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Good morning. My theme this week is Poland, and the connection between the rule of law there and access to the EU’s post-Covid recovery fund. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, get in touch — you can reach me at [email protected].
On a personal note, modern Poland has been close to my heart ever since I visited Warsaw, Gdańsk and Kraków as a student in summer 1980 and witnessed at first-hand the peaceful uprising against communism that gave birth to the Solidarity movement.
Later in the 1980s, I lived in Warsaw and reported on grim events such as the murder by security police of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a prominent pro-Solidarity priest, as well as glorious moments such as the installation in 1989 of the first government in central and eastern Europe to be led by non-communists since the aftermath of the second world war.
So I have experienced the ups and downs of Poland’s national story. Like many other friends of the country, I have watched uneasily in recent years as the rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) government blotted Poland’s copybook as the star performer of the region’s postcommunist transition by defying the EU over the rule of law.
This confrontation lay at the heart of a difficult decision that faced European leaders this week. EU finance ministers yesterday approved a plan for the gradual release of €35.4bn in post-pandemic recovery funds for Poland.
The decision revolved around the balance between pragmatism and principle that EU policymakers are trying to strike in their dealings with Poland.
It is a fine line reflecting the way that, since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Poland has been in the news for all the right reasons — and for all the wrong ones.
On Monday, Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament, put it like this:
No country in the European Union has shown more solidarity with Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression than Poland. And no government in the EU has acted more vehemently against fundamental institutions of the rule of law since the start of the war than the Polish one.
Few Europeans would disagree with the first part of Freund’s statement. But the second part, an unambiguous condemnation of Poland for abusing the rule of law, contrasts with the more pragmatic stance of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.
At the start of this month, she and a majority of her fellow commissioners endorsed Poland’s post-pandemic recovery plan. This would unlock €23.9bn in EU grants and €11.5bn in loans for Poland, as long as it fulfils various conditions, or “milestones”, on judicial independence and the rule of law.
In a sign of high-level discontent, Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans, two experienced commissioners, are thought to have voted against the decision — and a third, Didier Reynders, also had reservations. This week, several western European governments made clear their doubts.
There’s strong opposition in the European Parliament, too. By 411 votes to 129 with 31 abstentions, the EU legislature voiced “grave concerns” about the commission’s step.
Lastly, many judges, prosecutors and legal experts in Poland, and across Europe, doubt that the “milestones” set for the PiS government are meaningful enough to ensure a return to the rule of law standards that the EU purports to stand for.
You have to admit, Poland is playing its cards skilfully. As EU leaders considered their options, the PiS government was signalling it would lift its objections to a Brussels initiative for a global minimum corporate tax rate.
This would go down well with France — whose relations with Poland have been far from smooth in the PiS era.
It wasn’t long ago that Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, suggested President Emmanuel Macron’s contacts with Vladimir Putin were akin to holding talks with Adolf Hitler. Macron lashed back, branding Morawiecki (most unfairly, I thought) a rightwing anti-Semite.
More broadly, Russia’s assault on Ukraine and Poland’s pivotal place in the west’s response to it have raised Warsaw’s prestige and influence — at least on military and diplomatic matters — to their highest levels since the country joined the EU in 2004. I recommend this excellent analysis by Aleks Szczerbiak, politics professor at the University of Sussex.
So, Poland may well start to receive the EU recovery money — if it meets its milestones. What do you think? Should EU leaders release the funds for Poland? Vote in our poll here.
The idea that a prime minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own code is an affront — Lord Christopher Geidt, former ethics adviser to UK prime minister Boris Johnson, in his resignation letter
Lord Geidt, who on Wednesday became the second ethics adviser to quit under Johnson’s premiership, complained of his “impossible and odious” position
Tony’s picks of the week
Most of the world’s empires disintegrated in the 20th century. The same fate may befall the Russian Federation, argues Alexander Etkind, a Russian-born history professor at the European University Institute in Florence, in a Moscow Times article
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