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The EU and Poland: A Cold Wind from the East

While Brexit Britain may be the name of a ship which has long since left port, only to discover truly unfavourable waters, talk of a similar departure, ‘Polexit’ has returned to the media. Tension has been growing steadily in this region for some time and it seems that it has finally come to a head in a dramatic standoff between the EU and the Polish government.

The fundamental underpinning of this tiff between Poland and the EU involves a delicate mechanism in EU law. The primacy of EU law means that when there is a conflict between EU law and the domestic law of a member state, EU law takes precedence and thus overrules the power of domestic law-making. Naturally, such an occurrence would cause significant amounts of friction between the EU and the member state in question, as it would suggest that the domestic interests of the country would come second to the union interests of the EU. As such, a situation presents itself whereby the EU can effectively meddle with the domestic policies of member states, which is very unfirm ground to walk upon for a union which has just seen its first withdrawal.

In the case of Poland, the dispute arose due to the operation of a chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court, which was established in 2018 and entitled the ‘disciplinary chamber’. The purpose of this chamber was to penalise Polish judges where necessary, in an attempt to reduce corruption in the country. In July, the chamber was ordered to be closed by the European Court of Justice as it was deemed neither impartial nor independent. The Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki begrudgingly accepted the closure of the chamber but has since not followed through on this agreement and the chamber remains operational despite not taking on new cases.

This row was added to when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution. Naturally, this turned some heads in the European Commission, as the integration of EU law with the constitutions of members states is one of the key pillars of European integration throughout the bloc. To suggest that these two things are no longer compatible is to suggest that Poland is no longer compatible with the EU, which is not good news for the people of Poland. According to a Polish opinion poll, 40.8% of respondents think that the government should submit to the EU ruling and end the row, while 32.5% believe that their government should compromise and accept some of the conditions set out by Brussels.

Whatever the population believes, the government does not currently seem set to give way. The trajectory set by the Polish government could see harsh penalties levied against its people, as the EU has already fined the country for refusing to close the chamber. Moreover, the European Commission is on the cusp of approving €57bn worth of Covid-19 recovery funds which are earmarked for Poland and it has been suggested that this will not occur until the dispute is settled.

Overall, the situation in Poland seems perplexingly odd. At a time where large amounts of money are set to enter the country in the form of Covid-19 recovery funds, the Polish government has opened an offensive against the values of the European Union. The Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, implored Polish officials not to use the EU like ‘a cash machine’ and insisted that ‘you cannot pocket all the money but refuse the values’.

Indeed, as I write from a nation which has refused the money and the values, it is easy to suggest that life inside the EU presented benefits which were seemingly invisible to the average European citizen. This week’s budget may have convinced some that life outside the EU is one of milk and honey, but long-term forecasts of GDP growth are not so rosy. The combined impacts of Brexit and Covid-19 have been effectively spun so that a focus is given to control, independence, tighter restrictions on the admission of immigrants, beneficial trade deals with far off nations, and the freedom to co-ordinate our own response to Covid. While there can be no denying that there are some benefits to Brexit, it would be an insurmountable task to adequately prove that the net effect is a positive one.

Europe’s first leaver, the UK, has already faced challenges as a result of its departure from the EU. While some would account for these difficulties by solely pointing the finger at a global pandemic, the market, chance, or the intervention of some mysterious foreign power, there can be no denying that the bed in which we sleep is of our own making. The long-term effects of Brexit are yet to be foreseen, but the potential downside risks of leaving appear large. It has been clearly noted that there were risks associated with remaining in the EU as well, but that these were easier to manage than the external ones which are now faced.Should the Polish government insist on steering the nation down the same path of Eurosceptic sentiment that Britain embarked upon, a similar set of pitfalls are bound to be encountered by the people of Poland.


Written by Isaac Knowles


Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Pxfuel.com