“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” The words of George Bernard Shaw which, since the New Year is often a time of resolutions to change something in one ‘s life, seem as good a place as anywhere to start. And, in the European Union at least, Poland’s prime minister has forecast that this year’s elections to the European parliament will lead to major changes in Brussels.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mateusz Morawiecki said: “Brussels and the European Commission need to be very receptive to what is going on in different countries…..The voice of different counties, and in particular central European countries, will need to be heard much more clearly.” In his view, the institution of the EU needs reform, a view which he said was shared by prime ministers from other EU member states to whom he had spoken: “most of them agree that a serious revamp of procedures and institutions is needed, but everyone is waiting for the European elections.”
Marowiecki also took the opportunity to dismiss as “completely wrong” the suggestion that there was a slide to authoritarianism in central Europe. He repeated the Polish government’s argument that officials in Brussels do not understand the situation in post-communist countries, and that the judicial changes in Poland were necessary to remove the final vestiges of communist influence in the judiciary. Indeed, he went further and compared the controversy that these changes have attracted with the gilets jaunes protests in France which have seen violent clashes between police and demonstrators.
“When I look at what is happening in France, I wouldn’t say that France has an issue with the rule of law, but can you imagine if those brutal interventions would happen against demonstrators in Poland how loud the voices would be in Brussels, in Berlin or … maybe even Paris?” Morawiecki said. He might also have asked, for example, why Brussels appears prepared to take such a sanguine view of France’s expected breach of the requirement for EU member states’ budget deficits do not exceed three per cent of GDP, an example of one rule for certain EU member states and another for others, but I digress.
Of course, many would argue that there is a difference between a police response to civil disturbance, however violent it might have appeared, and a perceived assault – as the EU sees it – on the rule of law itself. The latter has seen the Polish government in conflict with the EU Commission for the last three years. The EU Commission took Poland to the European Court of Justice over the removal of some two dozen supreme court judges last summer. The ECJ ordered Poland to suspend the reform and the judges were re-instated in November.
There remain the wider concerns about other aspects of the judicial reform, such as changes to the functioning of the constitutional tribunal and the body that appoint Polish judges, and so the Article 7 procedure examining whether Poland complies with the EU rule of law values continues. This procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights should, according to Morawiecki, be dropped, since Poland had taken account of the Commission’s concerns about the reforms.
The prime minister said that if the Commission did not withdraw the proceedings it would show that the EU was using the conflict with Poland for political ends. “If they are keeping this open, I believe it is because some people want to politicise this, want to use it as an argument in a political campaign before the European parliament elections, and this is very dangerous,” he said.
Be that as it may, the forthcoming EU elections present another dilemma for Poland. Law and Justice (PiS) currently sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists group, the third largest in the European parliament with 73 MEPs, but the ECR is unlikely to survive when British Conservative party members leave once the UK exits the EU. One new home for PiS could be the European People’s Party, which already has Hungary’s prime minister’s Fidesz party in its ranks, Although Viktor Orban is seen as supporter of PiS, the EPP is also home to Poland’s main opposition party, the Civic Platform, which rules out PiS membership.
Thus, the significance of a meeting between PiS party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, to take place in Warsaw on Wednesday to discuss, as reported by Italian daily la Repubblica, Poland’s membership in Salvini’s new European parliament group. Salvini has already persuaded French and Dutch far-right parties, the National Rally (formerly known as National Front) and the Party for Freedom (PVV), to join. If PiS, and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, were to join the group, it could have 140 MEPs or so, making it the third largest in the European parliament.
Whatever happens, it seems that 2019 will indeed be a year of change, but whether also one of progress remains to be seen. Happy New Year!