Poland is testing the limits of Europe’s 70-year-old experiment in conferring peace and democracy on this once bloody continent by the soft power of cooperative integration.
The European Union’s confrontation with Warsaw concerns nothing as tangible as austerity (as with Greece) or taxes (as with Ireland). What has brought the first-ever disciplinary action against an EU member is Poland’s political encroachment on the intangible principles of rule of law and democratic separation of powers that Warsaw vowed to uphold when it joined the EU in 2004.
Far from contesting specific charges, the ultranationalist government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) revels in its expanding influence over the judiciary, media, military, civil service, education, and civil society since it won the general election of 2015. PiS achieved a 38 percent plurality in votes, which gave it a parliamentary majority. That then gave the PiS, in its own eyes, majoritarian rights. It is increasingly exercising these rights to police both state-owned and private media; to form a new branch of the armed forces that resembles a political militia in embryo; and, in legislation that came into force in mid-August, to appoint and dismiss local judges with no vetting by the professional judicial council.
For Poland’s most powerful politician, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the opposite of authoritarian Russian rule is not democracy, but authoritarian right-wing Polish rule, say critics.
Warsaw’s populist defiance of the EU and its democratic norms violates the EU ethos in two ways.
First, the manifest vulnerability of Poland’s infant democratic institutions to political expropriation mocks the old conviction that the EU’s quiet allure would naturally persuade even Central Europeans with no democratic history to embrace democracy. And the government’s denunciations of the EU for meddling in Poland’s internal affairs flouts the EU’s innovative trade-off of “pooling” small states’ sovereignty to buy a more powerful global voice (and get vastly richer in the process).
Second, the PiS’s periodic demonizing of the EU and Germany belies EU faith in constant progress toward the mandated “ever closer union” that should make future wars on the continent unthinkable. Last spring, the weekly Wprost portrayed Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on its cover in Nazi-style…