineers, while in November 2016 the Daily Mail described the High Court justices as “Enemies of the People” for simply ruling that parliament would have to have a say on the shape of Brexit.

The rightward shift, of course, is far from inevitable: in Poland there have been spirited protests against some of the government initiatives: for instance, plans to curb media access in Parliament were watered down following heated protests within and outside Parliament. Germany’s far right AfD has faced much domestic protest, as has the Freedom Party in Austria.

Uncertain future

Until recently Poland had appeared to be a shining example of what Europe could achieve collectively: not only had it been successful in embracing democratic norms following the collapse of the Soviet bloc but its economy is strong too, as successful industry emerged from years of state control, and the economy doubled in size in 25 years, and even avoided recession after the global financial crisis.

The economic and political difficulties are of course not unrelated: as elsewhere in Europe, support for the right in Poland appears to a certain extent at least linked to concerns about wage stagnation, welfare austerity and concerns about the distribution of the benefits of economic growth: issues that of course are unlikely to go away soon.

Aside from the impact on domestic and union politics the developments could in the long run have an impact more widely — given the increasing emphasis on clamping down on immigration, and the push back against liberalisation (for instance, one of the changes recently brought in in Poland was legislation to curb the ability of shops to trade on Sundays).

Whether it could impact initiatives such as the long-awaited free trade agreement between India and Europe remains to be seen: leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel have, of course, keenly endorsed such agreements but that liberal agenda is one that has struggled even in Germany, as the recent federal elections highlighted.

Published on January 05, 2018

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor