“I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.” The words of author Gunter Grass. And as far as Poland’s primaeval Białowieża forest is concerned, what the EU has to learn is, in effect to mind its own business.
On 28th July the European Court of Justice issued a preliminary decision ordering a halt to logging in the forest after the European Commission claimed that Poland was breaching EU laws, including those related to the birds and habitats directives. Last Monday, Poland’s environment ministry announced that it would continue to “act”, having earlier said that logging was part of a fight against a European spruce bark beetle plague which was destroying the forest. Environment Minister Jan Szyszko said Poland that would respond to the Commission’s accusations by 4 August.
True to its word, a response has been sent, the contents of which have not been disclosed since the ministry of the environment deems them to be confidential. However, the Polish press Agency PAP has reported that that the ministry had said in its response that to stop logging would cause approximately EUR 750 million worth of damage to the environment and that the logging did comply with the EU birds and habitats directives. “The Ministry of Environment (…) is only conducting actions aiming to ensure public safety in the Białowieża forest, including protective measures for endangered habitats and species,” ministry spokesperson Aleksander Brzózka told Polish Radio.
Be that as it may – and the balance of opinion seems at odds with that of the ministry – the Commission has announced that if the logging continues, the matter will be included in the rule of law case against Poland. Poland has been given a month to address the “grave concerns” caused by the judicial changes, a continuation of a row which began which began when the government introduced changes to the functioning of the Constitutional tribunal and which has continued ever since. The Commission recently said it was ready to trigger a formal warning by the EU if Poland dismisses or forces the retirement of Supreme Court judges, one of two bills which the president recently vetoed.
The difficulty for the Commission is that any attempt to suspend Poland’s voting rights under article 7 of the EU treaty would require unanimity and Hungary has stated that it will side with Poland in any such vote. But this is part of a wider problem whereby the Polish government simply ignores Brussels while gorging on the fruits of EU membership – in 2015 Poland received EUR 13.4 billion, three per cent of its GDP at the time. While this approach may play well with Law and Justice’s (PiS) supporters, over the longer term it is fraught with danger. European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said last week that there is a question mark over Poland’s European future. While expressing understanding the emotions of Poles who are concerned about the courts, he said the souring of relations “smells like an introduction to an announcement that Poland does not need the European Union and that Poland is not needed for the EU. I am afraid we are closer to that moment.”
And as if that weren’t enough, the atmosphere is set to be further poisoned by the question of German war reparations. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS , which said at a convention last month that Poland never received compensation for the damage it suffered in World War II, losses which “we have really still not made up for”. PiS deputy Arkadiusz Mularczyk said a report from parliamentary experts on whether Poland can claim reparations from Germany should be ready by the middle of August and seeking war reparations from Germany was a “moral duty”.
Marek Jakubiak, a deputy from the Kukiz 15 grouping, puts the figure at PLN 1.5 trillion and told Polish Radio: “The fact that we are a poor country does not come from the fact that we are idiots. The Germans burned our homeland. We lost 50 years.” Jakubiak added: “I do not want a war with the Germans, I do not want bad relations with Germany… The Germans have to pay for the damage done to Poland and then we will talk normally as partners,” he said.
Leaving aside the question as to whether this issue was settled – the view of the German government – by Poland’s waiver of reparations on 1st January 1954, it might well be argued that as the largest net contributor of EU finds of which Poland is the largest net recipient and it’s the investment in Poland by German companies, Germany has done and continues to do much for Poland. Of course, that will not satisfy everybody, but one has to question whether picking a fight with everybody over everything is really a sensible approach for any Polish government to take.