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How Poland Could Return to the EU Fold

After three years of watching the ruling Law and Justice party undermine the judiciary and attack EU institutions, Polish voters seem to have had enough of populist rule. With next year's European Parliament election fast approaching, the European center right should renounce the populists in its ranks once and for all.

WARSAW – Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has finally taken steps to comply with a European Court of Justice (ECJ) decree ordering it to reverse some of the judicial “reforms” that took effect in July. Under the offending legislation, the PiS had tried to force out disfavored Supreme Court justices by arbitrarily lowering the retirement age. It also created two new judicial chambers: one to discipline judges who step out of line, the other to review rulings handed down over the last 20 years and to decide on the validity of the elections.

By offering to reverse the retirement-age provision, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is betting that he can reinstate the ousted judges – most of whom had refused to leave anyway – while maintaining the rest of the “reform” package. So far, European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans has opposed this halfway solution, whereas President Jean-Claude Juncker is reportedly willing to entertain it.

But while appeasing the PiS has certainly been the favored approach of Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party (EPP) Spitzenkandidat who hopes to succeed Juncker, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify. After all, there is good reason to think that populists will suffer an overwhelming defeat in the European Parliament election in May 2019.

In Poland’s local elections in October, the PiS lost in virtually every municipality, including those where it once enjoyed strong support. Centrist voters clearly have had enough of the ruling party’s radicalism. But, more than that, many are starting to fear that PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński may be steering Poland toward an exit from the European Union. How else should one interpret Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro’s recent statements questioning the constitutional validity of EU agreements?

The PiS’s prospects are declining precisely because it has tried to frame the European Parliament election as a plebiscite on Poland’s EU membership. With support for the EU within Poland exceeding 80% – the highest in Europe – this does not appear to have been a very wise electoral strategy.

Moreover, the urban voters who turned against the PiS in the recent local elections tend to be overrepresented in European elections. By trying to repair relations with the European Commission, the PiS is probably hoping that it can win back some of these voters. But even if it succeeds, it will still have to navigate a less favorable EU-wide political landscape. When the United Kingdom leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, the PiS will lose its main ally in the European Parliament. Without the British Tories by its side, the PiS may find itself all but alone.

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To be sure, Kaczyński would still have an ally in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Yet Orbán has had to see to his own interests as he fights off motions to expel his party from the EPP. As the European Parliament’s main center-right party bloc, the EPP also counts among its members Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.

Prior to assuming his current role, Tusk was Poland’s prime minister in the center-right Civic Platform government that preceded PiS rule. As the PiS’s primary nemesis both in Poland and in Brussels, Tusk is a key motivating factor in the party’s efforts to secure a spot in the European Parliament’s next majority.

The PiS is counting on the fact that some EPP members – particularly Christian Democratic politicians – cannot simply ignore its overtures. The PiS could command as many as 20 of Poland’s 52 seats, affording it a potentially decisive role in the vote for the next Commission president.

The EU’s parliamentary election is coming at time when the European center right is in retreat. It has lost ground to the Greens in Germany, to President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! in France, to the League in Italy, and to both left- and right-wing forces in Spain, where the People’s Party has been weakened by corruption scandals.

Against this backdrop, Poland is the odd man out. Its traditional center-right parties – Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party – could fare well in May, and thus may play a crucial role in coalition building and future leadership votes. Faced with a choice between the Polish opposition and the PiS, the EPP should be taking steps to help the former. That means taking a principled stand in support of the ECJ and the European Commission, and against the PiS’s violations of the rule of law. A strong showing for Civic Platform could give Poland the second-largest representation within the EPP, after Germany, and could position a center-right Pole to lead the next European Parliament.

If Weber does assume the European Commission presidency through the complicated Spitzenkandidat process, then a liberal from Macron’s camp would most likely become the next European Council president. By extension, a socialist would probably fill the role of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and another liberal (perhaps from France) would take the reins at the European Central Bank. That would leave the Parliament’s president to the EPP, which would be obliged to fill the post with a Pole from its second-largest party.

The prospect of Poland returning to the European fold after three years of anti-EU agitation should be welcomed by all those seeking to stem the rise of populism. Rather than accepting the PiS’s overtures, the European center right should help free Poland from Kaczyński’s authoritarian grip. It could set that process in motion now by adding a Pole to its list of center-right candidates for key EU posts. Choosing such candidates – Róża Thun and Danuta Hübner, for example, are highly respected MEPs who would serve all Europeans well – might persuade more Poles to choose liberal democracy.

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