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Poland’s EU Isolation Spells Trouble Ahead

Posted by hkarner - 22. Mai 2017

Date: 22-05-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Simon Nixon

Warsaw has pushed for a looser union, but other members are openly debating deeper integration

These are delicate times for Poland’s relationship with the European Union.

The political upheavals in Europe over the past year took many by surprise, but few have been so wrong-footed as the Polish government. Until last June, Warsaw’s diplomatic priority was to forge an alliance with the U.K. to push for a looser European Union.

When this strategy was blown apart by Brexit, Warsaw continued to call for a looser EU, arguing that this was the best way to prevent further populist revolts. Now Poland looks strategically isolated for a second time: following Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France, it is deeper integration that now tops the EU agenda.

Poland’s strategic isolation is compounded by political isolation. Warsaw is engaged in a long-running feud with the European Commission over reforms to the country’s constitutional court which Brussels says undermine the independence of the judiciary and threaten the rule of law. This feud escalated last week when ministers from EU member states for the first time formally discussed how to respond to Poland’s alleged violation of EU values.

Warsaw is also at odds with Brussels over a new asylum policy that requires it to accept a share of refugees in the Schengen passport-free travel zone. And earlier this year Warsaw was outvoted 27 to 1 when it tried to block the re-election of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Yet Warsaw cannot afford to be isolated when talks on the future shape of the EU get under way. Brexit hasn’t only stripped Warsaw of an ally, but will alter the EU balance of power. Germany, France and Italy’s share of the EU population will rise above 50%, giving them increasing power in EU votes.

At the same time, the eurozone’s share of votes is likely to rise above 75%, raising questions about how the interests of countries such as Poland that don’t use the common currency will be protected.

Mr. Macron’s repeated accusations that Poland is guilty of “social dumping” because its lower wage costs allow it to undercut French workers have alarmed Warsaw. Polish ministers fear that Mr. Macron’s protectionist rhetoric points to risks to the integrity of the EU single market.

Warsaw’s biggest concern is that it will be cut out of decision-making altogether. It wants any changes to strengthen the eurozone to be agreed at the EU level under the EU treaties so that non-eurozone countries can have a say in the process and all new arrangements are overseen by EU institutions.

But eurozone countries may try to avoid treaty changes that would trigger referendums in several countries by opting instead for new intergovernmental agreements—as it did when it established its bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism. Power would then shift to new eurozone governance structures from which Poland would be excluded. That could create new tensions, for example, if the creation of a new eurozone budget resulted in less money for the EU budget.

Yet Warsaw is struggling to build effective alliances. The main focus of its diplomatic efforts has been building up the Visegrad Four, along with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as a bloc within the EU. It is also increasingly pinning its hopes on the Three Seas Initiative—a broader alliance of 12 former Communist countries that border the Baltic, Aegean and Black Sea which will meet in Wroclaw in July.

But both alliances are hamstrung because the interests of their members are rarely aligned.

What can’t be ruled out is that relations between Warsaw and Brussels continue to deteriorate.

Polish ministers would like to draw a line under the rule of law affair. But while they can count on Hungary to block any attempt by the Commission to trigger the nuclear option of suspending Poland’s membership rights under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, Brussels shows no signs of backing down. Indeed, it could try to continue to exert pressure by introducing greater conditionality into future disbursement of EU funds. Similarly, any EU attempt to sanction Poland over refugee policy could deepen strains.

As things stand, Poles are among the most enthusiastic members of the EU—in part reflecting the strong performance of the Polish economy, which has seen a doubling in living standards relative to the EU average since 1999, helped in part by generous EU grants.

Nonetheless, the risk is that a deepening rift between Warsaw and Brussels could, in time, give hard euroskeptics, who are now in a minority, much greater credibility and undermine broad support for EU integration, says Jacek Kucharczyk director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Polish think tank. Unless both sides tread carefully, Poland could yet find itself heading down a familiar path that some fear may lead from isolation to exit.

 

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