Best of Enemies

“Man has no greater enemy than himself”, as Petrach reminds us. For Publilius Syrus, the maxim was “Treat your friend as if he might become an enemy”, while from Mario Puzo the best advice of all: “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” All of which seem relevant when looking at the tsunami of criticism which has greeted every act of the new Law and Justice (PiS) government, which criticism, as we saw here in Friends, has elicited a response which assumes the friends are already the enemies that some historically were. But if historical grievance with a dash of paranoia is one’s lodestar, why not complement it with some pre-emptive retaliation?

And thus to Brussels in whose environs the last but two attempt at enforced European integration was dealt a severe blow by the Duke of Wellington, and where EU council president Donald Tusk, met Polish president Andrzej Duda, on Monday. “Poland’s interests and the interests of the EU are the same. Poland has no enemies in the EU,” Tusk told reporters after meeting Duda, on his first foreign trip this year. Duda said that “nothing extraordinary” was happening in Poland. “In Poland, there are disputes of an internal nature and I believe we will find understanding among our European partners,” he added.

Which is not quite how the EU sees it. Last week the European Commission launched a formal review into whether Poland’s new legislation on the constitutional tribunal and public media violates the EU’s rule of law criteria. This presents its own dilemma for Tusk who was prime minister of Poland but who now has to represent European rather than Polish interests while trying to appeal to both Brussels and Warsaw to use more temperate language to reduce the tension.

Of the review itself, Tusk is unenthusiastic, saying that “The commission is acting in good faith. It wants to clarify the situation, it does not want to humiliate or stigmatise Poland. But . . . this can be achieved by other methods, not necessarily triggering this procedure.” By so saying, Tusk is caught between Scylla and Charybdis. He needs the support of the Polish government if he is next year to be reappointed European Council president for a further term, but creating distance between himself and the Commission when some national leaders openly deft him and Council agreements hardly leaves him overburdened with friends in the EU.

Be that as it may, Tusk did acknowledge that the consequences of the “hysterical behavior” had already damaged Poland, not least Standard & Poor’s decision last week to downgrade Polish debt which, Tusk suggested, was a result of the rating agency having been mislead as to the true state of Poland’s economy by campaign propaganda. Anyone who saw how biddable the rating agencies’ were prior to the the 2008 banking crisis will, no doubt, offer a different explanation.

Although Tusk and Duda played down any political differences, the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło is unlikely to be offered an easy ride as she faces the European Parliament today in Strasbourg. The EU Parliament has persistently taken a firm line on political moves in Hungary and with few outside Poland likely to race to her defence, Szydło will have to fight her corner. She has promised that “I’m not going to conduct our foreign policy on my knees.” Speaking to reporters as she left for Strasbourg she said that “No principles have been breached or overstepped related to the functioning of a democratic state” and that “We respect and comply with EU treaties. We are a member of the European Union and we are proud of it”, adding, “We also want the EU to understand that Poland, as a sovereign state, has the right to make internal decisions that serve the citizens of the country.”

On the basis that man does, indeed, have no greater enemy than himself, perhaps PiS would be better advised to present a friendlier face to the world. Part of the criticism faced by PiS is simply hysteria, part is justified, but lacking somebody able to explain its policies reasonably and coherently, in English, to the outside world, and allowing historic hatred – however understandable –to colour its judgment, PiS is hampering itself from best serving Poland. Which is a great shame – for PiS and non-PiS supporters alike.

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