“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” The words of Albert Einstein, which while an interesting commentary on the human condition, say little about those who neither fear punishment nor seek reward, especially if they see themselves as good, or at least in the right, in the first place. Thus while some would seek to punish Poland with EU budget cuts for the government’s failure to take in refugees under the EU scheme, the president of the European Commission takes a different view.
Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking during an interview with Belgian broadcaster RTBF, and his remarks followed those of Martin Schulz, the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, last week said that Germany would limit its contributions to the next European Union budget, which runs from 2021 to 2027, if Poland and Hungary did not help to resolve the migrant crisis facing the EU.
Last month the European Commission took Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failure to comply with their legal obligations to relocate migrants under the scheme agreed by the EU in September 2015 (Poland’s then government had agreed to take 6,000 of the 160,000 to be relocated). Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Warsaw would not cave in to demands by the Commission, and argued that Islamic migrant communities in Europe increased the threat of terrorism.
Polish government officials have repeatedly said that Poland is supporting those in need by increasing humanitarian aid to the victims of the war in Syria and by working with aid organisations to rebuild hospitals. The previous prime minister Beata Szydło had said that this type of help was not only cheaper but more effective, since EU migration policy had not stopped additional waves of migrants to Europe.
The ECJ, based in Luxembourg may impose high fines on Poland if the Commission asks for them in a further lawsuit. The procedure could take several years and it is not clear anyway that these countries could be legally punished by having withheld funds agreed under the budget.
Of course, that may be a distinction without a difference, given the timing. With Brexit looming, Juncker has already warned EU member states that they will have to pay more to fill the annual shortfall of €18 billion, based on this year’s figures. Those countries which are net contributors are expected to resist: Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have refused to pay more and France and Germany are also reluctant.
Southern, central and east European countries are keen to avoid any cuts as they are dependent on EU regional funding, which, in the case of Hungary, for example, is worth three per cent of GDP. In this context, when agreeing the new budget, it would be very easy to argue for significant reductions in the support allocated to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, claiming that the reductions are not so much a punishment as a result of less money being available. Those who consider that these three countries have not shown the correct community spirit are unlikely to have any sympathy were those three to see significantly reduced budgets.
Be that as it may, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was in Brussels on Tuesday to have talks with officials, including dinner with Juncker, amid the continuing tensions over the rule of law procedure which could – although given Hungary’s pledge to use its veto, probably won’t – end with sanctions against Poland. At the times of the decision, Morawiecki had said in a tweet that Poland was “as devoted to the rule of law as the rest” – which may or may not be a source of comfort – while Juncker had tweeted that “the dialogue between the Commission and Warsaw needs to be both open and honest. I believe that Poland’s sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled.”
On Monday, Juncker said in Brussels that the talks with Morawiecki would be an in-depth discussion covering a range of issues concerning Europe and Poland. “We are not at war with Poland – far from that,” Juncker said, as quoted by the DPA news agency. “But we are taking seriously on board Polish concerns and I would like our Polish friends to take seriously on board our own concerns.” For his part, Morawiecki has said that judicial reform in Poland “is deeply needed.”
It remains to be seen what the outcome will be, but money does have a way of concentrating the mind. Or, as Voltaire has it, “when it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”