In the face of a rising Eurosceptic movement, the European Commission defended its political solidarity when it launched an unprecedented inquiry of Poland’s newly elected Law and Justice Party (PiS) on January 15, 2016. The investigation follows the Commission’s 2014 “Rule of Law Framework”, which assesses whether a member state “systematically threatens” the EU’s fundamental values, and can result in a suspension of the government’s EU Council voting rights. The announcement came in response to a host of laws enacted by PiS to restrict Poland’s democratic process, including: (1) seizing control of the national media, (2) expanding their citizen surveillance program, (3) annulling and replacing five appointments to Poland’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Tribunal, and (4) raising the majority needed to rule legislation unconstitutional. To opposition leaders, this rapid centralization of power resembles the political tactics of the soviet era too closely, and has caused thousands of Poles to take to the streets of Warsaw in protest.
While the Commission is undoubtedly anxious about these impairments of Poland’s democracy, the true intention of the rule of law assessment is to limit the geopolitical ramifications of their implementer. The ultra conservative Law and Justice Party, lead by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczyński, won Poland’s first outright parliamentary majority on a nationalist platform of populist economics, xenophobic immigration restrictions and social conservatism. With control of both Parliament and the Presidency, the PiS can enact measures that contradict EU policies, including large expansions of welfare and extra taxes on foreign banks. These positions are indicative of the party’s staunch Euroscepticism, which casts European solidarity as an affront to the sovereignty and values that define Polish identity. The merits of these apprehensions were validated when Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo refused to honor the new refugee quota just one month after taking office.
Poland’s political shift is particularly troubling because the country’s post-communist revitalization has historically served as a testament to the success of EU-style liberalism. Following its democratic independence in 1989, Poland aggressively opened its markets, allowing for massive levels of European investment (particularly German) to transform its manufacturing sector and infrastructure. Over the past two decades, the Polish economy’s growth rate has outpaced any other on the continent at a rate of more than 4% per year, and living standards have also doubled.
However, since the PiS regime began distancing itself from European ideals, the EU has been scrambling to save their liberal poster child. The unprecedented nature of the rule of law assessment demonstrates the severity of the threat an illiberal Poland poses to the EU. With Eurosceptism gaining momentum beyond the eastern bloc (i.e. England’s Tory party, France’s National Front, Germany’s AfD) and the Brexit referendum on the horizon, the PiS’ rise may throw the EU into a solidarity crisis that it is not prepared for.
Despite this being economically and politically troublesome, Brussels’ most urgent concern is that the PIS may redefine NATO’s geostrategic standing with Russia. This is worrisome because the rise of Euroscepticism throughout Eastern Europe (especially Hungary) has made the EU’s relationship with Russia increasingly competitive.
However, unlike Hungary, Poland’s problem lies in its suspicions, not sympathies. On February 4, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macrierewicz announced the reopening of an investigation of the 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other political figures outside of Smolensk Russia. Although the tangible consequences of this are limited, the investigation exemplifies the party’s antagonistic approach towards Russia. President Kaczyński ’s twin brother Jaroslaw has built his party’s rise to prominence on the implication of Russian culpability in the catastrophe, utilizing the crash as a means to increase nationalism.
While these sentiments prevent Russia’s “little green men” brand of influence in Poland, it may prove dangerous in terms of its distortion of NATO’s security posture. As the alliance’s third largest military, Poland is a major decision maker within European security, particularly in terms of defining NATO’s position in the East. PiS leaders attempted to flex this proverbial muscle in early February when Macriewrewcz suggested that establishing a permanent NATO presence in Poland was a prerequisite for the country’s involvement in Syria.
Although Poland has traditionally advocated for NATO’s involvement on its eastern border, PiS’s anti-Russian fanaticism may escalate the confrontational nature of the alliance’s security policy. They will have a unique opportunity to do so this July when Warsaw hosts the 2016 NATO Summit, a biennial meeting that defines the alliance’s strategic framework. Assuming that party rhetoric is a viable indicator, PiS leaders will try to capitalize on the organization’s increasingly contentious relationship with Russia to push for the establishment of permanent forces in Eastern Poland.
If NATO leaders give in to Poland’s demands and deploy a permanent military presence in the Eastern Bloc , PiS leaders will have mobilized their amalgam of Eurosceptism and Russian suspicion into a security posture dangerous for Europe. While direct conflict is unlikely, the PiS’s form of nationalism escalates the pressure on both sides to secure their geopolitical position. When held in the context of its fervent Eurosceptism, a PiS government destabilizes the European Union’s security policies by casting its cohesive nature in doubt. If Poland can reallocate NATO forces in the region, they will have heightened the antagonistic nature of the European-Russian relationship while simultaneously discrediting the solidarity of European action. Moreover, Polish hostility within this “falling apart at the seams” paradigm, both presents an opportunity for the Kremlin to establish themselves as a viable alternative to the EU and justifies their sociopolitical aggression in the region.
As such, NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit will prove to be a fundamental juncture in the future of Europe’s security framework. Until then, it is essential that the EU contain Poland’s radicalization of European discourse. But if Kaczyński’s recent remarks regarding the rule of law investigation are any indication, Poland’s conservative government is unlikely to change according to European stipulations.
Alec Hively is a new correspondent for Glimpse from the Globe.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.