Analysis | Polexit? Don’t count on it.

Why democratic compliance will (most likely) win in Poland

Joseph Bebel

Aerial view of Gdansk, Poland
Aerial view of Gdansk, Poland (Image: Sebastian Huber on Unsplash)

Poland started the new year with a bang by recalling its ambassador to the Czech Republic, Miroslaw Jasinski. The ambassador was under fire for criticizing Warsaw’s “lack of empathy” in its most recent spat with Prague over the state-run Turow lignite mine. Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller called the comments “extremely irresponsible” and stressed the need to protect Poland’s national interests.

Prague and Warsaw have been at odds over the mine’s alleged environmental violations for some time. And in March 2021, the Czech Republic filed litigation to close the mine. In a May 2021 press release, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered Warsaw to close Turow or face a €500,000 fine for each day the mine continues to operate. The Polish government responded with an official statement, arguing the European Union “may not violate” member states’ sovereignty.

Warsaw v. Brussels

The Turow mine highlights a deepening rift between the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland and E.U. institutions in Brussels. As early as December 2019, the ECJ pressed Poland to suspend the Disciplinary Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court, as it threatens the court’s independence and impartiality. In March 2021, Prime Minister Mateuz Morawiecki referred the issue to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to examine whether Brussels can squash PiS’s judicial reforms, including the Disciplinary Chamber. In October 2021, the tribunal ruled that elements of the European Union’s treaties are “incompatible” with the Polish Constitution, asserting the primacy of Polish law over E.U. law.

In response, the ECJ ordered Poland to pay €1 million for every day it does not suspend its controversial judicial reforms. In December 2021, the European Commission officially launched an infringement procedure against Poland for failure to pause its judicial reforms and for challenging the primacy of E.U. law.

As Warsaw continues to thumb its nose at Brussels, the row has reignited fears of an impending “Polexit”. However, a deeper examination of Poland’s limited alternatives to the European Union reveals that the notion of an inevitable Polexit is ludicrous.

Poland’s fading leverage

Poland’s economic success is fairly reliant on EU membership. Although Poland is the sixth-largest economy by GDP in the European Union, it is one of the biggest net beneficiaries of E.U funds. In 2018 alone, Poland received almost €12 billion more than it contributed in funding. Additionally, 80 percent of Polish exports go to fellow member states and almost 70 percent of imports come from within the European internal market. Beyond that, the exact economic repercussions of an exit are uncertain, but — if Brexit is anything to go by — they do not seem too bright.

PiS has retained power since 2015 largely due to a growing economy. Losing billions in future E.U. funds would most certainly strike a death knell for that growth. The Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation — which allows the European Union to cut funding to any member state it deems has violated the rule of law — came into effect in January 2021. As such, Brussels can now demand democratic compliance from member states in exchange for coveted funds. In fact, currently, the European Union is withholding almost €36 billion in recovery funds set aside for Poland until the rule of law issues are remedied.

What about any viable alternative partners in the region? For example, some E.U. member states in the region, primarily Hungary, have been more than happy to cozy up to Moscow as a buffer to Brussels.

However, Russia will almost never be considered a viable long-term partner by any government in Warsaw due to centuries of conflict and mutual distrust. For Poles, Russian atrocities, including the 1940 Katyn massacre, remain fresh in their minds. As such, any Polish government that deals too closely with the Kremlin should expect major public backlash and significant electoral losses.

Some have pointed to recent increased economic engagement with China as a sign Poland could be turning eastward. Poland has been keen to take the lead in the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), which seeks to improve infrastructure connectivity throughout CEE. Some have posited possible connections between 3SI and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Poland even joined the 17+1 Initiative hoping Beijing would be a strong partner in domestic and regional economic development; however, very little substantive progress has been made, leaving Poland in the lurch.

Indeed, prospects for increased Polish-Chinese cooperation have soured in recent months. Polish President Andrzej Duda was set to attend the 17+1 Summit in Beijing in March 2020 but did not due to disagreements with China — including blacklisting Huawei and other Chinese tech and demanding “more transparency” from China in the E.U.-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Furthermore, Warsaw has encouraged increased E.U. and U.S.involvement in 3SI, casting shade on prolonged and expanded economic cooperation between Poland and China.

The Visegrad Group, or Visegrad Four (V4),consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, has traditionally played an important role in regional cooperation and development. However, growing divergence in national interests has since weakened the partnership. Beyond the Turow mining dispute, Czech E.U. Affairs Minister Mikuláš Bek recently posited that Hungary and Poland are “in a serious dispute” with the E.U. and that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not “playing the same notes.” Meanwhile, newly elected Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala have decidedly pushed both countries in a more pro-E.U. direction.

Even the seemingly illiberal and Euroskeptic brotherhood between the current Polish and Hungarian governments only extends so far. While Polish relations with Russia and China are tenuous, Hungary has happily turned to both for cooperation in energy security (i.e., Paks II) and technology (i.e., Huawei Memorandum of Understanding). Thus, cooperation between Warsaw and Budapest is limited to like-minded issues (i.e., sovereignty disputes with Brussels). Furthermore, a united V4 economy could not adequately account for the E.U. collective economic might; thus, V4 cooperation is not a viable substitute for the increased economic and political influence each E.U. member state experiences.

The PiS government is incredibly Euroskeptic, but Polish domestic public opinion has remained staunchly pro-EU. Two polls from October 2021 record Polish public support for E.U. membership at almost 90 percent. Furthermore, Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita published a recent poll in which almost three-quarters of Poles said they believe the PiS government should compromise with Brussels. Coupled with mass protests fighting against Polexit, if PiS wants to remain in power, it must toe the line between its Euroskeptic whims and the electorate’s pro-EU sentiments. Polexit would most certainly spell political suicide for PiS.

The United States is considered one of Poland’s most trusted allies. A recent report from the Polish Institute of International Affairs shows 72 percent of Poles approve of US economic investment in the country and almost 60 percent believe the two countries are linked by “special ties”.

Consequently, mixed signals from Washington vis-a-vis the European Union could hurt Poland’s future E.U. membership. The Trump administration was especially critical of Brussels, even characterizing the European Union as “a U.S. foe”. And although the Biden administration has attempted to shore up relations, concerns remain.

Thus, while currently not at odds with Brussels, if successive U.S. administrations take a more Euroskeptic approach to transatlantic relations, Poland could follow suit, possibly at the expense of E.U. membership.

Democratic compliance

PiS Party Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, considered the de-facto leader of Poland, has assured the country that “there will be no Polexit.” And for now, we should believe him.

E.U. efforts to stop democratic backsliding in Poland are more effective because Poland relies so heavily on E.U. funding, lacks viable alternative partners, and has decidedly pro-E.U. citizens. Nonetheless, Brussels must meaningfully distinguish between the Euroskeptic PiS government and Poland’s citizens in its rhetoric so as not to alienate large segments of the Polish people.

Joseph Bebel is a former Huntington Graduate Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He is an editor and policy analyst completing a grant analyzing Chinese economic investment in Central and Eastern Europe for the Jamestown Foundation.

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