The situation in Poland has become a serious concern not only for the politicians of the European Union but for the whole western world. The largest East European country among those that joined the European Union in 2004 is rapidly following Hungary on the road to becoming an “illiberal democracy” while the European Commission is trying to find proper answers to the emasculation of Poland’s Constitutional Court and the government’s attack on the freedom of the media.
Two important articles about the situation in Poland appeared yesterday, one by R. Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein in Foreign Affairs and another by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. The Foreign Affairs article draws attention to the parallels between Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, with emphasis on the inaction of the European Union in the early years of the second Orbán government. Brussels did very little to make clear to Viktor Orbán that his destruction of Hungarian democracy cannot be tolerated by the member states of the EU. To a large extent the European People’s Party (EPP) was responsible for this shameful behavior. Fidesz’s delegation in the European Parliament is large, and its votes were deemed more important to the European Christian Democrats than was democracy in Hungary.
Meanwhile, in the last almost six years, Jarosław Kaczyński carefully watched the Hungarian prime minister’s masterful parrying with the western politicians who didn’t know how to deal with him. But although Kaczyński may have wanted to follow in Orbán’s footsteps, he doesn’t have the same political allies in the European Parliament. The Christian Democrats of EPP are a great deal more enthusiastic about “disciplining” Poland for the simple reason that Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice / Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), decided to join the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) instead of EPP. I’m certain that if PiS’s 19 members sat with EPP, the Christian Democrats would be more understanding and forgiving of Polish events of late. But luckily for Polish democracy the large Polish delegation of the Civic Platform / Platforma Obywatelska (OB), now in opposition, sits with EPP.
This time there is a better chance for more forceful action against Poland than was the case with Hungary. As Kelemen and Orenstein warn, “if the European Union allows a second, much larger state to turn away from pluralist democracy and the rule of law, then the EU’s standing as a union of democracies and a beacon for liberty in the region will be damaged irreparably.” They urge the leaders of the European Union to act quickly and forcefully.
The message of Timothy Garton Ash in his article “The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed” is similar. “The voices of all allied democracies, in Europe and across the Atlantic, must be raised to express their concern about a turn with grave implications for the whole democratic west.” Ash wants the traditional friends of Poland to speak up: France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and naturally the United States, “especially as Poland prepares to host an important NATO summit this summer and wants NATO forces permanently based in the country.” Ash also talks about Cameron’s role in this affair. “And what about Britain? Realistically, Cameron is the politician least likely to criticize Kaczyński at the moment, because he desperately needs a deal over in-work benefits for (mainly Polish) migrants in the UK, so as to win his referendum on Britain’s EU membership. But it’s worth putting Cameron on the post, if only to hear his weasel words in reply. So will a British MP please challenge him about Poland in parliament at the next prime minister’s questions?”
How effective can outside pressure be, even if the EPP joins the others in censuring Kaczyński’s illiberal Poland? Especially after this morning, when Viktor Orbán announced in his regular radio interview that “it is not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Hungary will never support any sanction against Poland.”
Viktor Orbán’s reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a strong ideological bond between him and Kaczyński. They see the world very similarly, and Kaczyński is now implementing most of those constitutional and administrative changes that Orbán introduced in Hungary, but at a much greater speed. He obviously admires Orbán’s political skills, and Orbán is most likely flattered to no end. This ideological bond itself would be enough for Orbán to stand by Kaczyński, but what reinforces these ties is the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship. The importance of such historical traditions might be overstated, but Polish-Hungarian friendship over time has become part of the national ideologies of the two countries. A given. It is a romantic notion of long standing which, true or not, still makes an impact.
I found a quotation from StanisƗaw Gabriel Worcell, a Polish revolutionary, written in 1849 which should make clear the depth of that feeling. “Hungary and Poland are eternal oak trees which have grown two separate branches, but their roots underground have been linked and invisibly intertwined over the years. Therefore, the existence and strength of one is the precondition of the life and health of the other.” Surely, an exaggeration but even recent history demonstrates that the two countries usually come to one another’s assistance in case of trouble. For example, Donald Tusk, who is certainly no Kaczyński, usually refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán. As for Orbán, already in 2010 he was dreaming of an East European alliance system forming a corridor between the Baltic and the Adriatic. In order to demonstrate the seriousness of this vision, instead of going to Brussels after winning the election in 2010, Orbán’s first trip was to Warsaw. Donald Tusk, the prime minister at that time, didn’t show much inclination to make regional deals of this sort. As opposed to Orbán, he was developing good relations with Brussels.
If Hungary has the ability to veto any sanctions against Poland, then Brussels cannot rely on those countries Timothy Garton Ash suggested as possible pressure points. It is probably just as well, since we know from Hungary’s experience that a government that is bent on building an illiberal state can always outfox its critics. Orbán in the past proudly announced that, while they changed some of the wording in a piece of legislation to which EU officials objected, they managed to smuggle in something else that from Brussels’ point of view was even more objectionable. With governments like those in Poland and Hungary, only domestic forces can achieve results.
It looks as if the Poles aren’t taking Kaczyński’s autocratic rule lying down. While Hungarians passively watched the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, in Poland judges of the constitutional court and heads of the public media outlets resisted. If Kaczyński is not careful, he might find his hand-picked prime minister, Beata Szydło, out of office soon enough.