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Tricky Game

In Poland, the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) doesn’t face re-election until 2023, but by then it may manage to get the country expelled from the EU: Polexit
The original plywood boards with 21 demands put forward in 1980 by striking shipyard workers, now displayed at a museum in the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk, Poland, on July 1, 2021. A tug of war over the legacy of the Solidarity movement has much to do with the battle over which direction the country should go today.

Gwynne Dyer   |   Published 25.10.21, 12:16 AM

It’s possible that the tide which brought hard-right populist governments to power in a number of central European countries is starting to go out again. In the Czech Republic, the billionaire oligarch, Andrej Babis, suffered a surprise defeat in his bid to be re-elected prime minister earlier this month. The last straw may have been the revelation in the Pandora Papers only days before that he had set up an offshore company to secretly buy a $17.6 million mansion in southern France.

In Hungary, the Jew-baiting, Muslim-hating, ultra-nationalist president, Viktor Orbán, suddenly has to worry about winning re-election next year. The perennially split Opposition parties managed to unite and made the mayor of a small town their candidate. If they can manage to stay united, they might even bring Orbán down next year.

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In Poland, which has twice the population of the other two combined, the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) is drifting into troubled waters too. It doesn’t face re-election until 2023, but by then it may manage to get Poland expelled from the European Union: Polexit. That would greatly upset the 88 per cent of Poles who want to stay in the EU.

The PiS is a deeply conservative party in the Catholic tradition, with populist trimmings like a government subsidy of about $125 per month for each child under 18. Its voters are mostly rural and small-town, deeply religious, older, and poorly educated. They respond well to racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.The PiS has been in power since 2015, but almost every recent election has been a hair’s-breadth victory: it is as unpopular in the liberal cities as it is beloved in the villages. So it set itself the task of improving its chances in future elections.

One obvious measure was to take control of the media. That was easy with the State-owned media. However, it proved impossible to take over or freeze out the independent media, especially the foreign-owned ones, because EU law defends free speech. Polish courts upheld the EU laws as every member country had to pledge when it joined that on such matters EU law takes precedence over national laws and Constitutions. So the PiS decided to get around this roadblock by ‘reforming’ the Polish courts.

First, the PiS government forced a lot of judges out by lowering the retirement age, and replaced them with PiS supporters. When the EU objected to this blatantly political tampering with the courts, it packed the Constitutional Tribunal with its own people and they declared that Polish law is superior to EU law. At that point, the Play-Doh hit the fan.

The European Commission declared that rulings by the European Court of Justice are “binding on all member states’ authorities, including national courts.” France’s Europe minister was blunter: “[T]here is the risk of a de-facto exit.” He’s right.

The PiS is playing a game of chicken with the EU, of course, and has no intention of actually leaving the EU. As the streets of Warsaw and other Polish big cities filled with young people chanting ‘Zostajemy’ (‘We’re staying’), the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared, “The place of Poland is and will be in the European family of nations” — but he is already in over his head.

Right now, Poland is awaiting approval of a $65 billion transfer from Brussels as its share of the EU’s $865 billion post-Covid ‘stimulus package’. But that and much else might not come if Poland is in revolt against the EU’s rules.

Russia is still close, and although nobody is expecting a Russian invasion at the moment, all of Polish history is shouting that you don’t want to be alone out there.

So it really should all blow over, but games of chicken are tricky. You have to drive like you have a death wish, and then turn away at the last second — but just after the other guy did. It’s really hard to get the timing right, and if you get it wrong, you drive off the cliff. Polexit.



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