The past few years have been difficult for the European Union. One crisis after another has impacted both member states and the Brussels apparatus.
From the Greek debt crisis to the approaching Brexit vote, the EU continues to be in the process of putting out fires and bracing for even more. Recent signals from one of the success stories of EU membership hint that a new battle may be brewing on the EU’s eastern front. Why is Brussels increasingly nervous about Poland?
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the rise of nationalism
When the Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power last year, it was on the wave of fear and uncertainty initiated by the refugee crisis. Since PiS ascended to power there has been a trend of nationalist parties throughout EU member states garnering attention and support. Hungary and Austria are the two most notable. However, it can be seen across the continent that nationalist parties are feeding off fears generated by a combination of the refugee influx and a slowing European economy.
Nationalist parties inspire trepidation within the EU since they run counter to the very nature of a European union. A certain degree of cohesion is required in order for European-wide action to be enacted, and nationalist fervor acts as an obstacle to such cohesion. Poland, up until 2015, had been a poster child for the EU: a state that peacefully transitioned from communism to a free-market economy, a state which was able to embrace liberal ideas, and a state which since its joining the EU in 2004 had successfully embraced a European identity.
The fact that the PiS was able to surge to power and decisively enact policies which run counter to the European ideals shocked Brussels and seems to suggest that no state can be considered immune to the nationalist fervor. As such, if the EU cannot respond and engage Poland under the PiS, it could demonstrate that the EU is not equipped to address nationalism within other member states.
The European Commission and a threat to the rule of law
The PiS, as mentioned above, has been setting Brussels on edge ever since it came to power. Censorship of the media and increased police surveillance harken back to Poland’s Soviet past. However, it is actions against Poland’s constitutional court which has drawn the ire of the European Commission.
The EC issued an opinion last week stating that Poland had failed to comply with the EU’s principle of the rule of law when the PiS ordered the removal of five judges nominated to the highest court in Poland by the former government before it was out of power. Such a move would, the EC declared, run counter to the EU’s founding principle of rule of law whereby a government cannot arbitrarily alter established laws of the land.
The Opinion issued last week by the EC was the first step in formally criticizing the actions of the PiS and put in motion a process by which the European Union could place sanctions against Poland in the future. That being said, Poland has options it can take to address the EC’s opinion prior to any sanction being placed.
The Polish government has reacted negatively to what it sees as Brussels’ attempt to interfere in Poland’s domestic affairs. On the other hand, marches were held across Poland on Sunday both to mark the twenty-seventh anniversary of the end of communism in Poland, as well as to protest against the PiS government. With these early signs of domestic unrest appearing in Poland, Brussels may quickly find itself entangled in Polish politics in a manner it did not intend.
Finally, Europe’s perennial adversary is in a unique position to keep Poland at the center of EU policies in the future. Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine over the past two years have alarmed all EU members as they show a resurgent Russia with expansionist ambitions reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Poland shares the fears of an aggressive Russia, with the added tension of bordering Russia’s Kaliningrad territory to its northeast.
Earlier this year Poland stated was threatened by recent Russian action, included Russia’s deployment of nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. As a member of NATO, the placement of such weapons would elicit a collective response, and at a summit meeting in July the collective defense organization will agree to deploy a battalion to Poland to shore up its defenses.
However, Poland intends to take further unilateral action to assure its security against a Russian threat. Beginning in September, Poland will begin recruiting a new 35,000-troop defense force to be stationed along its border with Russia.
This move signals a shift in the European defense strategy since the Cold War. NATO has been the prime, and often sole, source of defense within Europe as it became clear following World War II that collective action against the Soviet Union was necessary. Additionally, the United States’ resources were needed.
Even with the end of the Cold War, NATO has persisted as Europe and its north Atlantic allies continue to share the burden of defense. However, Poland’s decision to adopt a more aggressive defense strategy without the assistance of NATO demonstrates further that Poland is carving out its independence from its fellow European states. No longer willing to place its defenses completely in the hands of NATO, Poland will soon have a military force specifically aimed at countering Russia.
Domestically, regionally, and internationally Poland is quickly finding itself thrust into the spotlight. In terms of the European Union’s next fire, the tinder is ready to spark in Warsaw.