On Thursday the 6th October, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal (the highest Court in Poland), under the leadership of its President, Julia Przylebska, announced that parts of European Union legislation are not compatible with the Polish Constitution. It went on to highlight the supremacy of the Polish Constitution over EU law.
For the EU institutions that amounts to almost a declaration of war. The official statement from the president of the European Commission was firm and one could even see it as slightly threatening: “EU law has primacy over national law, including constitutional provisions. This is what all EU Member States have signed up to as members of the European Union. We will use all the powers that we have under the Treaties to ensure this.”
The case was brought by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, making it political and outlining the current governing party objectives, undermining the foundations of Poland’s membership in the EU. This ruling opens the door for the governing party to dismiss any EU Court of Justice (CJEU) rulings it does not deem beneficial for its political goals. The latest case in point is the ongoing dispute with the Czech Republic over the Turow mine. Possible rulings regarding refusal to accept asylum seekers and other issues where EU and Poland have conflicting interests loom down the road.
There are several areas in which the Polish government does not see eye to eye with the European Union:
- Rule of law (Polish judiciary reform and de facto abolishment of the divisions of power between executive and judiciary)
- Questioning the supremacy of the EU law over Polish law (6th October ruling)
- Freedom of speech
- Green agenda
- LGBT rights
- Abortion – women’s rights
The ruling was a long time in the making and one can argue it did not really send shockwaves but made a lot of people in Brussels openly talk about Polexit, something they might only have whispered about before.
Following the ruling, the opposition parties, led by Donald Tusk, have taken to the streets with supporters of Polish membership in the EU, under the banners ‘ZostajeMY w Uni’ – We remain in the EU (a play on words MY – meaning we in the EU). The protest in Warsaw gathered around 100,000 participants with millions more silently supporting the cause. More than 88% of Poles want Poland to stay in the EU.
Since 6th October, the government has issued a number of official statements declaring its willingness to stay in the EU. However, mentally the current Polish government has already left the European Union and the values it represents. The official Polexit is a matter of time unless the government changes.
It is an open secret that as long as Poland is a net beneficiary of EU funds it will stay in the EU. However, that will not always be the case and President Von der Leyen’s threat to ‘’use all the powers’’ to ensure Poland complies with EU law might mean those funds will be stopped very soon.
It is the numbers stupid!
Looking at continuous protests over the last years and days in different cities across the country, one could ask a simple question: Why does the current party keep on winning?
The answer lies in the demographic make-up of the country and the electoral map. The big cities, above 100,000 inhabitants (around 10.7 million people live in them) usually vote for centre-right, liberal and left parties (the opposition, broadly understood). However, the majority of the Polish population still lives in small cities, villages and towns (around 27.7 million) where the current government wins (Law and Justice – PiS).
Unless the opposition starts winning hearts and minds of the towns and villages it will struggle to win future elections.
This is also where it all comes down to money, because these regions benefit most from EU aid. So as long as the EU supports them financially the current government will not dare to leave the EU.
However, if the EU withdraws funds (as it is currently threatening to do) then the narrative of ‘bad Brussels taking our money because we want to be independent’ might prevail and lead to the official exit.
What happened to the opposition?
The Polish left-wing parties have been searching for their own identity ever since they lost power in 2005 and that seems to have been a rather disastrous endeavour. Earlier this year they lost the little trust they gained over the years by making an alliance with the governing party (PiS) on the ‘Polish Deal’ proposal. The fact that they made an alliance in the name of a greater good–namely a Polish proposal for the EU recovery fund making its way through the Polish Parliament–is not a bad thing. But the leverage they had at that moment they failed to use. Not even weeks later but days later, during the Polish marches against the most draconian abortion laws in Europe, the government used force on protesters. Many of these battered protesters would be left- wing voters. This is something they cannot easily forget or forgive.
Civic Platform (PO), the main opposition party and the political home of Donald Tusk (previous European Council President), has been unable to gather any momentum. Commentators fault Tusk for his management style and for eliminating any rivals around him. As a consequence, he has created a party which does not have the personnel nor the charisma to take on PiS. He recently returned to Polish politics with some witty rhetoric but so far no momentum for change.
When will Polexit happen?
If the current impasse continues (and all signs show it will) Poland will slowly stop receiving EU funds, starting with Poland’s €57 billion recovery package. This will lead to the increase anti-EU rhetoric in the state media and parts of the private media that state-owned companies bought up earlier this year . With time, the state’s control of the media narrative could undermine the support of the vast majority of pro-EU citizens.
Official support for the EU is high: 68,6% of respondents say Poland should definitely stay in the EU, with 19,5% saying ‘rather yes’. But many fear that these are people who can easily be persuaded to leave the EU (currently around 10%), who might for a moment forget what it was like to live in a country with a nearly 20% unemployment rate (official, with a lot more hidden unemployment in the countryside).
If Poland does decide to pull the trigger of the ‘leave’ button, it could be anti-climatically easy: According to Polish law, it would not even require a referendum.
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