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Brussels’ next nightmare

This week's election result in Poland is a nightmare outcome for the EU, writes Oliver Hartwich.

This week, all eyes will be on Brexit – again. With the Halloween deadline just a couple of weeks away, the coming days will be crucial for the future of Britain, the European Union and their relationship with each other.

Yet while Brexit dominates the news, another country could become an even bigger headache for Brussels over the coming years.

Poland went to the polls on Sunday and returned the government led by the Law and Justice party PiS of former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński. It is a nightmare outcome for the European Union, which for the past four years had regular clashes with Warsaw.

In some ways, what PiS stands for is the opposite of the Western European political mainstream. Its conservativism is of a kind no longer present in other European countries.

To add some background, Poland has a four-year parliamentary cycle. In the 2015 election, PiS secured a narrow absolute parliamentary majority with just 37.6 percent of the vote. With this week’s election, the party has increased its share of the vote to 43.6 percent according to exit polls. Due to a 5 percent threshold, this should deliver another absolute parliamentary majority.

Being returned to government with a six percent swing, PiS will claim a mandate to continue its path of the past four years.

In some ways, what PiS stands for is the opposite of the Western European political mainstream. Its conservativism is of a kind no longer present in other European countries. PiS is not only emphasising the role of the nation, the family and traditional social structures. It is also actively opposing and even demonising anyone not living accordingly.

Thus the 2019 election campaign was shaped by PiS attacks on the LGBT community. In doing so, PiS was supported by the Catholic bishops’ conference, whose chair Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow, recently denounced the community as a “rainbow plague”.

The traditionalism of PiS is also visible in its campaign for a proud Polish history. For example, they replaced the management of the Gdańsk Museum of the Second World War because the museum did not glorify Polish heroism enough.

Kaczyński’s party aims to remake Poland according to their beliefs. In doing so, they go beyond such cultural issues and aim right for the heart of Poland’s public institutions. The motto is “dobra zmiana” (good change) but whether the changes are in fact beneficial is questionable.

There is speculation that PiS might also try to bring private media under more state control ... In their first term, they already seized control of public broadcasters.

Over the past parliamentary term, PiS implemented reforms to the Polish justice system which aimed to bring it under its political control. In December 2017, the European Commission took the unprecedented step of openly criticising the Polish government and issued the following statement:

“The European Commission is taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe. Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law, from the protection of investments to the mutual recognition of decisions in areas as diverse as child custody disputes or the execution of European Arrest Warrants.”

Despite such criticism and threats to sanction Poland within the EU, nothing has happened. Quite on the contrary, just before the election members of the Polish government announced further interference with the justice system in a second PiS term.

And that would not even be the only development to worry about. There is speculation that PiS might also try to bring private media under more state control. And why would they not? In their first term, they already seized control of public broadcasters. According to Reporters without Borders, more than 200 journalists lost their jobs in a purge. In the organisation’s ranking of press freedom, Poland slipped by 31 places since 2015 and is ranked 59th out of 180 countries.

With these developments, one might wonder why Poles would vote for such a party. The answer is that PiS has successfully married its authoritarian nationalism with a generous welfare state.

The Polish government introduced new payments to families, extra payments to pensioners and was promising more such policies during the election campaign. As Anna Materska Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University, put it: “From the beginning of its government, PiS proved that it keeps its election promises by channelling money directly to the wallets of voters.”

The PiS government can also afford such welfare state generosity because the Polish economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe. Per capita growth has been hovering around the 5 percent mark for the past couple of years.

The returned Polish government will take positions diametrically opposed to the European Union. Whether it is on climate change, refugee resettlement or the next EU budget, expect an even stronger confrontation between Brussels and Warsaw over the next four years.

Once Brexit is solved (if it gets solved later this month), the EU will need its crisis management capacity freed for a long and deep confrontation with the Polish government.

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