Setting The Scene
Poland is one of the few post-communist states which was able to gain EU membership, but ongoing undemocratic practices within the country may cause Poland to leave the EU. If Poland does leave the EU, it is likely that signs of democratic erosion will worsen in the country.
Before considering the future of Poland and the state of democracy, we must turn our attention to the current status of democracy in Poland. To date, Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the unofficial leader of Poland. He is neither the Prime Minister nor President, but he does head the controlling parliament party, PiS. Since his rise to power in 2010, when a plane crash killed several top leaders in the PiS, Kaczynski has been able to increase and consolidate control through executive aggrandizement. Executive aggrandizement is a way that leaders of a country grasp onto power, by making institutional changes, which help leaders to avoid being held accountable. Kaczynski has mostly used legal channels, passing laws, so that he is able to establish state control over the judicial branch. This is critical to the status of democratic institutions because it means that there are less checks on executive and legislative power.
Another law enforced by Kaczynski not only allows removal and replacement of judges by the National Council on the Judiciary, but it also makes it so the NCJ is controlled by the ruling party. This change is harmful to democracy, because the ruling party gets to replace judges to fit their agenda and enables suppression and persecution of the political opposition. Additionally, these laws pose a threat to electoral integrity because complaints filed about election fraud, manipulation, or suppression will not be taken seriously, since PiS has the ability to disregard these claims.
EU Thoughts And Actions
The EU considers these actions taken by Polish leaders to be in violation of EU law, so the EU is taking measures to punish Poland for their undemocratic practices. One punishment involves withholding billions of euros worth of funds for pandemic relief until Poland conforms to EU law, by increasing the judicial branch’s independence. Additionally, the EU executive branch, the European Commission, wants the European Court of Justice to impose daily financial penalties until Poland complies with EU laws. So far these measures have been unsuccessful, since Kaczynski and other leaders of PiS have refused to improve checks and balances. Instead of acknowledging and working to fix judicial independence, Kaczynski, along with other PiS leaders, are painting the EU as an enemy of Poland, since they are withholding funds and giving ultimatums.
Whether Or Not A “Polexit” Is Likely To Happen
Considering the dependency Poland now has on the EU as their main exporter and considering the financial toll that the pandemic is taking on Poland’s economy, it does not seem likely that Poland is stable enough to leave the EU. However, if judicial processes do not change, then EU punishments will only become more harsh, and then Poland will be in an even worse state to leave the EU. Poland does appear to anticipate increased punishments, especially since they seem to have no plans to improve checks and balances. It might be that Poland leaves due claims of infringement on sovereignty, despite the financial risk.
It is difficult to say whether Poland will leave the EU because the majority of the population in Poland agrees with the measures the EU is taking. Poles recognize how they have benefited from a single market and how EU funds have helped improve the quality of living, so it makes sense why they are supportive of conforming to EU laws, especially when these laws are trying to hold Polish representatives more accountable.
If there were to be a vote on staying in or leaving the EU, it could be argued that Poles would vote in favor of staying, but Poland could still leave because there are clear signs that the Polish government is not accountable to their citizens. If PiS can manipulate the structures of government so that opposition parties have little to no influence and so that there are no checks on power, then it is very likely that they will manipulate election results to fit their agenda.
If Poland Did Leave The EU, What’s Next?
Because we do not have the luxury of hindsight, we cannot say for sure how Poland’s exit from the EU would affect the status of democratic institutions, but one could argue that the status of democratic institutions and practices in Poland would significantly worsen.
We know that within the confines of EU law, Polish leader Kaczynski has been able to consolidate an incredible amount of power to the ruling party and has avoided improving civil rights, but not without criticism. The EU has been critical of how Polish laws do not fit into the rest of EU members’ norms. For example, while other European member states have improved rights for LGBTQ+ people, Poland is still resistant to making these improvements as these reforms do not match their conservative Christian beliefs. Poland may leave the EU due to a difference in values, and then double down on their beliefs and practices, by passing more laws based on restrictive religious ideas.
Even though Poland is not currently following EU laws, there is some restriction on taking more measures to increase influence of PiS, but if Poland left, there would be no external democratic actor actively challenging and preventing undemocratic practices. Kaczynski would have free rein to continue dismantling democratic institutions, without fear of being fined for his actions. The current state of civil rights, such as freedom of speech could also potentially worsen. Since most of Poland is in favor of staying in the EU, Polish leaders would have to further break down democratic institutions in order to silence Poles. Because of the trends we have seen in other democratically eroding countries, there is potential that the media would be manipulated by the state to silence dissenters and police-citizen relations may worsen and become violent, if protests are held against a Polexit.
An argument could be made that a Polexit would not change the status of democratic institutions. If Poland has already consolidated power to one party and suppressed any opposition, then there isn’t a reason for them to continue to take more measures. In addition, the fines enforced onto Poland by the EU may have hampered democratic rehabilitation, because they are finding a country that is already struggling financially with the effects of the pandemic on their economy. Without the difficulty of being fined, one could argue that Poland may then be able to make reforms. However, I would disagree with this argument because although the Polish economy would not be fined, there would also be no pandemic assistance or EU trade free of tariffs, on which Poland is dependent.
While no one can tell what is going to happen regarding Poland’s EU membership status, we can analyze Polish leaders’ past and present actions and predict that the status of democratic institutions will continue to worsen if Poland leaves.