LONDON – A battle rages at the heart of the European Union over accusations that its two most right-wing governments are subverting democratic principles and inspiring populist parties across Europe.
The EU accuses Poland of undermining the entire 27-nation union by claiming that its national laws take precedence over common European law. Poland is the first member state to do so, and EU leaders say the move threatens the very foundations of the bloc.
More than 100,000 people across Poland took to the streets to protest in response to a ruling from the country’s highest court, which said judges can ignore certain European Union laws and rulings. Many fear that this is a first step towards “Polexit”, or the departure of Poland from the bloc as Great Britain did with “Brexit”.
The EU’s feud with Poland is long-standing and mirrors that it is also fighting with neighboring Hungary for the rule of law and President Viktor Orbán’s attempts to bring judges and courts under the control of his intransigent administration.
Both countries say they are simply acting in their national interest against a political elite that seeks to control member states.
How the EU behaves in its struggle with these two nations seems to determine the future of democracy in Europe. And beyond Poland and Hungary, right-wing parties across the continent tap into public fears about immigration and identity. The huge October 10 protests across Poland came days after the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that Polish law has primacy in certain areas, a direct challenge for the EU, which forces all member countries to consider EU law as paramount.
A stormy session of the European Parliament on Tuesday saw both sides of the debate clash with strong words and warnings from both sides.
“This decision calls into question the foundation of the European Union. It is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order, ”Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, told Parliament.
“This has serious consequences for the Polish people,” she said. “Without the independence of the courts, people have less protection and therefore their rights are at stake.”
Polish judges have been dismissed without justification, she added, part of judicial changes that EU leaders have criticized for years.
The committee is considering a number of retaliatory measures, including challenging the Polish decision, imposing financial sanctions worth billions of euros and continuing the so-called Article 7 process, which could ultimately make Poland lose its vote on the EU.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki then declared during the same session, to the applause of Polish deputies: and in part.
He accused von der Leyen of “blackmail” by threatening sanctions, saying there was nothing improper for a national court to decide which areas of law it is ultimately responsible for.
While Marawiecki denies that his party wants Poland to leave the EU, these assurances are not enough for some.
“We know why they want to leave (…) in order to be able to violate democratic rules with impunity”, declared Donald Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Council, now leader of the country’s main opposition party. , Civic. Platform, speaking at a protest on October 10 in Warsaw.
The issue has been added to the agenda and is expected to dominate a meeting of national leaders from the 27 member countries of the bloc, to be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
Poland’s hard-line leaders have a close ally in Orbán’s Hungary, who has spoken openly about the move towards an “illiberal” Christian democracy incompatible with the liberal consensus of most EU governments
Orbán, in a statement, supported Poland in rejecting the supremacy of EU law, adding that the EU must respect the “identity” of member states.
“It seems that the government does not want to listen to the representations, the judgments, of the European Union at all. It seems the government thinks that if it does this it will escape public responsibility, ”said Adam Bodnar, who was expelled from his post as Polish Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights in July.
“He presents a vision such as” We are in favor of European integration, but we believe that it should be only economic – we are not so interested in all the other aspects, such as political union and respect European values, ”says Bodnar.
Poland has also been accused by Western countries and international human rights groups of restricting the independence of the media and the courts, as well as violating the rights of women, migrants and LGBTQ communities since the Right Party and justice took power within the framework of a right-wing party. coalition in 2015.
In the same year, Bodnar was appointed by the Polish Parliament as an ombudsman – a watchdog role designed to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens. The Constitutional Court ordered his impeachment in July, Polish President Andrzej Duda accusing him of expressing “anti-Polish” views while warning in an interview against the “anti-democratic” trend in the country.
Bodnar’s five-year term officially ended in September 2020, but the constitution had allowed him to remain in office as parliament failed to choose a successor. His impeachment marked the end of “one of the last independent checks on the country’s abusive government,” Human Rights Watch said.
“The tendency here is obviously undemocratic, the tendency is to pursue all the reforms and all the changes which strengthen the centralization of power and the control of the decision-making process, in defense of the party in power”, Bodnar, now professor of right at SWPS University in Warsaw, told NBC News.
Bodnar had often clashed with the government. Just before his dismissal, his office blocked the takeover of a local media company by a public energy supplier. The lack of media pluralism is one of the reasons critics accuse Poland of weakening democratic checks and balances.
Bodnar says the Polish government lobbies the courts, uses the prosecutor’s office for political purposes, sponsors non-governmental organizations friendly to the government, including some extremist nationalist organizations, and buys independent media outlets.
“Every month the government is moving step by step towards illiberal democracy, or what is sometimes called a competitive authoritarian system,” he said.
NBC News has contacted the Polish prime minister’s office and the Law and Justice Party for comment on the allegations of Bodnar and others, but has not received a response.
However, Law and Justice Party officials have repeatedly defended judicial reforms as proportionate and necessary due to the institutional corruption of judges steeped in Communist-era culture.
Like Poland, Hungary, led by anti-immigrant populist Orbán, faces EU sanctions for its alleged violations of the rule of law.
As Poland and Hungary swung to the right, the movement towards conservative populism meandered elsewhere in the bloc.
Seven years ago, right-wing parties in countries like France, Spain, Italy and Germany saw their support increase.
But Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) lost 2% of its vote in the German federal elections in September, falling to 10.3% of the national vote, despite a strong performance in the east of the country.
Center-left parties were the big winners in Italian local elections this month, with significant losses for the League Party and the Brothers of Italy, both described by political scientists as being part of the radical right. , and the five-star populist movement.
But the right is far from an exhausted force, and it may be on the verge of a combined challenge to liberal consensus across Europe.
There have been notable victories among right-wing populists: Rachele Mussolini, granddaughter of the fascist dictator, won a second term as city councilor in Rome with an increased majority.
In France, opinion polls have shown that the right-wing torch Eric Zemmour could have a serious impact on the April presidential elections and challenge Marine Le Pen for the conservative and anti-immigrant vote.
And in July, right-wing parties from 16 European Union member states signed a declaration opposing further European integration, including ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, as well as the National Rally. by Le Pen.
The move raises the possibility that the parties will create a new far-right addition to the European Parliament’s eight political factions, paving the way for a full assault on a perceived liberal elite.
Matthias Diermeier, a researcher at the German Economic Institute who closely follows the growth of far-right and radical parties in Europe, warns that the parties’ goal is to use their nationalist and anti-integration message to drag the Europe to the right.
“It is a threat that presents itself as a red flag,” he said. “If they managed to overcome their dividing lines and join a common faction, then the fact that they would then be the third largest is obviously a very difficult thing for the European Parliament. “