Just 17 years ago, when Poland and Hungary joined the European Union, western imperialism was rubbing its collective hands with glee at what it perceived to be a noose, tightened around the neck of now capitalist, but still independent, Russia.
The influence of even right-wing eastern European states within the EU, however, has had a wonderfully destabilising effect upon that entity, with the exasperation of imperialism summed up nicely by the executive director of Defend Democracy, Alice Stollmeyer: “The EU can only be as strong as it is united, and when it’s not, others rejoice. Putin must be watching with a box of popcorn.”
For the record, Alice, we’re loving the spectacle as well! Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering, ‘Defend Democracy’ is another of those Brussels-based non-profit outfits that have no responsibility or accountability to any voters within the EU but seem to have a lot of sway with the pan-European ruling body that the EU sees itself as.
In July, the European Commission started legal action against Poland and Hungary for what it has claimed is their disrespect for LGBTQ+ rights. Both Hungary and Poland have differed openly with the rest of the EU over immigration issues in the past, but the latest bone of contention goes to the heart of the EU project: namely, whose laws must be considered supreme.
In a ruling on Thursday 7 October, the Polish constitutional tribunal (CT) declared in Warsaw that the country’s EU membership did not give EU courts supreme legal authority and did not mean that Poland had shifted its sovereignty to the EU.
It said that no state authority in Poland would consent to an outside limitation of its powers, pointing out: “the constitution is the supreme law in Poland and every international agreement or treaty, being lower in rank, must respect that supreme law. The EU treaties are considered international agreements signed by nation-states.” This decision was carried by a large majority of the 14-strong panel, with just two dissenting.
Tears, tantrums and threats
On the Friday morning following this announcement there was fury in Brussels as commission president Ursula von der Leyen stated: “EU citizens as well as companies doing business in Poland need the legal certainty that EU rules, including rulings of the European Court of Justice, are fully applied in Poland.”
She stressed the supremacy of EU law over any national law, “including constitutional provisions”, and she added in softer tones the motherly explanation that: “Our utmost priority is to ensure that the rights of Polish citizens are protected and that Polish citizens enjoy the benefits granted by membership of the European Union, just like all citizens of our union.”
Tweets of anger emanated from other EU leaders and parties, many calling for funding to be cut off from Poland and/or that the country should be forced out of the EU. The leaders of Lithuania and Hungary, however, sided with Poland, while in France, Eric Zemmour, a far-right politician and likely contender in the next presidential election, called for support for Poland’s “fight for liberty”.
The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group also came out in defence of the Polish constitutional court, stating: “The EU has no legal right to interfere in how judges are appointed in a democratic member state.”
Of course, the Polish constitutional tribunal didn’t just pull this ruling out of its hat because it was bored: Poland had specifically set up the CT to chastise judges who made rulings that were not in line with the Polish constitution and/or government, and the EU had ordered that this body be closed down.
EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders stated: “All decisions by the EU’s Court of Justice are binding in all national courts and only the Luxembourg court has jurisdiction to determine if an act from another EU institution breaches EU law.”
He added that the EU intends to act as the “guardian of the treaties” and use “all tools at our disposal”, while David Sassoli, the president of the European parliament, said: “By declaring that the EU treaties are not compatible with Polish law, the illegitimate constitutional tribunal in Poland has put the country on the path to Polexit.”
Another commenter by tweet was German green Daniel Freund, who warned: “Today’s ruling will be most painful for Polish citizens. They will have to bear the cost of frozen EU funds.”
And so they went on. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly at all, they were joined in their woeful dirge by Amnesty International, which gravely declared that it was “another dark day for justice in Poland”.
What can the EU actually do?
The EU has never before had a member state’s judicial system so openly defy the foundation of the bloc, and so it has few options to react and correct the situation. Opening a new infringement procedure could prove futile since the last word of these punitive measures is decided by the European Court of Justice, whose competence is not now fully recognised by the Polish justice system.
It is most likely that there will be a hefty behind-the-scenes increase in the subsidy that Poland receives, but even that could cause more problems to the union down the line, since it will only teach the other EU nations that more funding is available to those who cause a stink.
Of course, it may well be that the many hints of a Polexit from leading members of the Polish ruling party are genuine, and this issue isn’t about seeking financial leverage at all, but may be fought to the bitter end.
In which case, Hungary’s leader Mr Orban has also repeatedly insisted that “there is life outside the European Union”, and just last month wrote in the Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet: “It’s time to talk about Huxit.”
Neither country could stand alone in those circumstances, but perhaps a close neighbour would assist them? All food for thought.
Either way, the European Union’s future is looking increasingly turbulent.