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Poland and the 'Empire of Brussels': How the EU Bullies Its Member States

Threats to remove Poland's voting rights because of minor internal changes demonstrates what little internal autonomy EU states really have.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Recently, in a number of articles (eg. here and here and here), I have written about how the EU - contrary to myth - is not a free union of sovereign states, and that the right of veto on important issues member states  are supposed to possess is a fiction.

Events in Poland over the last few weeks provide a further illustration.

Presidential and parliamentary elections held in Poland over the course of 2015 have brought to power in Poland the Law and Justice Party in place of the fervidly pro-EU Civic Union, whose former chief, Donald Tusk, is currently the President of the European Council.

The change of government in Poland has however been badly received by the European elite, which had not expected it.  This despite the fact that there are sound reasons why it happened.

Since taking power the new government has taken steps to right what it believes is the excessive bias in parts of the political system in favour of the Civic Union.   Its case is that in the years that it was in power the Civic Union entrenched itself in the power structure, giving itself an unfair institutional advantage.

These steps concern Poland’s Constitutional Court (technically “the Constitutional Tribunal”), some civil service positions, and the state broadcasting media.

The background to the battle over the Constitutional Court was an attempt by the Civic Union to pack its membership by appointing to it five judges immediately before the parliamentary elections in October, which it was expected to lose.

Unsurprisingly, after winning the election, the new Law and Justice government set out to reverse this, refusing to let the newly appointed judges take their seats, and appointing new judges in their place. 

The new government has also made certain procedural changes to the way the Constitutional Court carries out its work.

The new government has also carried out certain personnel changes in the civil service and in the leadership of the state broadcasting media, whilst making the latter accountable to a new nominally independent committee, which however is widely believed to be close to the Law and Justice party.

These changes have predictably provoked a furore in Poland - as is normal in a lively democracy.  

They have however also provoked intervention by the EU - a fact that is far more worrying than the changes themselves. 

To the accompaniment of a shrill pan European media campaign - complete with claims that Poland’s commitment to the rule of law is under threat and that what has happened is some sort of “coup” - the European Commission has announced that Poland is now being “monitored” and that this could ultimately lead to Poland’s voting rights - and therefore its power of veto - in the European Council being suspended.

This is a grotesquely disproportionate response to what has happened in Poland.

I hold no brief for the Law and Justice party or for Jarosław Kaczyński, its eccentric leader.  Most observers of the Polish political scene however agree its complaint that the Civic Union whilst in power tilted the balance of Poland’s institutions too far in its favour has force.

The changes that have been announced scarcely amount to a coup.  Saying that they do is absurd and farfetched.

Whatever the technical arguments, the Civic Union’s attempt to rush through appointments to the Constitutional Court on the eve of an election it was expected to lose was dubious.  

Given the strong support for the Civic Union in Poland’s independent media, it is not surprising the new government should seek to redress the balance by giving itself more of a voice in the state broadcasting media, which had also tilted previously in the Civic Union’s favour.

There is nothing unprecedented or sinister about this.  The EU, which for years tolerated Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of both Italy's state broadcasting and independent media, is hardly in a position to complain.

As for personnel changes in the civil service, that sort of thing happens in many countries following an election, the US being a case in point.  

There is nothing in any of this which ought to expose Poland to complaint or investigation by the EU.

That however is precisely what the EU is doing.  Moreover it is not only doing it but it is also threatening to deprive Poland of its voting rights.

The EU’s extreme reaction to the events in Poland in fact has nothing to do with the actions of the new Polish government.  

As events in Ukraine have repeatedly shown, the EU is quite happy to turn a blind eye to undemocratic behaviour when it is done by the “right” people.

The EU’s real objection to the change in Poland is that the new Polish government are the “wrong” people.  

They criticise Germany and the EU, oppose immigration, are prickly nationalists who stand up for Polish interests, and have - or claim they have - a right wing Catholic Christian social agenda and a left wing almost socialist economic agenda.  

The last is especially unacceptable.  In the EU today only a hard left social agenda combined with a far right economic agenda will do.

As was the case previously with Tsipras and Orban, that makes the new leaders of Poland - and Jarosław Kaczyński in particular - the target of vicious media campaigns, and of bullying by the EU’s institutions.

For the EU leaders, as shown by this article by the British Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash - always a reliable spokesman for the opinions of the EU’s “right” people - it is liberal democracy - not democracy as such - that matters, and any challenge to it is unacceptable.

The essential point however is that if the EU is prepared to threaten a country like Poland with loss of its voting rights simply because its government is undertaking certain minor changes to the country’s internal arrangements, then to think that any of the small countries in the EU are really free to veto decisions taken by the EU leadership is simply naive.

To my knowledge similar threats were made in private last year to review Greece’s voting rights in the European Council and in the Council of Ministers when it briefly looked as if Greece might be getting too close to Russia. 

In fact, as Russia Insider previously discussed, Tsipras never intended to forge closer relations with Russia anyway, so the threats never had to be followed through.  However they surely would have been if things had turned out differently.

EU policy is decided by a small group of people working mainly in Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt, Paris - and Washington.  As a recent article in the Guardian shows, even London has only limited influence and is vulnerable to bullying if it fails to fall into line.  

Anyone who looks for changes in EU foreign policy has to look for them in the places where the decisions are really made - first and foremost in Washington, Berlin and Frankfurt, and to a lesser extent in Paris and Brussels.  Opinions elsewhere in the EU barely matter at all.



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