Was Merkel Right That Poland’s PiS government Could Be Outlasted?6 min read
On 21 October, leaders from across the EU gathered in Brussels for what would be the final farewell ceremony to Germany’s departing chancellor, Angela Merkel. With warm tributes to her leadership pouring in, Germany’s iron chancellor said goodbye after 16 years at the helm of the EU’s largest economy. But behind all the touching odes to Merkel, the summit held its breath for another matter that is set to outlast the German chancellor. The EU had gathered to decide on whether or not it would begin sanctioning Poland over its mounting concerns about Warsaw’s respect for the rule of law.
Arriving in Brussels, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki proclaimed that his country “will not yield to the pressure of blackmail” after billions in COVID-19 relief funds were held up. Just weeks earlier, Poland’s highest court declared that EU law did not supersede national legislation, sparking fears of a ‘Polexit’ from the bloc.
For all the eagerness by Poland’s critics to see the EU take a stand in defence of the rule of law in the country, the summit ended without any drama. No sanctions were announced and a return to the regular war of words followed as Morawiecki flippantly suggested the EU was inviting “world war three” over their continuing squabble. On 27 October, however, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) announced that it would fine Poland 1 million euros for every day it continues to operate a controversial disciplinary panel for Polish judges that the ECJ ordered dismantled in July this year.
It was wrong to expect the EU to initiate any sanctions against Poland last week. Brussels has long been aware that any effort to do so would fail without unanimous support from its members, which it still lacks. Instead, what the summit can be seen as is a continuation of the strategic patience pursued by the outgoing Merkel towards Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), seemingly premised on calculations that Polish voters will be the ones to turn the tide against it.
Despite immense pressure to act, Merkel repeatedly declined to endorse sanctions against Poland even as PiS politicised the judiciary and enacted discriminatory policies against LGBT Poles. Even in her final remarks, Merkel adopted an almost empathetic tone in addressing Poland’s concerns over the role of EU law in member states, framing it as an ongoing concern that the bloc needs to reconcile in the future.
Merkel is now making her exit, but the patient approach is already being echoed by other EU leaders. Ahead of the summit, Merkel-ally and European Commission President Ursala von der Leyen pledged to “use all the powers” at her disposal to enforce EU law after the Polish high court’s ruling. After the summit, she shifted tones, promising instead to wait for the conclusion of a legal inquiry on the rule of law sanction brought by Poland and Hungary first. Other critics of Poland’’s democratic backsliding such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and The Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte also offered fairly measured rebukes of Poland compared to their previously harsher critiques.
At home, PiS is appearing to pay a price for the fight it has picked with the EU. The bloc remains very popular with Poles as was demonstrated by massive demonstrations over fears of a Polexit. At the same time, the youth appear to be tired of PiS’ culture wars that factor into its troubles with Brussels, notably over LGBT rights. According to polling data, Poles are adopting more supportive attitudes towards abortion, same sex partnerships and even register an increase in support for other left-wing positions in what can be seen as a backlash to PiS policies. This is not insignificant in the minds of PiS officials with even President Andrzej Duda being compelled to tone down his homophobic rhetoric towards the end of his re-election campaign to push his victory forward.
PiS is also struggling with internal divisions and signs that its opposition is coalescing amid its stumbles. Over the summer, the party lost its parliamentary majority over its economic recovery plans and intentions to move towards cleaner energy sources. This has already led to a setback on its struggles to adopt a controversial law that would restrict foreign ownership of Polish media, further restricting the space for independent outlets. PiS remains just shy of a total majority in parliament, but it is unclear if it can woo supporters back into a coalition, bringing the future of its agenda into doubt.
Meanwhile, former EU President and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk unanimously won the leadership of the opposition Civic Platform, presenting PiS with a formidable rival. Tusk has already framed himself as a total rebuke of PiS with support for women’s rights, same-sex partnerships (but not marriage), and Polish membership in the EU. As the EU summit unfolded, Tusk flexed some of his political muscle by insisting that he persuaded Merkel to ensure Poland gets its recovery funds rather than suffer “for the stubbornness of the PiS”.
While these all look like formidable signs on paper that PiS could be in trouble, politics are always a fickle sport.
PiS has ruled out calling early elections, perhaps cognizant of its current weaknesses, and that gives it at least two more years to repair its position ahead of the 2023 elections. At 35%, PiS remains the strongest single party in terms of support and for whatever inroads socially liberal positions have made with Polish youths, its conservative base remains unified behind it.
PiS also has opportunities to buy itself time with Brussels. In August, it announced that it would be complying with an EU order that called for the dismantling of the disciplinary panel for judges, giving some ground on the rule of law battle. The climate agenda that contributed to its loss of a majority government also contributes to the EU’s climate goals.
Finally, by choosing where it offers concessions without surrendering over other positions, PiS can leave the EU divided. In Merkel’s absence, it will be dealing with a critical left-leaning government in Germany that could push harder on social right, but remain amiable to compromises on climate. The same stance could be applied to other critics like Macron, who has already toned down his past rhetoric against PiS in favour of pragmatic cooperation on his preferred agenda items.
The end is not yet in sight for Poland’s PiS but it is not safely out of the woods yet. If it cannot steady its own ship at home while keeping up its culture war, the risk of being thrown out of government remains real. If they fail, Merkel’s patient approach may yet win the day and the relationship between Poland and the EU may also begin healing along with it.