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Dispute with Poland: new test for the EU?

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The conflict between the EU and Poland is escalating. The parliament and the government in Warsaw continue to refuse to recognise the superior character of EU law over national law. The right-wing, nationalist PiS-led cabinet is resisting a "creeping expansion of competences" of the EU. Prime Minister Morawiecki accuses them of blackmail.

The Polish government's real goal is above all to secure its own right-wing and reactionary constitutional reforms and attacks on women's rights against possible objections from the European courts. The aim of Morawiecki and co. is thus thoroughly reactionary. Nevertheless, of course, the EU is not concerned with abstract, rule-of-law principles either, but rather with advancing the unification of an imperialist bloc under German and French domination. And this also means that national law is subordinate to that of the EU, in order to secure the dominance of the strongest states over economically and politically subordinate ones through this lever as well.

Since the Polish government does not want to give in voluntarily, the EU is taking up the cudgels. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) sentenced Poland to a penalty payment of one million euros for each day that the rulings handed down by Europe's highest court are not implemented. Such sanctions are still easy to cope with financially. It would be more dramatic for Poland if the EU were to withhold payment of all or part of the money from the Covid 19 aid fund, a total of 36 billion euros.

What has happened?
The conflict between the EU and Poland has been intensifying for years. The source of the debate is a judicial reform adopted in 2017 that contradicts current EU law. Its main point deals with a closer interlocking of the legislative (politics) and the judiciary (justice), for example the possibility for the Minister of Justice to dismiss court presidents including deputies.

The original conflict was triggered by the election of five new constitutional judges in Poland. These became the occasion for six laws amending the Constitutional Court, almost all of which concerned the possibility of reappointment or sanctioning of judges by politicians. In 2018, a disciplinary chamber was established in the Constitutional Court, which can dismiss any judge or prosecutor.

This was explicitly decided against the objections of the EU Commission, which is now trying to reverse the legislative changes in Poland through legal action at the ECJ. A further escalation in reaction to this was staged by the Polish Constitutional Court in October 2021, which ruled that parts of EU law were not compatible with the Polish constitution, which in turn was above EU law.

Such conflicts are not new within the EU. Basically, they arise again and again when the integration of the association of states is to be deepened, national laws are to be standardised - and resistance to EU law that contradicts one's own or limits one's own national claims has by no means only been voiced by people like Orbán or Morawiecki in the history of the EU.

Just think of the so-called refugee crisis, in which opponents of a temporary opening of the EU borders in turn set up border controls or prevented the rescue of people in the Mediterranean. These orgies of violence, in which some of today's fiercest critics of Poland were at the forefront, make it clear that the current conflict is not about democracy and citizens' rights, either on the part of Poland or the EU.

In the end, this dispute is only a pretext. The EU Commission and its parliamentary majority, which is backed by the mainstream political forces, are using the violation of constitutional principles, of which Poland and Hungary are guilty, as an opportunity to clarify the situation in the community of states.

The aim is certainly not to drive Poland out of the EU. Neither does the government in Warsaw want to do that, because leaving the EU would be a political and, above all, an economic disaster not only for the EU, but also for the country itself. Poland, like all of Eastern Europe, plays an important role in the value chains and overall production of German capital. It is an integral part of the semi-colonial hinterland of German imperialism.

As in many other Eastern European countries, the neoliberal reforms and the destruction of entire structures after the restoration of capitalism led to large sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, but also the urban middle classes and, above all, the working class, having to pay for these "reforms" with unemployment, precarious working conditions and social insecurity.

On the political level, this was expressed in the fact that, after years of economically liberal governments and the liquidation of the social democracy that had emerged from the former Stalinist parties, right-wing populism appeared as a national and social alternative. Economically, right-wing populism has proved to be quite compliant, rolling out the red carpet for foreign investors, especially from Germany, when it comes to "protective" legislation such as labour law and environmental regulations.

This makes nationalism and populism all the more shrill and aggressive when it comes to other issues such as abortion, freedom of the press or constitutional issues. The whole thing is garnished with demagogic attacks on the EU institutions, which are blamed for all the country's problems, including, in particular, the destruction of "Polish" or "Christian" values.

Finally, Poland is seeking to increase its own room for manoeuvre in the EU by presenting itself as a close ally of the USA and especially of its aggressive policy towards Russia. More generally, the major party alliances and their foundations in the EU are also working to bring their closer allies to power in countries like Poland and Hungary in future elections.

EU reaction
Given this situation, the conflict will undoubtedly intensify. Even if the leaders of Germany and France, Merkel (for the moment) and Macron, do not want to escalate the situation too much, there is ultimately little room for compromise.

The EU, which has already imposed some sanctions on Poland, will also use other methods to put it under pressure. Among other things, infringement proceedings are possible, with one already launched in July for violating fundamental rights of LGBTQIA+ people. An "Article 7" procedure would also be conceivable. This would be tantamount to a suspension and would cost Poland the right to vote. In the immediate term, however, pressure is more likely to be exerted via EU funds, such as the Covid 19 aid, until the disputed laws are withdrawn.

All these factors, of course, further escalate the conflict. Because of its long oppositional stance to the EU, there has also been speculation for some time that Poland might not also be flirting with leaving the federation. Some leading PiS politicians have already threatened to do so. One person even compared the role of the EU to the occupation by "the Nazis and the Soviets".

While these are isolated voices, the opposition is currently trying hard to paint PiS as an EU-sceptical party. The Polish population is overwhelmingly, over 80 percent, in favour of remaining in the EU. This was demonstrated once again by Donald Tusk's demonstrations in favour of Poland remaining in the EU. Morawiecki knows that a Polexit would be extremely unpopular. Therefore, he has repeatedly stated that Poland would certainly not intend to leave the EU.

The economic situation also illustrates how suicidal this undertaking would be. The EU must be understood here as an economic bloc and not as a "guardian of the rule of law" or a "peace project". Then the relations of dependency become more obvious. Poland is the largest recipient of EU funds and heavily dependent on access to the internal market. As a supplier, especially for Germany, it forms an important link in Europe's value chains.

Where do we go from here?
Poland's exit remains unlikely, but so does the current government's reversal of the judicial reform. Rather, as in Hungary, the EU is counting on a broad, cross-class opposition alliance that can replace the PiS-led government altogether in the next elections. If we look at the character of the movements for the right to abortion and against the restrictions on democratic rights in Poland, such a development cannot be dismissed. Last autumn, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the government. The political leadership of the opposition, of course, remains with the "citizens' coalition" Koalicja Obywatelska (KO), led by liberal conservatives like Donald Tusk, the former minister and EU Council president.

The working class, trade unions and left parties like the SLD (League of the Democratic Left) and Lewica Razem (Left Together) subordinate themselves politically to these movements. In Poland, the political conflict appears as one between national conservative populism and EU-conformist liberalism. But this is precisely the central political problem.

The solution to the political crisis cannot and will not be for the EU to impose sanctions on the country. On the contrary. This would make it easier for PiS to channel popular discontent and divert attention from its reactionary policies by, for example, blaming the EU for the lack of Covid aid. Therefore, leftists and the working class in the EU must reject this policy of the EU Commission.

What is needed is for the left parties and the trade unions themselves to become an independent and leading force in the movement against PiS, linking the struggles against national isolationism, reactionary refugee policies and attacks on women's rights with those against poverty, dismissals, cheap jobs and for other fundamental demands of the working class.