The last summit ended with observers shaking their heads with disbelief. It was the first time in history that a single government would reject the entire document summarising the conclusions of the Council. This lonely fighter, who left the scene feeling frantic, was the Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. Her fury echoed in the statement that she made at the press conference, which testimony was in fact intended for the ears of other Heads of States. Today is Poland – she said – but tomorrow any of you can find yourself in our shoes, being disrespected for trying to defend the raison d’etat.
Of course, there is nothing good in the fact that the Council ends in no consensus – but one could risk a thesis that this was a small win for the EU as a whole. It is still quite vivid in institutional memory of how the Summits were kept hostage to the demands of one government or another. The recent example of that was just a year ago, when British Prime Minister David Cameron put everyone under pressure, arguing that should the Council oblige his agenda, in exchange he would win the referendum on the UK’s membership for ‘remain’. At that point the Council blinked first. After two exhausting days and nights, which saw a great degree of drama and intermezzos such as the visit of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Fritkot St. Antoine, the UK government was given all that it came for. It was done in a hope to preserve the unity of Europe. As it turned out just a few months later, it was in vain. Hence this time, although the circumstances differ, it would seem a very important development to note that the Council actually stood up against particular interests of one national government – collectively deciding upon what they believed was best for the EU as a whole.
Furthermore, looking at the relations between the EU and Polish Government since the reinstating of the latter 17 months ago, the Council had had hardly any other choice than the one it effectively pursued. Upon the subsequent victories in Presidential and then parliamentary elections in 2015, the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc) assumed a position of a majoritarian political force of the country. Majoritarian here remains a key word, as they would understand it as a mandate to implement any decisions they would please and describe as a “Good Change” (Dobra Zmiana). They claimed that they had democratic legitimacy to do so, even if the reforms they would consequently roll out one after the other would harm democracy. And that was what the European Union could not accept, demanding explanations and a retreat from especially bold moves that would destroy the justice system (see the reform of the Provisions for the Constitutional Tribunal) and the freedom of media (see the reform of Public Media law).
The Polish Prime Minister called in front of the European Parliament offered a daring speech, which was mostly addressed at the citizens back home, with a message that the Union will not dictate the terms of how we are to rule our country. Thus, the European Parliament’s resolution that brought no outcome and the fruitless interventions of Frans Timmermans (in his capacity as the European Commission’s Vice President) all cumulated making many question the capacity of the EU to actually reinforce the standards (among them democracy) that it had been built upon. In this context, while the Summit would not offer a chance to make Warsaw reconsider its policies, it was definitely an opportunity to show that enough is enough. And this is what has been done.
Finally, there was another aspect that was picked by more frivolous press as a curiosity – that Victor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, came to the Summit with a bag with an EPP logo imprinted on it. While it was classified almost as an anecdote from the fringe of the fashion section, the meaning of it should not be underestimated. The bag was a clear sign of the affiliation that the Hungarian Prime Minster wanted to manifest upon entering the room. And that meant that in case of the reappointment of Donald Tusk he would follow his political family in the strategy and not the Polish government, with whom he has always fraternised and been close to, especially within the infamous Visegrad Group. This was an important sign, showing, even if with such an odd example, that there would be a way for politicising the debates on the EU further and this politicisation could eventually be the breaking point from the debate on if Europe towards the one on which Europe instead.
What then can be expected further? First of all, it is important to understand why Prime Minister Szydlo did what she did, leading her government towards a diplomatic fiasco and her country into a position of isolation. The explanation of that lies in the recent political history and the obvious rivalry between Law and Justice on one hand, and Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) on the other. For Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice – and de facto the man behind all the governmental and presidential decisions taken in Poland – this is a personal fight. Donald Tusk was the Prime Minister, when Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s twin brother Lech was the President of Poland. And that was the institutional constellation when the tragic plane crash in Smolensk happened.
Regardless of all the conspiracy theories rolled out by Law and Justice today, the essence of the problem is that Jaroslaw Kaczynski never stopped morning, never even gave up his black tie. He continues being driven by grief and obsessive need for revenge, which Donald Tusk is a primary subject of – as the one who had gone to Smolensk before Lech Kaczynski (and had survived) and as the one who did not see the crash as an act of war afterwards. This will never be settled, which is why Prime Minister Szydlo simply had to demand the head of Tusk at the Council and which is why in the aftermath of the Summit, Donald Tusk has been summoned to the National Prosecutors Office.
The most recent accusation that he will be required to respond to is, unsurprisingly, his alleged negligence after the crash in Smolensk. And the scopes of the complaints filed at this point make Donald Tusk both a villain and a traitor. And this is both a payback for the Council situation, and also the prelude to the presidential campaign in 2019, by which time Tusk could return from Brussels as the honourable Statesman and easily win. This is, of course, a Polish-Polish war, which fortunately the European Council did not give a place for – but the EU is to expect being entangled in, while the persecution of Donald Tusk proceeds.
Secondly, while the revenge that was a key drive to send Prime Minister Szydlo into a hopeless battle – it remains the key sentiment that is to be sensed in all the Law and Justice Policies. This is what makes the Polish government different to the one in Budapest. This and the fact that it can only count on one third of popular support, which is far less than what Jobik and Fidesz represent jointly.
Because of that, Law and Justice sense that they need to hurry up to make sure to advance as far as they can before the next general elections – which, if according to the schedule, will take place in 2019. Therefore it is to be expected that the Polish Government will now regroup and resume their vindictive agenda, of which the next subject is the Polish justice system. This will create further tensions, as the European Union will need to react. But as the past has shown, Brussels may find itself quite ignored by Warsaw – which will make the EU – Poland conflict escalate. It will be then about the power of the EU to execute commitment to the core values of Union.
Thirdly, as for Poland, it will continue arguing that what was done by Prime Minister Szydlo was a correct act by a sovereign government that was committed to nothing else but defending the raison d’etat. This can be seen as their level of miscomprehension of what the EU is and how it functions, and as such be ridiculed. Pretty much as when the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs Waszczykowski ensured journalists that he would be able to get the support for Poland to obtain a seat in the UN Security Council and one of the allies backing him up is a country named “San Escobar” (which most obviously is non-existent). But it would be presumptuous, since the timing for pulling a stand is quite right – should the Government in Warsaw prepare ground for rejecting any scenario of future further integration of the EU as a whole. And this is what is likely and therefore is to be feared. To that end, Law and Justice is the party that is focused on the domestic politics and as long as the arrangement with the EU brings the country the economic resources as it does now, they will not hesitate to act in the way they do politically. For them isolation is not the end, but merely the new opening – which they are likely to use to shift alliances even in a geopolitical dimension.