Germany ‘Nazi bell’ row erupts again
Germany ‘Nazi bell’ row erupts again
BRUSSELS — European Union leaders head into difficult talks on Thursday to break through a veto by Poland and Hungary holding up the bloc’s budget and a hefty stimulus package, as the two nations attempt to evade oversight that could strip them of E.U. funds if they continue to overhaul democratic institutions at home.
The dispute — which threatens 1.8 trillion euros, or $2.2 trillion, in funding, including money desperately needed for pandemic recovery — has deepened fissures between member states and forced European leaders to reckon with the very nature of the bloc itself.
The emerging compromise, brokered by Germany — which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency — would still tie the funding to adherence to rule of law standards, a win for most member states.
But the legally binding measure would still be watered down. Officials and diplomats briefed before the leaders’ scheduled meeting said the deal would grant Hungary and Poland a statement that would limit the bloc to scrutinizing the spending of E.U. funds. Members would also be able to challenge a ruling in the European Court of Justice.
In typical E.U. fashion, such a compromise would permit the leaders of Hungary and Poland to save face at home or even claim victory. But it would also end the standoff that has delayed the stimulus funds.
A draft statement seen by The New York Times, which could be finalized on Thursday, said that the European Commission would define how the rule-of-law mechanism will work, and noted that it would not be used to discriminate against a member state or encroach on its sovereignty.
The draft would also allow member states to challenge the mechanism in court before it is used. The details make for a lengthy process, postponing any real action by months if not years. That would be advantageous to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, as he faces elections in 2022.
Legal experts were swift to criticize the emerging compromise.
“The draft is unprecedented and legally suspect in that is seems to promise the European Commission will not enforce the new regulation until after Hungary and Poland have had a chance to bring litigation before the European Court of Justice trying to annul it,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science and law at Rutgers University.
The face-off has pushed the building toxicity between the two countries and the rest of the bloc to the heart of Brussels, throwing into disarray painstakingly laid plans for a €750 billion post-coronavirus stimulus package, as well as the regular multiyear budget. Further delays would stop the funds from getting to the nations that most desperately need them, stalling a nascent economic recovery from the worst recession in the bloc’s history.
But the fight has also revealed the depth of the fault lines, at a time when the European Union is trying to band together to fight the pandemic and show a united front in the wake of Britain’s exit.
Hungary and Poland have long been at loggerheads with the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, over their dismantling of key rule-of-law institutions. The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the E.U., has declared some of those policies illegal, but the backsliding has continued. Hungarian and Polish leaders argue that institutional changes are their national prerogative, and accuse the Commission of applying double standards to East European states, describing the rule-of-law provisions as arbitrary and political.
Many worry that the damage being done to democracy in Poland and Hungary is not only hard to reverse, but also detrimental to the whole of the European Union, the world’s richest bloc of democracies.
“Europe was set up as a community of like-minded states, and in its DNA, it doesn’t have this awareness that there may be fundamental breaches of the rule of law within the E.U.,” said Wojciech Sadurski, a Polish and Australian expert on constitutional law who is a prominent critic of the Polish government.
On the ground in Hungary and Poland, the impact of these policies is deeply felt.
In Hungary, Mr. Orban and his allies have led a slow, methodical erosion of the rule of law. They adopted a new constitution and changed election laws to favor themselves. The Constitutional Court has been stacked with loyalists as have high-level posts encompassing public media outlets, prosecutor general, the National Bank of Hungary and beyond.
This consolidation of power has drastically curbed meaningful scrutiny: Elections are free, but they are not fair; much of the news media is controlled by allies of the governing party; the opposition in Parliament is small and has no practical power.
Poland’s judicial overhaul, coming under the guise of a push to exorcise remnants of the Communist-era system, has also drawn criticism from the European Commission, which sees interference with judicial independence.
The battle over the rule of law conditionality comes as Poland is being rocked by a surge in coronavirus cases, as well as a growing protest movement over women’s rights.
Laurent Pech, a professor of the European Law at Middlesex University in London said both countries were following “the same blueprint to undermine checks and balances of power.”
“It starts with capturing the constitutional court, then taking control of the public media, the prosecutor services and the police, usually concluding with a revision of the electoral code,” he said.
As a result, Mr. Pech said, Hungary is now “an electoral autocracy,” with Poland, where the governing party faces more resistance, not far behind.
Since coming to power, Poland’s nationalist-conservative government has taken control of the constitutional tribunal, put the prosecutor’s office under the authority of the Justice Ministry, and set up a new disciplinary regime for judges.
The European Court of Justice has ordered the suspension of that disciplinary body, but in recent months, it has stripped immunity and cut the salaries of two judges who had been critical of the government.
The European Commission has brought several cases against both Hungary and Poland, mostly relating to the overhauls and management of the judiciary. But the process is slow, requiring dozens of people to be dedicated to a case over several months. In some cases, the court’s ruling comes too late.
The Commission and Parliament have advanced cases against Poland and Hungary over serious breaches of E.U. values. The ultimate penalty is a removal of voting rights, but no progress has been made in either case.
A key node in the process lies with the grouping of member state leaders, known as the European Council, where Mr. Orban and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland have occasional allies, chief among them Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
The mistrust generated among citizens and governments in some of the wealthier and more mature democracies is a fresh threat to the bloc’s unity. The so-called frugal nations, which are net contributors to the budget, are leading the charge against Poland and Hungary’s push to skirt scrutiny.
Recent research suggests that citizens in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden are not bothered by their nations’ big contributions to E.U. spending, but feel that some of the receiving countries did not have necessary checks and balances to ensure sound spending. Another poll found that more than 70 percent of E.U. citizens, including those in Poland and Hungary, want rule-of-law checks for fund disbursement.
That pressure is strong in the Netherlands, the most vocal critic of the Polish and Hungarian position, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte faces elections in March.
And while the acutest issues are in Poland and Hungary, rule-of-law problems lurk in several other states, giving rise to concerns that appeasing Warsaw and Budapest might enable more violations elsewhere.
“You can understand the importance of the rule of law when it is gone,” Mr. Pech said. “When you have it, it is much more difficult to value it.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Benjamin Novak from Budapest.
On 22 October, Poland’s constitutional court ruled to ban abortions in cases of congenital foetal defects, even if the foetus has no chance of survival. The decision by the court’s 15 pro-ruling party judges, many of them appointed unlawfully, would allow terminations only in instances of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk – a tiny fraction of cases. Women’s groups estimate that an additional 200,000 Polish women have abortions either illegally or abroad each year – Poland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws.
The ruling sparked an immediate reaction. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, mainly women and young people, took to the streets in the largest protest movement in the three decades since the fall of communism. The writer and activist Agnieszka Graff tells Anushka Asthana about the protests, and the influence the Catholic church has had on Poland’s increasingly restrictive abortion laws.
Anushka also talks to Karolina Więckiewicz, a lawyer and human rights defender who set up the group Abortion Dream Team. As well as informing people about how to get abortion pills via the internet, they also point them towards organisations that can help arrange travel to other EU countries where they can have the procedure. Gynaecologist Anna Parzyńska describes the impact the ruling will have on her work. Women are petrified when they come for an abortion, she tells Anushka: “They feel like the country is totally against them.”
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INERTIA IS ISAAC NEWTON’S first law of motion. “Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon,” wrote Newton in 1687. It is the first law of the EU, too: things stay as they are, until a big enough force shoves them to change. The covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession gave the bloc an almighty push. Over the summer EU leaders agreed to issue collective debt at scale for the first time, to the tune of €750bn ($890bn). After five days of talks, all 27 heads of government agreed that anyone spending EU money would have to abide by some form of “rule of law” stipulations.
Hungary and Poland are learning the hard way about introductory physics: once things get going, they are hard to stop. The two countries have belatedly teamed up to try and scupper the scheme, arguing that the rule-of-law mechanism goes too far. They have reason to fear a crackdown. Both governments have trampled on democratic norms in recent years, nobbling judges, thwarting journalists and using the state to hobble rivals. There is little Hungary and Poland can do to stop the new rules coming in, since they can be approved by a qualified majority. Instead, they have vetoed other policies. Both have refused to sign off the EU’s budget, which is worth about €1trn of spending over seven years, and withheld permission for the EU to push on with disbursing the €750bn recovery fund, until the rule-of-law scheme is watered down.
Leverage is the stuff of politics as well as physics. At first glance, holding €1.8trn of funding hostage seems a strong lever to pull. Economies in southern Europe are gasping for the cash. But it is a kamikaze attack. EU funds to Hungary and Poland were worth 4.5% and 3% of those countries’ GDP respectively in 2019. It is their own economies they are most in danger of damaging for the sake of a law they cannot stop from being introduced. Some are interpreting the move as a warning shot. If Hungary and Poland are trampled over, a bureaucratic dirty war will commence, with both countries blocking everything they can.
But Newton’s third law also has a role in EU politics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Other countries have vetoes over the budget process. Some like the Netherlands, which has a reputation for being a stickler for rules, could block the process if any compromise goes too far. The rule-of-law legislation is narrowly defined. Some countries wanted a far more wide-ranging tool, which would hit governments in their wallets if they trampled on the rights of minorities or gay people.
A nuclear option being discussed in a stage whisper by diplomats (and bellowed by MEPs) would involve other countries simply bypassing the two countries and issuing the debt without them. This would banish Hungary and Poland to an outer circle of the continent. Such strategies have been used before. David Cameron, then the British prime minister, found himself outwitted in 2011 when he refused to sign off on a treaty change without regulatory guarantees for the City of London. His fellow leaders went around him. Mr Cameron’s failure offers a lesson in how not to deal with Brussels, which Warsaw and Budapest would do well to heed if they want to guarantee their place in the bloc. Oddly enough, voters in both countries are strongly Europhile, despite electing governments that enjoy fighting EU institutions.
Once the EU’s rule-of-law tool has come into force, inertia may become the friend of Hungary and Poland, rather than their foe. Any punishment for trampling on the rule of law would have to be approved by a qualified majority of member states. On paper, this improves on the current system. At the moment, a country can be fined and/or stripped of its voting rights for violating the rule of law only if all 26 other governments agree. Since Hungary and Poland have each other’s backs, such a move is impossible. In practice, the new measures may still struggle to be invoked. Hungary and Poland are far from the only countries nervous about EU budget payments being linked to good behaviour. Corruption allegations swirl in Bulgaria. High-profile murders of investigative journalists in Malta and Slovakia have shaken both countries in recent years. Cyprus sells passports. Croatian authorities are accused of beating up refugees at the border. It is not just a case of honour among thieves. EU leaders are reluctant to interfere in the domestic affairs of others for the simple reason that they fear they could be next. In such circumstances, abstention is appealing.
Unlike rules of physics, rules of politics can be bent. The danger is that the new mechanism will become another Stability and Growth Pact, the bloc’s oft-maligned but usually ignored rules on government spending. According to the pact, EU countries are expected to keep their deficits below 3% of GDP in any given year and their debts below 60% of GDP. Even in good times, these targets were missed, but consequences were few. Technically countries could be fined. None ever was. To critics, the rule-of-law mechanism is a very European compromise: strict rules (to placate supporters) which are never enforced (to placate opponents).
Procedures for reining in misbehaving member states will do little if no one has the guts to use them. Fundamentally, dealing with rogue EU governments is a question of political courage. Big countries, such as Germany, have allowed political alliances to trump principles. Over the past decade, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has reshaped the Hungarian state from within the comfort of the European People’s Party, in which Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats also sit. Belated action on Poland—a far more important country for the future of Europe—came only after its government had already stacked its constitutional court. The bloc’s failure to act has had consequences. Other countries are sliding in a similar direction and will not stop unless some force impresses thereon. Inertia, after all, is a mighty thing. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Newtonian Europe”
The leaders of Poland and Hungary doubled down on their threat to veto the EU’s €1.8 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package on Thursday, rejecting efforts to tie the spending to the rule of law.
Following a meeting in Budapest, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán released a joint declaration that committed them to continue the fight: “We have decided to align our positions on these issues. Neither Poland, nor Hungary will accept any proposal that is deemed unacceptable by the other.”
Both countries are under EU investigation for backsliding on democratic standards as their ruling parties tighten their grip on the judiciary, media and other institutions. They insist they’ll only give way on the budget if there is a “substantial modification” to a contested rule of law mechanism that would allow the EU to block funding if a country breaks the EU’s fundamental principles.
Morawiecki warned that tying cash to democratic standards is “extremely dangerous for European unity. This is a bad solution which creates the danger of the breakup of the union.”
The hardening of the Polish-Hungarian position — which comes despite intensive attempts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to settle the dispute — means EU leaders are now heading for a major clash on rule of law at their upcoming European Council summit on December 10-11.
While Warsaw and Budapest are adamant that they won’t accept what they call “arbitrary” rule of law provisions, the rest of the bloc and the European Parliament insist they won’t give way on a principle they feel defines the EU’s fundamental values.
“It is clear that there is absolutely no support for reopening the conditionality mechanism in the European Parliament or in the Council,” said a senior EU diplomat. “With their statement, Poland and Hungary are moving deeper and deeper into isolation.”
The Hungarian-Polish declaration is a blow to Germany, which leads negotiation efforts as it holds the rotating Council of the EU presidency and has invested great political capital in the budget and recovery fund deal.
The Polish and Hungarian position is that the conditionality mechanism does an end-run around the EU treaties and “applies vague definitions and ambiguous terms without clear criteria on which sanctions can be based, and contains no meaningful procedural guarantees.”
Their statement also complains that the rule of law scheme allegedly goes beyond what EU leaders agreed in their budget deal in July. They insist that if the EU wants to make a link between rule of law and the budget it should be done by amending the bloc’s founding treaties — which effectively gives each member country a veto.
Speaking at a joint press conference following the meeting, Orbán said he was unconcerned about the prospect of a halt in EU funding. The two countries are among the largest recipients of EU cash, which is crucial to their economies. If the veto threat isn’t lifted soon, the EU will have no budget as of next year and would have to rely on emergency mechanisms.
“Hungary faces no financial loss if the European crisis management budget does not come together,” Orbán said.
Both leaders also insisted they were within their rights to wield the veto threat.
“I see that the larger member states and the media would like to apply pressure saying that the Hungarian veto was somehow inappropriate,” Orbán said, adding: “I would like to emphasize that the veto is a legal tool.”
Morawiecki said Warsaw “won’t hesitate to use a veto for the good of the whole EU,” adding that the rule of law conditionality was a tool to attack certain countries.
Jan Cienski contributed reporting.
The leaders of Hungary and Poland have vowed to maintain a united front and uphold their veto of the EU”s budget and its massive pandemic relief fund.
They continue to oppose the mechanism that ties funding for countries to rule of law principles, arguing that the EU plan risks derailing the bloc.
The EU has proposed a mechanism linking the bloc’s €1.8 trillion budget, which includes a €750bn coronavirus recovery package, to its members’ respect of the rule of law. This covers areas such as democratic values, human rights and the independence of the judiciary.
Prime ministers Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki met in Budapest to discuss ways of persuading EU leaders to abandon the plan.
In a joint statement, they rejected any mechanism that would financially sanction member states for violating democratic standards.
They proposed a two-track solution to exit the impasse and free up the COVID-19 package. It involves limiting the conditions for allocating funds and putting the link to the rule of law to the European Council for approval — which if passed by EU leaders would then mean modifying EU treaties.
Last week the two countries vetoed the EU mechanism, effectively stalling progress on the implementation of the whole budget and rescue package, planned for January. They received support from Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa.
On Thursday (November 26), the Polish and Hungarian leaders continued their attack.
Viktor Orbán said the EU debate over the rule of law must not be tied to ways of overcoming the economic crisis. “Whoever links them is irresponsible, because the crisis needs fast economic decisions,” he told a news conference.
Hungary’s leader said he was acting in his nation’s interest by opposing the financial mechanism, saying it violated Hungary’s national values and sovereignty. The debate was not about the rule of law but about the “rule of the majority”.
“This is extremely dangerous for Europe’s cohesion, it is a bad solution that threatens a breakup of Europe in the future,” Morawiecki said.
The Polish prime minister argued that similar exclusive mechanisms could be used in the future against other countries, over other issues. With the veto “We are defending the unity of the union,” Poland’s prime minister added.
Euronews political editor Darren McCaffrey said the two leaders’ stand cast doubt on an assertion earlier this week by German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass that a solution was in sight.
Several MEPs are accusing the Hungarian and Polish leaders of trying to blackmail the EU, and of putting the livelihoods of Europeans at risk, including in their own countries.
Last week the European Parliament said it would make “no concessions” to Hungary and Poland on the conditionality of EU funding to respect for the rule of law.
Under the new mechanism, individual EU countries could lose their veto and have funding cut if a majority of other member states back such a move.
EU leaders will discuss the matter at a European summit in December.
View Darren McCaffrey’s report in the video player above.
Hungary and Poland should accept rule-of-law conditions attached to EU funds to expedite a deal on the bloc’s long-term budget and coronavirus recovery fund, Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban told POLITICO.
EU leaders reached a historic agreement in July on a €1.82 trillion budget and recovery package that involved the bloc taking on collective debt, but the two countries are preventing the package from being finalized because of their opposition to a new mechanism that would allow the EU to cut off funds to member countries found to be violating rule-of-law principles.
“The governments of the countries that oppose this conditionality must understand that it is necessary to build public trust around this program, which is extremely important for relaunching the economy of the whole of Europe, for the benefit of citizens in Poland and Hungary,” said Orban.
Both governments are now blocking the EU’s giant budget-and-recovery package over the issue, with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša lending some support to Budapest and Warsaw. The Polish prime minister said the EU was itself in violation of rule-of-law principles. But despite growing pressure to unlock badly needed cash to support European economies hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, the EU should not give up on its demands for the sake of a quick deal, said Orban.
“I don’t believe that a government can tell its own citizens that this plan should be blocked,” he said. “All taxpayers from EU member countries should have the guarantee that the money is used correctly.”
Romania, itself the subject of a justice system monitoring mechanism from Brussels, is unlikely to have difficulties accessing funds with rule-of-law strings attached, Orban said. The country’s share of the recovery and resilience facility is estimated at around €30.4 billion.
At home, Orban is under political pressure to show he is not losing control of the pandemic, which has been raging despite tough restrictions, including a curfew and the closure of schools. The country is scrambling to expand intensive care capacity in hospitals and cold storage facilities for vaccines.
Disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories have flourished in Romanian cyberspace since the onset of the pandemic, fueling existing anti-vaccine sentiment. An outbreak of measles in 2016 led to 64 deaths as parents refused to vaccinate their children.
Orban said he would set a “personal example” by taking the vaccine when it becomes available. “We will conduct a communications campaign to explain the advantages of vaccination,” he said.
Parliamentary elections take place on December 6 under strict coronavirus alert measures: social distancing, mask-wearing and using disinfectant on the way in and out of polling stations. “My message to Romanians is they will not be in danger of infection as long as they follow the rules,” Orban said.
His liberal government depends on shaky support of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD), which has a larger number of MPs. In order to remain at the helm after the election, Orban will need a majority. He said he was willing to consider a coalition with the USR-PLUS center-right group. The same alliance proved successful this fall in municipal elections in Bucharest, and both parties support changes to the country’s constitution to enshrine the independence of the judiciary and ban those with criminal records from public office.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, though nominally independent, was a member of the same party as Orban, and has renamed him as prime minister after a no-confidence vote ousted the government in February this year. A similar move against Orban’s administration failed in August.
Brexit is another issue of national importance in Romania, whose citizens form one of the largest EU migrant groups in the U.K. Orban said he was hoping for the process to have “a negotiated outcome,” but that the EU should not make further compromises. “I believe the EU has shown enough willingness to compromise in the negotiations so far. More flexibility from the U.K. is necessary,” he said.
Abortion charities are reporting a sharp increase in the number of Polish women turning to them for help after a constitutional court ruling last month to tighten legislation.
For Ciocia Basia (Aunt Basia), a Berlin-based group helping Polish women with abortions in Germany, the ruling worsens a situation already complicated by the pandemic.
“We have had a high increase in callers. Three times as many as before,” Cioca Basia volunteer Ula Bertin told AFP.
The Polish court ruling struck down a provision of the law that had allowed abortions in cases of severe foetal anomalies, triggering a wave of protests.
Even though the verdict is not yet in force, activist groups say Polish doctors are now even more reticent to perform permitted abortions lest they fall on the wrong side of the law.
Ms Bertin said that often women seeking help “were already in the process of arranging an abortion in Poland and now no one wants to do it. So they’re mentally exhausted, traumatised”.
“They’re punished twice because the child they were awaiting has turned out to be sick and may not survive, but they’re being forced to deliver. It’s emotional torture.”
Other organisations are reporting a similar uptick in calls for help, despite the difficulties of foreign travel because of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Abortion Without Borders (AWB), a multinational coalition, said that since the ruling it has helped 40 women travel or arrange to travel abroad for abortion – already more than double its monthly average.
Mara Clarke from AWB said the sudden increase in calls from Polish women was also due to the fact that “protesters were chanting the name of our organisation and phone number” at the mass nationwide demonstrations.
Since launching in December, the network has provided information on how to access pills to hundreds of Poles who then had at-home medical abortions – a grey zone in Poland, neither authorised nor banned by law.
For those requiring a surgical procedure, the coalition offers logistical and financial support so they can abort in Austria, Britain, Germany or the Netherlands.
Kasia Roszak, from the coalition’s Dutch group Abortion Network Amsterdam, said many recent callers had abortions planned at Polish hospitals and “were sort of left on their own”.
Some had got referrals for the procedure but were told that no one would actually undertake it. Others saw their appointments indefinitely postponed.
“So they had to scramble for another solution,” she told AFP.
Even before the court ruling, some who qualified in Poland would contact the group after sensing that doctors were playing for time to avoid the procedure.
“The legal abortion process was already complicated and not very user-friendly,” said Roszak.
Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws and the ruling would allow terminations only in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
A country of 38 million, Poland sees fewer than 2,000 legal abortions every year, according to official statistics. Women’s groups estimate that another 200,000 women abort illegally or abroad.
When Warsaw resident Hanna was in her early 20s and not ready to start a family, she got an abortion in the Netherlands with help from relatives there.
“I really liked how professional it was. Because I’ve heard from friends about Poland’s abortion underground, and it’s less pleasant,” the 38-year-old mother-of-two told AFP.
“There’s the feeling that you’re doing something illegal, that you have to visit the gynaecologist on the sly at night, and the fear that if something goes wrong there’s nowhere to file a complaint or to get help.”
Ms Bertin from Ciocia Basia said Poles will burst into tears after a check-up because they feel they have entered “a parallel universe where the things that for them are taboo… are for us normal, simply normal”.
While Poles are now getting a little help from their friends abroad, the reverse was once true: thousands of Swedes travelled to Poland for abortions in the 1960s when they were banned at home.
Poland had unfettered access to abortion then, as today’s legislation was only adopted in 1993 as part of a church-state compromise after communism.
Swedish Gender Equality Minister Asa Lindhagen said she believes it is time to return the favour and has called for the government “to stand up for Polish women” and offer free, subsidised abortions.
“No woman should have to risk her life undergoing an illegal abortion.”
(Bloomberg Opinion) — In 2015, the year before Donald Trump became president of the U.S., a similar power shift occurred in eastern Europe, albeit on a smaller scale. Like America soon after, Poland veered hard-right toward an anti-elitist populism built on the politics of grievance and resentment. What’s Poland like today?
Bitterly divided. “This is war,” read some of the banners carried by hundreds of thousands of Poles, mainly women, who took to the streets in recent days. They’re marching against a push to make one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws even more prohibitive, with a ban on terminating pregnancies even when the fetus isn’t viable. “I wish I could abort my government,” said the sign of one woman.
These passions in turn fit neatly into the playbook of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the eminence grise of Polish politics as leader of the populist ruling party, called Law & Justice. The women on the streets are “nihilists” bent on “destroying Poland,” he proclaimed. State television, which the party has in its grip, called the protesters “left-wing fascists.” Kaczynski encouraged God-fearing Poles to “defend” churches and shrines from the allegedly rampant mobs. Many turned out, some of them carrying neo-Nazi symbols.
And so it goes, on the streets of Poland in this fall of 2020. But things didn’t deteriorate to this point all at once. The slide into bitterness — which may look familiar to Americans — happened gradually over the past five years.
Physically and stylistically, Kaczynski bears no resemblance to a flamboyant reality-TV star like Trump. He’s a diminutive man who prefers to stay out of the limelight and rule from behind the scenes. He formally joined the cabinet as deputy prime minister only recently, to keep tabs on a power struggle between the prime minister and justice minister.
But in his political instincts Kaczynski has much in common with Trump. Both appeal to, and govern for, their base. In Kaczynski’s case, that’s rural and conservative Catholics who are disillusioned with Poland’s development since the fall of communism. Like Trump, Kaczynski rails against refugees and other migrants, whom he sees as threatening the way of life of authentic Poles, by which he means the party faithful.
Above all, Kaczynski and his party revel in their disdain for liberal and cosmopolitan “elites.” During this year’s presidential campaign, this took the form of vilifying gays, lesbians and transgender people and their alleged “LGBT ideology.” The party has also recycled anti-Semitic stereotypes in the past and flirted with conspiracy theories.
Like Trump, Kaczynski and his minions have also wantonly been breaking democratic taboos. But in Poland, which became a democracy only in 1989 and a member of the European Union in 2004, that’s easier than in the U.S., with its long tradition of checks and balances. Most notably, Law & Justice has, with many complicated maneuvers, sabotaged the rule of law, and specifically the independence of judges and courts.
As a result, the EU is now in the midst of a formal infringement investigation against Poland. But that’s only egged on Kaczynski more. Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of funds from Brussels. But — rather as Trump loves to cast aspersions on the United Nations, the World Health Organization or any other multilateral body — Law & Justice portrays the EU as a perfidious empire interfering in Polish nation building.
The overall effect of Polish populism has been to make the country a pariah within the EU. It appears uninterested in helping to solve any major problem, from migration to climate change and now the pandemic. The EU’s big pandemic stimulus package is stuck over a clause aimed precisely at Poland and Hungary to tie funding to the rule of law. Meanwhile the coronavirus, which arrived late in Poland, is spreading fast.
The move to ban abortion, which the government is now tactically delaying, is widely considered an attempt to distract from all these problems and failures, and to rally the conservative Catholic base once again for the wider culture war ahead. That’s populism in a nutshell.
But its limits are now becoming clear. In a poll conducted on Oct. 31, nine days after the ruling on abortion, only 30.9% supported Law & Justice, a steep drop. According to another survey, about 70% had a negative view of Kaczynski and said he should step down as head of the party.
It’s far too early to conclude either that populism in Poland has peaked or that it will progress toward autocracy as in Hungary. But Poland already serves as a warning to the U.S., in case any more were needed. The populist politics of resentment lead a country into a dead end. Once citizens regard their compatriots as enemies, once those in power distinguish between in-groups and out-groups, no problems can be solved at all and many new ones are created. And the whole country suffers.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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