In the post-Cold War era, Poland has repeatedly been held up as the poster child for old Soviet satellite states to aspire to. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland emerged as a prosperous, democratic nation that was forging increasingly closer ties with the West. These relations continued to grow closer in the early twenty-first century when Poland officially became a member of NATO and again in 2004 when it integrated into the European Union. However, a profound shift has recently taken place in Polish politics that warrants the attention of western observers across the globe.
Following the election of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2015, Poland has begun to see a backsliding into the kind of authoritarian rule that has taken root in countries like Hungary and Russia. PiS, a socially conservative party with a far-left economic platform, obtained a simple majority in the Polish parliament following their success in the presidential election. Quickly capitalizing on their majority and the momentum from the recent election, the party pushed through a number of controversial reforms that undermined the independence of the constitutional court, stacked the state media channels in their favor, and defunded unfriendly NGOs. Meanwhile, they gave no indication of slowing down when faced with criticism from western governments, especially with those in the EU, or when confronted with thousands of protesters taking to the streets.
The issue with the courts in particular has become a point of contention that Western nations refuse to ease up on. Following their failure to act just a few years ago when Viktor Orban underwent similar measures in Hungary, member states in the EU are now determined to resist the democratic decline of Poland. The first worrying signs began shortly after the election when the PiS starting exploiting controversial court appointments made by the previous administration; they quickly took this opportunity to maneuver themselves into a position to take control of Poland’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal. When this effort was met with resistance by the court, and citizens alike, the PiS began to draft legislation to subvert the court’s sovereignty and effectiveness. This process ultimately culminated into three pieces of legislation.
The first bill allows the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, to remove the Supreme Court’s current members and replace them with party loyalists. The second bill gives parliament control over the National Council of the Judiciary, the previously independent body responsible for nominating judges and reviewing ethical complaints. Finally, a third bill would give the Minister of Justice the authority to dismiss and appoint the heads of Poland’s lower courts. Taken together, these bills constitute the core of the PiS’s takeover of Poland’s judiciary. Moving forward this will allow the PiS to pass more controversial measures with impunity and to even manipulate future elections without fear of the courts striking down their laws as unconstitutional.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Poland’s future trajectory is the relationship between them and Hungary. Both nations have a shared history as Soviet satellite states and have kept close political ties after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. However, in the past eight years, Hungary has transformed from a democratic nation to a semi-authoritarian state run by President Viktor Orban. The methods he used to consolidate his power are extremely similar to the ones currently being used in Poland, and this isn’t a coincidence. As far back as 2011, Jarsoslaw Kacynski, the party leader of the PiS, was professing his desire to replicate the model created by Viktor Orban for use in Poland; even stating that “we will have Budapest in Warsaw.”
Should Kacynski achieve this vision for Poland’s future, the country’s democracy will be irrevocably damaged. It’s not surprising that many of the PiS’s more controversial policies have drawn huge crowds of protesters, the largest being in the tens of thousands. Kaczynski’s statement and his party’s actions after the election highlight what could potentially become a trend for rising autocrats in the EU. By allying with one another, budding authoritarian regimes can better protect themselves against pressure from the other member states. Recent moves by the EU take initiative to reverse this trend.
On December 20th, 2017, the EU moved to trigger Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which will allow member states to place sanctions on Poland for violating European values of democracy. The European Commission concluded that there was a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland”. Over time these actions could further escalate into a suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the EU, and the withdrawal of EU funding in the country. The latter would be particularly troublesome for Poland, as they are one of the largest recipients of funding in the union.
The escalation of tensions to Article 7 comes after two years of failed dialogue between the PiS and the European Commission. After numerous warnings and attempted meetings between the two parties, European officials reported that diplomatic interactions between them had grown increasingly scarce in recent months. As a final warning, the Commission gave the Polish government three months to address their concerns about the rule of law in the country. Polish officials, however, have shown no interest in implementing any changes. In fact, the PiS’s de-facto leader, Kacynski, when told of the Article 7 announcement, responded that he found the news “amusing”.
The reason for Kaczynski’s smug attitude most likely stems from an agreement between his government and Hungary, where the latter promised to veto any action that the EU tries to take against Poland. This is hardly surprising given the close ties between the two countries and their leaders, but is detrimental nonetheless. The EU needs a unanimous vote from all the member states to move forward with sanctions, and with Hungary’s promise to oppose any such action, the EU’s hands are tied. This strips away the most severe measures that they can take against Poland, effectively reducing the threat of Article 7 to mere political pressure.
With limited options and uncertainty in the outcome of the Article 7 proceedings, it’s difficult to say how European countries will move forward to deal with this crisis. Ultimately, the current political developments in Poland are unlikely to be stopped by the EU as long as Hungary remains firmly opposed to any action. Whether individual nations attempt to reach solutions outside of the framework of the EU remains to be seen. Either way, the future of a democratic Poland has been thrown into doubt, and how the EU grows to combat this crisis, and future events like it, will transform the region for years to come.