Just when you thought you had heard just about the last of Brexit, now there’s the prospect of ‘Polexit’ entering the lexicon as the government of Poland wrangles with the European Union over the primacy of law and whether its national laws can be superseded by those adopted across the 27-nation bloc.
Led by the populist and conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), the Polish government has pushed widespread judicial reforms it says are needed to fight corruption. Both Brussels and Warsaw have wrangled over the reforms that have changed how judges are appointed.
With independence of the judiciary being a corner stone of the bloc’s key values — so too a free media and rights to protest, join organisations and other liberal democratic values that are a condition for membership — the European Commission and European Parliament say the reforms are counter to those principles.
But judicial appointments aren’t the only sticking point. In January, Poland’s strict restrictions on abortion was overturned in January and freedom of speech of everyday citizens have also come under attack.
The rift over the legitimacy of EU law first emerged in February 2020 when Poland passed new measures to prevent judges from referring cases to the European Court of Justice. The PiS argument is that how its judges and courts operate has nothing to do with the EU — it decides what happens within its borders.
Role of European Court of Justice
It’s a simplistic argument that sits well with PiS supporters — but nothing is ever so simple when it comes to the EU. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that the reforms were contrary to EU values and the social and democracy contract that members agree to as a condition of membership.
The role of the ECJ was long a needle in the side of British anti-Europeans who still chide at its powers when it comes to implementing the Brexit agreement and how Northern Ireland trades with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The court had ordered Warsaw to suspend a newly created disciplinary process that the PiS set up to discipline or gag judges and prosecutors for not adhering to what is effectively its party line. One judge is currently facing up to three years behind bars on a disciplinary charge after incurring the wrath of the government, a move that would be most un-EU-like.
Ireland and the Netherlands have stopped run-of-the-mill extraditions to Poland, citing the breakdown of the country’s rule of law and over concerns that suspects might not be guaranteed a fair and free trial.
As is the case with Poland, the government of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also shunned EU liberalism and lambasted Brussels and other EU members for interfering in its national affairs. Warsaw and Budapest have clamped down on freedom of speech at third-level educational facilities, acted against liberal think tanks and organisations and clamped down on media freedoms
So, given the ideological dispute that goes to the heart of EU values and powers vis-a-vis national sovereignty, the spectre of Polexit being raised doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Relationship between Brussels and Poland
If there’s one thing the whole Brexit chapter shows, it’s that an exit is very unlikely without further dust-ups and relationships between Brussels and Poland getting a lot worse.
Surveys have shown that a large majority of Poles favour remaining part of the EU, with one recent poll putting Polexit support at just 17 per cent — up from previous opinion surveys. When Poles voted in a referendum in 2003 to join the EU, 74 per cent of voters backed joining the bloc.
Since then, as a result of the benefits brought by the freedoms of movement and being in the world’s third-largest economy and a market of some 500 million people, that level of support has consistently risen.
Poles have benefited from €127 billion in EU funds, more than any other member — money that transformed Poland’s poor Communist-era infrastructure by building roads, bridges, schools, sewage plants and football pitches. And since 2004, nearly 3 million Poles have moved west across the EU, taking up high-paying jobs that allowed them to remit cash from every paycheck, modernising homes and farms for families left behind.
The whole Brexit process showed just how difficult it is to disentangle a member country’s economy from the rest of the EU’s single market. In Poland’s case, that economic isolation would be catastrophic — even more so now given the fragile post-pandemic challenges faced by all governments.
Polish trade with EU
Unlike in Britain, Polish manufacturers and producers trade almost exclusively with the EU now, with some 80 per cent of exports staying with the other 26 states.
Some 60 per cent of imports are from other bloc members. The benefits of that single-market membership and free movement of goods, services and people, has also transformed Poland’s economy. When it joined the bloc in 2004, the average wage for Poles was 40 per cent of those of EU workers, and that has doubled since then.
In global rankings, Poland’s economy sits in 22nd place — a position and strength that would be jeopardised by trade barriers and tariffs that would come with Polexit.
But perhaps the greatest psychological issue Poles would face if they did go it alone would be exactly that — going it alone. Outside the EU, it would become another Central European state caught between the spheres of influence between Brussels, Washington and the Kremlin.
Through the 20th Century, Poland has been carved up and swallowed with millions suffering in the events between the First World War and the end of the Cold War. Polexit would jeopardise the economic growth, stability and, yes peace — now enjoyed by Poles. Anything else is just political posturing.