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The Case for Refocusing European Strategy to Curb Polish Illiberalism

Image depicts European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (photo via Federal Ministry of Defence/Clean Energy Wire)

The Polish working class has emerged as an unfortunate pawn in recent disputes between the European Union (EU) and the Polish government, and their interests have largely been ignored in negotiations on how to move forward.

Poland and its neighbor Hungary have been under fire for years from liberal democratic allies in the European Union, even among their former conservative counterparts, for the antidemocratic steps their governments have taken. Such controversial policies include many Polish municipalities declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones” and defying EU laws regarding the treatment of asylum seekers. Most recently, the Polish government, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), has drawn the focus of the international community for the establishment of a Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court with the power to reduce salaries or even terminate judges who engage in anti-government “political activity,” and a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that Polish law supersedes any EU statutes. This ruling has been especially contentious in Brussels because of its direct challenge to the enforcement of treaties that have made European economic integration possible. Particularly wealthier liberal democracies, who have bolstered the Polish economy with generous subsidies, have condemned the ruling. “You cannot pocket all the money but refuse the values,” insisted Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

The EU has been scrambling to effectively sanction the Polish regime and restore judicial independence. The bloc evidently has a vested interest in maintaining democratic standards across its member states to preserve its own legitimacy. Besides being a purely economic union that benefits the financial situation of its members, the EU is supposedly unified by the promotion of human dignity, equality, democracy, and human rights. Ceding these points debases EU leaders taking stances on any pressing global issues including the climate crisis, humanitarian abuses, and democratic backslides. To combat threats to the very foundations of the union, The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, has decided to withhold €36 billion in COVID-19 recovery funds previously allocated to Poland. Additionally, the EU is charging Poland €1 million per day, a measure to be enforced by holding back funds allocated for Poland. This is slated to continue until judicial independence measures are initiated, most pressing among them the dissolution of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Much of the EU’s current strategy in dealing with overreaches by Poland’s government ties back to past successes in coercing rural Polish regions to repeal anti-LGBTQ proclamations by threatening to withhold funds. This underscores a Polish political reality that should guide EU policy in addressing this crisis: the European Union enjoys strong support from working class Poles, particularly those from rural regions, who rely heavily on EU subsidies. In fact, support hovers around 90 percent. Moreover, a supermajority of the country opposes the current judicial encroachments undermining the rule of law. 

The EU interpreting its ability to exercise control over municipal governments with subsidy money, though, seems to overestimate its effectiveness in dealing with the national government and punishes average people for having an illiberal government. The Polish national government has been equally unwilling to compromise in disputes with the EU over renewable energy and other policy areas. Much of this can be understood as national leaders’ political livelihoods not being tied to funds that support local projects including highway projects and school improvements like those that the EU is holding back.

The experience of working class and marginalized Poles has been shaped by significant challenges in recent years coinciding with democratic backslides under PiS leadership. A 2020 abortion rights ruling banned abortion procedures even in cases of dangerous and even fatal fetal abnormalities. Since then, highly publicized deaths such as the Polish woman known as Izabela have alerted the international community to the severity of the bans. In addition, the Polish Sejm, the lower house of their legislature, is currently debating a ban on LGBTQ Pride events and further restrictions on queer Poles’ freedoms of expression. PiS leadership has eliminated a state council focused on combatting racial discrimination amid the recent rise in recorded racial hate crimes. Clearly, marginalized groups have borne the brunt of the effects of far-right policy. Punishing people because of unpopular acts by their government should be a last resort for European policymakers behind any actions that more precisely target the Polish leaders stripping away liberties from their constituents.

A prescient development that should inform how European leaders deal with Poland has been with regards to Belarus and President Lukashenko’s scheme to lure migrants to the EU border with no supplies despite the incredible dangers this poses for those stranded. This is being done by the Belarusian regime to punish European nations that disputed its 2020 election in an attempt to coerce its way to internationally-recognized legitimacy. EU foreign ministers have recently been developing ways to respond to this crisis. One of the most prominent has been specifically targeting major Belarusian airlines such as Belavia that have aided in this effort to lure migrants to situations of incredible suffering. Measures such as this demonstrate a blueprint for targeted action against real culprits.

The European Commission itself has laid out preventative measures to deter the Polish government from future defiance. This includes formally challenging long standing encroachments on judicial independence in the European Court of Justice or even beginning the process of revoking Polish MEPs’ voting rights in the European Council. Certainly, the latter option would be an exceptionally strong condemnation of the Polish government and could incentivize them to reverse course. Removing their power to influence spending measures, including expansive agricultural subsidies that have enriched and empowered powerful land-owning oligarchs in neighboring Hungary, could be the targeted action necessary to punish Polish government leaders. 

However, punishing illiberal actions primarily by holding back subsidies leaves the EU unprepared for future crises of this nature should they face this situation with wealthier states. To this point, it seems likely that Emmanuel Macron’s challenger in the April 2022 French Presidential election will represent the French far-right (either with Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen or independent Éric Zemmour). As France is already the third largest net contributor to the EU budget, the threat to French taxpayers of holding back subsidies seems like poor preparation for ongoing trends in global democratic backsliding.

The EU has been put in a difficult position in its role as the vanguard of democratic norms in Europe due to cumbersome operating regulations and limited quick avenues for redress. Despite this, the deteriorating situation for Poles demands more targeted policy given the ineffectiveness of recent measures used against PiS leadership. Letting the punishment fall on average people for their government’s bad-faith actions is simply a poorly imagined and unsustainable strategy to rein in the recently emboldened European illiberal right.

Photo: Image via Unsplash (History in HD)