The EU’s existence is being tested on two fronts: following the Conservatives’ resounding victory in last week’s UK general election, Britain is set to leave the bloc on January 31st. But another EU country may also be about to leave without the need for a referendum: Poland.
The Polish Government has recently clashed with the country’s Supreme Court, which has warned politicians that their proposed judicial reforms threaten the primacy of EU law and could be an attempt to gag the judiciary. Poland has already been referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding rules for judges.
These reforms would mean that politicians can dismiss judges if they questioned the Government’s judicial reforms. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) also wants judges to be punished for engaging in “political activity.” If the government questions the legitimacy of judges proposed by the National Council of the Judiciary, they could be handed a fine or even dismissed. These proposals are being debated next Thursday.
Whilst the Law and Justice Party argue that these reforms are needed to tackle corruption, the EU has accused them of politicizing the judiciary since they came to power in 2015.
This crisis has been brewing for some time. During his final days as the European Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker said Poland is unlikely to leave the EU. He was asked by a daily Polish newspaper called Rzeczpospolitaon as to whether 2019 might witness a ‘Polexit’, to which he replied: ‘No.’
However, the country’s future inside the bloc is uncertain. The Law and Justice Party may take Poland out of the EU at some point for other reasons in any case, as they continue to clash with Brussels over environmental protection and migration as well. If another nation quits the EU at the same time as Britain, the consequences would be substantial.
Poland is one of the largest beneficiaries of EU cash. In 2017, they received $10 billion more than they paid into the bloc’s budget. If they left, the Polish Government would lose access to that cash. Jan Mus, a Polish EU expert based in Warsaw, said this cohesion fund could be used as a means to punish Poland for failing to integrate into the European project.
Equally, Mus also warned that such a move could undermine European integration altogether. This is because the Law and Justice Party enjoys a lot of support among its Eastern European neighbors, and throwing Poland out of the bloc could turn them against Western member states.
Because of the Polish Government’s differences with the EU, a Polexit would make the path towards European integration easier for other member states. Polish proposals to end the European Federation have not been met with enthusiasm by officials in Brussels.
Among other disagreements, PiS opposes the EU’s refugee quota system and has highlighted the need to strengthen external borders. Removing Poland from the bloc would be a significant blow to the Visegrad movement of Eastern European nations that consistently opposes steps towards a federal Europe.
Whilst a Polexit could risk further undermining the European project, keeping Poland in the EU also has its risks. Many Polish politicians are angry that tenders for investments in their country co-financed from EU funds often go to Western businesses, and their non-Polish shareholders profit from it.
If Poland retains its EU membership, this nation will also present a challenge to the European Commission’s new President, Ursula von der Leyen. She is yet to reveal how she intends to deal with this situation. Despite this, she could find she has to negotiate with the Polish Government because she emerged as a compromise candidate in part due to Warsaw’s and Budapest’s opposition to Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, who is a harsh critic of the Law and Justice Party.
Throwing Poland out of the EU is a huge gamble for Brussels. It could either make it easier for those countries that choose to retain their membership of the bloc to integrate further, or it could act as a precedent for others to leave. From the EU’s perspective, this crisis could not come at a worse time.