WARSAW – Until his recent bungled attempt to block Donald Tusk’s reelection as European Council President, Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, may have appeared to many European Union leaders to be a politician in the vein of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or some Western populist. But that is far from the case. And now Europe has gotten a taste of Polish political culture, which has long revolved around attempting to restrain a madman. This is what Aleksander Kwaśniewski did as president, and it is what occupied Tusk when he was prime minister. Now this task falls to the Polish opposition – and to Europe.
What happened in Brussels was not part of any larger plan. Kaczyński’s attempt to undermine Tusk benefited no one, neither Poland nor the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which Kaczyński chairs. That is not surprising, because Kaczyński represents the antithesis of pragmatism, which he views as a hallmark of betrayal and weakness. Unlike Orbán, his partner in “illiberalism,” Kaczyński is a paranoid fanatic, not merely a cynical opportunist.
There is little to be gained by trying to decipher Kaczyński’s plans, goals, statecraft, or ideology. He is not an egoist; in Freudian terms, he is pure id, overwhelmed by the death drive. His modus operandi is to attack his opponents, wait for them to hit back or mount resistance, and then retaliate with full force. And, as always, his views, allies, and short-term objectives are inconstant, because they ultimately matter little to him.
Given Kaczyński’s belief that he was humiliated at the recent summit, he will now lash out at the EU. He will provoke, obstruct, ignore, and assign blame. In a sign of what is to come, Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, told the tabloid Superekspres after the summit that the EU was pursuing “a policy of double standards and deceptions.” According to Waszczykowski, Poland not only “must drastically reduce [its] level of trust in the EU,” but “must also begin to pursue a negative policy,” by “blocking other initiatives or playing a very aggressive game.”
In fact, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło had already launched that strategy, by refusing to sign off on the summit’s official record, as if this would render the outcome inconsequential to Poland. Such infantile ploys have become all too characteristic of the PiS government, which has also refused to publish Polish Constitutional Tribunal decisions, as if this makes them legally non-binding. The government has undoubtedly paralyzed the Court, thereby undermining the rule of law in Poland.
Kaczyński believes that the European Council deserves a similar fate. In his view, the EU elected Tusk illegally, so the European Council is still without a president. Poland will not work with such an entity, because, according to Waszczykowski, “what happened on Thursday is a sign that we will be deceived.” We can expect that the Polish government, heedless of the economic or geopolitical consequences, will now veto European Council measures, obstruct and boycott summits, and violate EU law.
One possible maneuver is arresting Tusk, which would force the EU to negotiate with Kaczyński for his release. The Financial Times reports that Kaczyński told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Poland will seek an arrest warrant. That may sound absurd. But it is no more absurd than proposing Jacek Saryusz-Wolski’s candidacy to replace Tusk. And it is certainly no more absurd than the rationale for issuing an arrest warrant: Kaczyński’s belief that Tusk conspired with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2010 plane crash that killed his brother, then-Polish President Lech Kaczyński.
It has become clear that Kaczyński will not rest until he puts Tusk in prison. This obviously poses a problem for the EU, because the purported criminal is the President of the European Council.
The problem for Poland, and for Europe, with Kaczyński’s war with the EU is that it could ultimately result in “Polexit” – a Polish exit from the Union. Now that he has determined that the EU “deceived” Poland once, he will grasp at that conclusion continually. And Kaczyński’s wars never end with a compromise. He was unmoved by French President François Hollande’s warning that Poland “may have principles, but we have the structural funds,” because he does not care about costs. As he told Reuters, his government is “a revolt, and in the long term it is worth it, even if the current pace of economic growth declines.”
But the EU could find a silver lining in the Polish government’s outrageous behavior, if it uses the current standoff to emancipate itself from its member states’ worst dictates. And with such cuckoos as Kaczyński in the nest, the EU desperately needs to be emancipated. If the EU can overrule a member state once, it can do so again. That means effectively using double-majority voting, which EU officials have been scared to invoke but could make the EU more efficient and more deeply integrated.
Ultimately, the EU will prevail, because ordinary Poles will quickly realize that their country’s independence makes no sense without the EU and NATO. It can’t survive long if it is unaligned and has to be either a member of the geopolitical West, or a satrapy of Russia.
To understand what would happen if they left the EU, Poles need look no farther than neighboring Ukraine, which lost Crimea in 2014, and now lives with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions. They might at least be reminded that Ukrainians would be only too happy to exchange places with them.