Analysis: European Commission disciplinary measures unlikely to cause instability in Poland

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polandOn Wednesday, 20 December, the European Commission (EC) began implementing disciplinary measures against Poland. This high-profile move comes against the backdrop of protracted tensions pitting European institutions against Warsaw. The EC claims that 13 reforms that the governing Law and Justice (PiS) implemented in the judicial sector are detrimental to the Polish rule of law. At this stage, Poland has three months to address the EC concerns before the disciplinary measures will come into force. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that he believes his country will manage to maintain the balance between being pro-EU and implementing much needed judiciary reforms.

The EC decision to implement disciplinary measures under Article 7 is linked to a two-year feud between Brussels and Warsaw. European institutions have been opposed to PiS-led judiciary reforms, especially those involving additional oversight by the executive power over the Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court. However, the PiS considers these reforms as major components of its domestic agenda and a necessary step to remove remnants of the communist system within the Polish state institutions. Following the 20 December EC decision, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law two bills reforming the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary. This came in defiance of the EC. It is highly likely that the PiS will try to continue to implement reforms targeting the judiciary system as it is a core part of its vision for Poland.

Key aspects to PiS domestic policies

Despite the EC decision, the PiS enjoys a strong position in Poland and this will almost certainly not change in the coming year. In the October 2015 parliamentary elections, PiS became the country’s leading party taking 37.5% of the total ballot. PiS controls 234 seats out of 460 in the lower chamber (Sejm) and 62 seats out 100 in the senate. This situation provides the party with a clear governing majority. According to an October poll conducted by the Polish Estymator centre, the PiS remains the first party in the country, backed by 42.8% of voters. The PiS is strongly supported due to the economic growth Poland has experienced since 2015 and the multiple social welfare reforms the conservative party has passed. In addition, data issued by the BBC shows that approximately 80% of Poles believe that reforms in the judiciary system are necessary. This provides the PiS with a clear mandate to implement its domestic policies.

At this juncture, it is probable that the EU and Warsaw will begin negotiations to avoid the full implementation of article 7. Talks are scheduled to take place in January 2018. However, it is unlikely that Poland will completely back down from its current position. The full implementation of article 7 necessitates two steps. The first step is linked to the recognition by at least 22 out of 27 EU member states that Polish reforms are endangering the domestic rule of law. The second step, the one that could lead to the suspension of Polish voting rights within EU institutions, requires a unanimous vote. At this point, it is almost certain that Hungary will not support a EU decision to block Poland’s voting right thus making the implementation of actual institutional sanctions extremely difficult.

Eyes set to the 2019 elections

Given current indicators, it is likely that the PiS will use the current crisis with the EU to generate a rally-around-the-flag situation and solidify its current support base. However, as the party readies itself for the 2019 elections, there is a realistic possibility that it will gradually adopt a more conciliatory and negotiation-prone stance with the EU in a bid to appeal to Polish middle-class and centrist voters. The government reshuffle that occurred in early December and saw former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo being replaced by current Prime Minister Morawiecki is likely part of that strategy.

Political tensions associated with anti-PiS activity in the country are likely to continue to result in periodic rounds of unrest. Most pro-EU and anti-PiS protests have so far taken place in Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow. It is likely that additional smaller rallies will occur in other urban centres. The majority of these rallies will almost certainly be peaceful. At this juncture, it is unlikely that the EU will garner the support from its member states to impose sanctions against Poland. As such, the risk of political instability in Poland remains low.