WARSAW — Poland went straight from EU bad boy to star pupil thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For the first time in years, Poland is receiving positive press.
Large numbers of ordinary Poles have responded with astonishing generosity to the more than 500,000 Ukrainian refugees crossing their eastern border, sending relief supplies and opening their homes to thousands. As a nation scarred by centuries of Russian aggression, Poland has also become the main jumping-off point for sending a flood of anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets, rifles, ammunition, weapons, armor and other war supplies to Ukrainian fighters.
Poland’s rare moment as the good guy raises hopes in Warsaw that the European Commission will let the past pass and give the country a pass for accusations that it breached the rule of law principles of the block and release billions of delayed European funds.
“The [European Commission] should immediately cease all sanctions against Poland,” said Patryk Jaki, Member of the European Parliament from the ruling Polish nationalist United Right coalition.
To some extent, some of the background music changes to Warsaw’s advantage. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – who is more accustomed to receiving slaps from EU officials over his country’s democratic backsliding – can now bask in unexpected praise from Charles Michel, the President of the European Council.
“I would like to congratulate you, dear Prime Minister Mateusz, your team and the Polish people,” Michel said on Wednesday during his visit to the eastern Polish city of Rzeszów.
But the smell of Poland’s seven years of often brutal confrontations with the EU still lingers.
On Wednesday, the European Commission published a communication setting out the rules under which “breaches of the principles of the rule of law in a Member State affect or seriously risk affecting the sound financial management of the Union’s budget”. It is an instrument for retreating countries like Poland and Hungary, linking their rule of law performance to access EU liquidity.
The Commission has also failed to release €36 billion in grants and loans to Poland under its pandemic relief package. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said they would be unlocked once Poland dismantles its disputed disciplinary chamber for judges – which was declared illegal by the EU’s highest court in July – as well than “end or reform” a disciplinary regime for judges and begin a process to reinstate those who have been dismissed.
Polish President Andrzej Duda proposed a half-measure last month that dissolves the disciplinary chamber but does not address other rule of law headaches. But the bill’s passage through parliament is stalled by dissent within the united right and the opposition’s reluctance to vote for Duda’s measure.
All of these remnants, however, now seem quite small in light of the war unfolding next door.
Give a hand
“War changes the math,” said Jakub Jaraczewski, research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International, a nongovernmental organization. “There is a very strong feeling in Poland that we have to overcome political differences and oppose the external threat. When we have an outer war, we don’t need an inner war.
Many saw the need for unity given the scale of the crisis.
Szymon Hołownia, leader of the centrist opposition group Poland 2050, called for “a quick resolution of the issue of the disciplinary chamber, a quick resolution of the rule of law so that the open front against Brussels is finally closed”.
Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition Civic Platform party and former prime minister and president of the European Council, called for national unity after the invasion but also demanded “the return of the rule of law to Poland”.
“Repairing the situation around the judicial system in Poland is a necessary condition for strengthening Poland in relation to our allies both in the EU and the United States, and the conflict over this issue weakens us,” he said. said in an open letter, adding that his party would work with the government to help them get out of the “trap” of the dispute with Brussels.
But he came under fierce attack from government supporters after his European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament, backed a motion calling on the Commission to “immediately and retrospectively” apply conditionality to Right wing state.
“Are you allowing further attacks on Poland as Poland acts to resist Russian aggression?” tweeted Beata Szydło, MEP and former Prime Minister of the Law and Justice party.
Despite calls to end the dispute, Duda and the government are ducking and weaving to throw in the towel on their long-running efforts to bring the courts under tighter political control.
They give in on other contentious issues. Duda on Wednesday vetoed a controversial education law aimed at “protecting children from moral corruption” that would have given the highly ideological Minister of Education, who is a staunch opponent of LGBTQ+ rights, more control over the school system. “We don’t need more conflict,” Duda said.
But that does not prevent growing concern about the shift in democratic standards in Poland.
A report released on Wednesday by the V-Dem Institute, a democratic NGO, found Poland to be one of the most “self-critical” countries in the world.
“Benin, El Salvador, Mali, Mauritius and Poland are seen as top autocratizers in both the long-term and short-term windows,” it says.
This will make it even more difficult for the European Commission to forget Poland’s past transgressions, no matter how extensive its current efforts to help Ukraine.
“The Commission is under pressure to help Poland, but also not to let Poland get away with the rule of law,” Jaraczewski said.
Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.