Relations between Poland’s recently elected right-wing nationalist government and the European Union are going just about as badly as could be expected. The EU launched an unprecedented investigation Wednesday into recent measures taken by the Polish government, which critics accuse of backsliding on democracy. This is a sad development for a country seen until recently as emblematic of the formerly communist European countries’ transition to democracy. Unfortunately, it’s not clear there’s much Brussels can do about it.
The Law and Justice Party, which won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last October, has worked quickly to consolidate power. Following its election, the Law and Justice–dominated Parliament voided the previous government’s appointment of five judges to the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal, which, similarly to the U.S. Supreme Court, rules on the constitutionality of new laws, and named five judges of its own. Then in December, a new law was passed requiring a two-thirds majority for most court rulings. This will make it extremely difficult for the court to overturn laws passed by parliament.
Last week, Parliament passed another law, this one giving the government the authority to hire and fire the executives in charge of public television and radio stations. Most Poles get their news from these stations, which have operated independently of direct government control since the country’s transition to democracy. The president of the European Parliament likened the law to a coup d’etat, and the changes have prompted mass protests in cities across the country.
The European Commission will now carry out an investigation to determine whether the new laws violate the EU’s requirements on democratic governance and human rights. If there is found to be “clear risk of a serious breach” of European values, Poland will get a series of warnings. If those don’t do the trick, a clause, Article 7, which has never been invoked, could allow the EU to impose sanctions against Poland or suspend its voting rights—the so-called nuclear option.
This scenario is extremely unlikely, as Poland’s ally Hungary has threatened to veto any such sanctions. Law and Justice and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party have a lot in common. Both are euroskeptic, put a strong emphasis on “traditional” Christian social values, are hostile to immigrants and refugees, but deviate from the right-wing script with redistributionist economic policies. Critics say Poland’s new government is following Hungary’s lead with its recent moves to consolidate power. In 2013, the Fidesz Party also pushed through controversial measures increasing control over the judiciary and the media. These measures are similar to those that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Russia’s Vladimir Putin used to undermine their countries’ democratic institutions after election victories. Orban’s government has also been threatened with Article 7 sanctions over its treatment of refugees, though nothing has come of it so far.
For the EU, the politics of this situation are extremely tricky. If it takes strong legal actions against these governments, it would only play into their hands. Both Fidesz and Law and Justice tout their willingness to stand up to the EU, which they portray as dominated by Germany, in defense of national sovereignty. Sanctions against wayward member states seem more likely to push them toward the exit than bring them back in line.
And losing members is definitely not something the EU wants. The controversy over Poland is just one more factor—along with the refugee crisis, the ongoing financial morass in Greece, and Britain’s looming exit vote—threatening Europe’s unity in the year to come. The EU has fairly gotten credit, including the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, for pushing to consolidate democracy and human rights in its member states as well as candidate countries. The backsliding we’re now seeing in several places, and the union’s seeming powerlessness to stop it, is alarming.