EU’s Black Sheep: The False Prophets of Poland

Freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These were the three most important principles upon which the European Union was founded, as stated by Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. In May 2004, when Poland and nine other countries accessed the EU, these were the beliefs they sought to comply with, to their people. However, never have these values suffered from such blatant and dangerous violations, as of today. Sixteen years after the largest expansion of the Union, the Polish state constitutes a major threat to the ideals that cement and define Europe. But how have we come to this point? And most importantly, how will this mayhem be turned around?

Context and History

The Polish “European Project” dates back to its notable economic performance in the 1990’s and its desire of convergence and dissociation with the eastern bloc. Years of negotiation led to a national referendum, in which 77% of voters were in favour of Polish accession to the EU. In 2007, charismatic pro-EU politician Donald Tusk became prime-minister, ensuring a somewhat successful ruling alongside his party, Civic Platform. The following years marked a significant period of growth in Poland, with the reinforcement of its infrastructures, schools, industries and highways, the financial support of the EU and remarkable economic development.

Image 1 - Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Image 1 – Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Although the approval rates of the EU were indeed favourable in Poland, the rise of the nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic party, PiS (Law and Order) was imminent. Founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, two enticing politicians, this party claimed that the Polish government had become representatives of a corrupt and elite institution, submissive to the European Union. This narrative was appealing to a conservative mass of Polish citizens. It is important to highlight Poland’s issues with its independence, as the country has faced numerous attacks and invasions in the past centuries, often having its own sovereignty withdrawn. The impact of all these devastating decades was a collective trauma and insecurity of losing independence and identity. PiS were very successful in portraying this image to the Polish people, promising to retrieve Poland to its fellows citizens. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the moderate coalition was unable to secure a victory, after Tusk, its main figure, left to preside over the European Council. As a result, PiS formed a majority government, following its crushing victory.

After PiS gained control of both houses of parliament, they also took over the presidency, with Andrzej Duda’s victory in 2015, who stands in office as of today. His voter-friendly appearance and posture allows the party to appeal to the more moderate voters, while Kaczyński operates behind the curtains. The next step for the party was to take over the judicial system.


Democratic Threats and the European Response

Firstly, Law and Order neutered the constitutional court. What was supposed to be an unbiased judicial body to assess the legislation according to the fundamental laws of the country, was now a servant of the main party, packed with loyalist judges and lacking any sort of independence.

Image 2 - Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Image 2 – Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Following this, the government set a number of laws that threatened the whole independence of the judicial branch. For instance, in 2017, a law was passed that set different retiring ages for male and female Supreme Court judges and giving the minister of justice discretionary power to prolong the mandate of some judges. Furthermore, a Disciplinary Chamber was created to review the decisions of the Supreme Court. Many questioned the independence of this body, whose members were appointed by the government. The Rule of Law was under imminent threat. Political rule reigned amidst Polish Courts, a pattern that followed through the next years, illustrated by various new laws. One of which was a recently appointed act which determined that judges may be punished for implementing a judgement of a supranational court. This represented a flagrant attack on the prevalence of European Law over domestic mandate. A further infringement occurred over a 2018 law that lowered the retiring age of all Supreme Court Judges. It resulted in the dismissal of 27 of the 72 justices, one of which was the President of the institution. The tension between the Supreme Court and the government had risen tremendously as an attempt of judicial takeover was on sight and European action was urgent.

“It is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to initiate article 7.1”

— Frans Timmerman

These were the words of Frans Timmerman, the then European Commission First VP, in late 2017. The article in question is a punitive clause seeking to discipline countries that breach the core principles of the EU, and if needed to sanction them or even suspend their EU voting rights. The Union viewed the recent laws passed by the Polish government to disrupt the necessary independence of the judicial structure of the nation and an evident violation of the Rule of Law. It was not only a threat to the Polish people, but to the whole foundation of the European Union.

However, the case of Article 7 is still ongoing. Europe seems to be incapable of resolving the rule of law issues in Poland and the main cause of such irresolution is the need of unanimity from the remaining member-states for the European Commission to apply punishments. Poland is being backed by Hungary, another nation dangerously sliding onto autocracy and illiberalism. These two have formed an unofficial partnership which empowers their continuous breaches on democratic values through the need of unanimity vote to implement the punishments the EU seeks to apply. The constant mutual support of the two governments endangers all the values that shape the EU, since every time one ruptures the rule of law, it has the pat-on-the-back-like comfort of the other, which perpetuates the cycle to this day.

Freedom in Peril

The attack on judiciary independence doesn’t stand alone in the repertoire of the government’s attacks on democracy. Despite the democratically legitimacy of both parliamentary elections and a rule marked by intensifying nationalism and strong economic growth, Poland is holding a questionable position on humanitarian and progressive causes. During the refugee migration crisis, Poland was one of the nations who bluntly refused to receive migrants and blocked a deal on the redistribution of refugees within Europe. Kaczyński and PiS have adopted an Islamophobic, anti-immigration stance in their phenotype, despite the ECJ declaring their refusal to be against European Law.

Images 3 and 4 – Throughout the last decade, Poland has been marked by a number of protests from conservative to progressive ones. The most notable ones were the manifestations on Poland’s National Day in 2017, carried out by nationalists and white-supremacist groups.

Moreover, last year Poland declared the creation LGBT free zones, where almost 100 municipalities adopted an unwelcoming stance on the ideology. Whilst the declarations were local and unenforceable, the ruling party has often supported homophobic stances, further enhancing the Christian rhetoric of PiS. Poland is still a considerably homophobic country, as same-sex marriage and civil union are still not permitted. Freedom of press is equally in danger, as a growing tendency to criminalize defamation has pushed the expression of media and news outlets to an increasingly restricted ethos. Poland is the third worst-positioned EU country in the World Press Freedom Index, only behind Greece and Hungary.

Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements

Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements

Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

The future is rather unsettling for Poland. If on the one hand, Poles are aware and willing to protest against the undemocratic decisions of the government, on the other, the residing feeling of Polish identity, the Polish family and Polish patriotism is boiling up through the masses, fevered by Kaczyński and his party. The certainty is the following: one must not overlook Poland’s situation. To say this is just a regular right-wing ruling would be an understatement, for we are witnessing the endangerment of European democracy right before our eyes.

Europe must stand its ground and fight the rise of illiberalism, or continue to dig an endless hole of bureaucracy and futile irresolution.

Sources: Financial Times, POLITICO Europe, World Bank, EuroActiv, Deutsche Welle

Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs

EU’s Black Sheep: Orbanism

Almost two months ago, Hungary made news all around the world after the country’s National Assembly voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree for an unspecified amount of time. He can now bypass the legislative body if deemed necessary, to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The parliament can repeal this at any time, but the current two-third majority Orban’s party, the Fidesz, holds on the National Assembly makes such a repeal without the government’s approval unlikely. As it was probably predicted, this sedation of Hungary’s democratic institutions resulted in widespread condemnation from all over the western world, but the authoritarian tendencies of Orban’s government have been making headlines for decades.

Hungary is a fairly new democracy, having only had its first free election after a smooth transition from a socialist soviet bloc country into a western-style democracy 30 years ago. Prior to this, the country has an extensive history of authoritarian domination. After breaking away from the Austrian-Hungary Empire at the end of WWI, Hungary became a totalitarian state and lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. The humiliation of having lost a majority of its country and having more than three million Hungarians living in neighboring countries lead the government to eventual join sides with the Axis powers in WWII. The war was devastating for Hungary and after the Nazis surrender, the country was turned into a one-party socialist republic under the influence of the Soviet Union for the next 50 years. The lack of a long history of democratic institutions in Hungary could explain the insouciant feeling of the electorate towards Orban’s style of governing, but democracy is also fairly new in the Baltic States, and we do not see this sort of attacks on democracy in those three countries. The success of Orban seems to lie on his talent to appease to the nationalistic and conservative electorate that still dream of unifying the Hungarian people under one great country. 


Road to Power

Viktor Orban was born in 1963 in a rural zone near Budapest. He studied Law after his compulsory military service. His time in the military is said to have molded his opposition to the communist regime in Hungary, and soon he became very outspoken, with his master thesis being about Poland’s Solidarity Movement, which opposed communism in Soviet-controlled Poland. In 1988 he co-founded Fidesz (an acronym for “Federation of Young Democrats”) with other young opponents of the regime and demanded free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. In these early years, Orban was seen as a young liberal icon behind the Iron Curtain. In the late 1980s, Viktor Orban’s career was symbolic of the democratic and western leaning transformations of Eastern Europe. On the first free elections in 1990, Orban was elected as an MP for the National Assembly for the first time, transforming Fidesz from a youth political movement into an important party in the new democratic Hungary. Orban took over control of the party three years later, and under his direction, Fidesz moved away from the liberalism ideas that originally defined it to a more right-wing ideology. First, he rebranded it as a center-right Christian democratic party, and then later in 2002, as the nationalist and authoritarian party it is today. Orban thought that assuming an empty space on the political spectrum was the best way to have success against the left and liberal parties. Gradually, it became the dominant right-wing party in Hungarian politics. Fidesz’s changes are best understood as responses to Orban’s pursuit of power than as driven by ideological evolution. In 1998, Orban was elected prime minister, the youngest ever in the country’s history. His first term was a regular center-right government. Under his leadership, the foundations for Hungary’s membership of the EU and NATO were laid, and his performance was mostly praised. In 2002, Fidesz lost power to the Socialist Party, and Orban lead the opposition until 2010, when he was once again elected as prime-minister by using the Hungarian’s discontent with the Great Recession and widespread corruption charges against the socialist government to win in a landslide.


The second term of the new Orban government would start the demolition of democratic institutions in Hungary. After the win in 2010, Orban’s party had a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it used it to approve – and then later amend to his benefit – a new constitution that reduced the power of the courts and severely diminished the freedom of the press. Under the new constitution, the number of MPs in the National Assembly was reduced by almost half. The now reduced number of MPs would be elected in redrawn constituencies that are believed to favor Orban’s party, the Fidesz. The new constitution also ended the requirement that judges for the Constitutional Court needed the support of the majority of the parties’ in the National Assembly to be elected, which means judges can now reach the court with a two-thirds majority despite objections from opposition parties, allowing Fidesz to pack the court with allies of the government. As for local courts, the government reduced the retirement age of judges, which forced hundredths to retirement and allowed the government to pack all levels of the judiciary system with Orban sympathizers. With government control of the media, the vanished power of the courts, and a political ally as President, Viktor Orban has created a fortress of power that allowed him to win once again a two-third majority in the National Assembly in 2014 and 2018. With this new coronavirus emergency bill granting Orban the power to rule by decree and to suppress what little remains of the free media in Hungary, the elections of 2022 will likely not be any different.

Can Europe do anything?

The European Union’s reaction to Orban’s recent power grab has so far been diplomatic and deemed “modest”. Although Orban has been suspended from the European People’s Party on his conduct, he has openly characterized the outcome as being “mutually agreed”, instead of a punishment. However, former EU chief Donald Tusk is urging the largest party in the European Parliament to expel Orban’s party, the Fidesz. A statement by thirteen EU countries reminded the risks to fundamental rights and the rule of law but did not directly name Hungary. President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen urged governments to take strictly proportionate measures, without specifically targeting Budapest, although then mentioned it would analyze the newly passed law and monitor its application. The Council of Europe, the European Commission, Reporters without Borders and the European Parliament all have expressed that the law would pose a threat to democracy in Hungary.

The options the EU has to tackle a case like Hungary are limited. The sanctions process in Article 7 can end up in a member state losing its EU voting rights, but another member can block it – in this case, Hungary could most likely count on Poland’s vote. A proposal to include the rule of law into EU budget negotiations has not been conclusive. The most effective move the European Commission could make might be taking Hungary to the European Court of Justice, as non-compliance with the latter’s rule may lead the country’s first step to exiting the Union. Nonetheless, this process takes time, and for the time being, we have a de facto dictator in the European Union.


Sources: Euronews, Politico, New York Times, Institute Montaigne, The Atlantic, Kim Lane Scheppele on Hungary’s new constitution – the full lecture at CEU

Ana Salgado - Ana Salgado Christian Weber - Christian Weber

Ana Terenas - Ana Terenas João Sande e Castro - João Sande e Castro
Rui Ramalhão - Rui Ramalhão

Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs