The parliamentary election in Poland—the future at stake

Whether the coming election in Poland will consolidate the monopoly of the national-conservative PiS or favour a more pluralist balance of power, it will have a significant impact on Polish political culture.

On October 13th, a parliamentary election will take place in Poland. After four years of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in government, this is a much-awaited ballot. Most probably, however, the result will not determine whether the current political course will continue—but rather how radical it will be. As of today, there is no serious competition to the PiS in sight.

In 2015, after eight years of the liberal Civic Platform (PO) in government, the tables were turned. Having won the presidential run in May 2015, the national-conservative PiS triumphed also in the parliamentary election, winning massively.

Truly revolutionary

The first cabinet of Beata Szydło was truly revolutionary, not only carrying out election promises, such as introducing family allowances, but also frantically rebuilding the Polish state: the judiciary and public media. These bold steps and a confrontational tone towards the European Union left the government internationally ostracised. The second PiS cabinet, led by Mateusz Morawiecki, softened the rhetoric.

Nevertheless, rebuilding Poland remains the core message of the PiS—in its own terms, making up for the injustice of the 1989 transformation, eliminating ‘disloyal elites’ and defending the country against disastrous western liberalism, with the associated internationalism, cultural Marxism and gender ideology. This narrative of retaliation and self-defence seems very effective. Even though the PiS has recently been haunted by numerous scandals, such as abusing public funds or having close ties with organised crime, its popularity remains intact.

Delivering election promises and improving the living conditions of many Polish families has paid off. Compared with 2015, support for the PiS has grown from 37 to 45 per cent. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, is not just fighting for another victory. Winning an absolute majority in the parliament is again what is at stake.

Elitist image

The PO cannot seem to recover from the defeat of 2015. Not only is there a problem with finding charismatic leadership after the departure of Donald Tusk to Brussels, but also the party cannot fix its elitist image. A secret recording scandal and unfortunate statements by top figures have left it with the tag of being out of touch with reality.

But it was the neoliberal course the PO had taken to cushion potential effects of the eurozone crisis—precarisation of employment, austerity, freezing wages in the public sector—which put society off for good. The combination of a narrowed, upper-class vision of Poland and reputational damage left the once successful PO in shambles.

Still, as the biggest opposition force against the PiS government, the PO has endeavoured to bounce back. Forming a broad block with other liberals, the post-communist left, and the Greens boosted its support to 38 per cent in the European Parliament election. However, this was not enough for the united opposition to last. The overarching ‘anti-PiS’ motto failed in the face of ideological disputes.

This time the PO will challenge the PiS in a smaller and more coherent coalition. For the party this election is not only about preventing the PiS from winning an absolute majority. It’s about keeping the faith among its members and supporters.

Crucial moment

As a result of the 2015 election, the Polish left has lost its parliamentary representation. Not only did the more radical, grassroots, Syriza-like RAZEM party not manage to achieve sufficient mobilisation and brand recognition, but also the established post-communist, social-democratic SLD miscalculated its potential and missed the threshold by the skin of its teeth (0.45 per cent).

In 2019, the lesson has been learned. Three left-wing parties—SLD, RAZEM and Wiosna, the newly-launched social-liberal project of the renowned LGBT activist Robert Biedroń—have joined forces. Their selling point is to be an alternative on the stagnant and polarised Polish political scene, a choice beyond the militant national conservatism of the PiS and the embittered, vengeful tone of the liberal opposition.

It is a crucial moment for the left, which to everyone’s amazement managed to come together, rising above personal animosities and political differences. The better its result, the less the chance the PiS can secure absolute power in an election which is also a historic opportunity to revive the Polish left—it’s difficult to say which argument has a bigger mobilisation potential.

Worrisome tendencies

The conservatives, the liberals, and the left will be the main contestants. This election, however, will also see other candidates. Worrisome tendencies have been hatching on the right fringe of the political scene.

The short-lived success of the eclectic, populist Kukiz’15 movement back in 2015 left a void, recently filled by Konfederacja (Confederation), a motley crew of nationalists, anti-vaxxers, pro-life activists, conspiracy theorists and right-libertarians. Not by accident the name recalls the US ‘alt-right’ agenda: Konfederacja is sceptical of migration and what it calls mixing of races, as well as supranational and intergovernmental bodies, such as the EU; it supports traditional gender roles in society and even calls for liberalisation of gun policy.

Konfederacja’s debut in the European election was a failure. But if successful on its own political turf, so to speak, this faction could become the only ally of the PiS in the parliament, helping it further to reconstruct the Polish state—before being absorbed by that juggernaut.

Two scenarios

Overall, the situation in Poland is complex. The PiS has petrified its power position, but the prospect of winning a super-majority, enabling it to change the constitution, is not very likely and mostly depends on the electoral performance of the opposition.

We also witness an irreconcilable division within the society—similar perhaps only to what the ‘Brexit’ debate has left behind in the United Kingdom. On the one hand, there is hostility and a communication impasse between the government and the opposition, feeding radical tendencies on the right. On the other, there is hope and a readiness to put away pride for a higher purpose, as demonstrated by the Polish left.

Hence, two scenarios emerge: a destructive monopolisation of political power and further brutalisation of public debate or a breakthrough and balancing of the political scene beyond the PO-PiS arm-wrestle. Whatever the outcome, the vote will determine Poland’s future far beyond the next parliamentary term.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/the-parliamentary-election-in-poland-the-future-at-stake

The V4 After the EP Election: Glass Half Empty, Half Full

The 2019 European Parliament election brought a visible decline in the popularity of the
centre-left and relatively good results for all kinds of right-wing populists are unsettling.
Fortunately, this tilt to the right is not significant enough to meaningfully affect the functioning

of the European Union. Looking at the election results in the Visegrád countries (V4), we see
how much they were determined by the dynamics of the domestic political scene.

The left is in decline in East-Central Europe. In Czechia, the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) received a catastrophic result of less than 4%, falling below the electoral threshold. This not only deprived Czech Social Democrats of all their seats in the EP but also put their governing coalition with the centrist-populist ANO in doubt. At the same time, even Andrej Babis’ victory wasn’t stunning (21%), and the Czech political scene remains very fragmented, with no distinctive
alternative leader.

On the contrary, in Poland and Hungary the governing right-wing parties petrified their poll positions. However, whereas in Poland a deep polarisation is visible, as the united opposition, the so-called European Coalition, won 38,47%, against 45,38% for the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), in Hungary, the hegemony of Fidesz proved untouched, with 52,14% of all ballots cast
in their favour and no serious competitor in sight. In both countries, the once governing Social Democrats (SLD and MSZP, respectively) no longer play a significant role. To improve their chances in May 2019, both parties decided to join forces in broader opposition blocks, either by joining a multi-party coalition (Poland) or seeking alliances with the greens (Hungary).

In Poland, this decision proved to be a strategic masterpiece: the SLD will send five MEPs to Brussels. In Hungary, similar endeavours proved futile: MSZP lost two of three seats, winning only 6,66% of all votes. However, the Socialists & Democrats Group (S&D) will still welcome representatives of other formations from the Visegrád. In Poland, a new left-liberal initiative Wiosna debuted in this EP election by winning three seats in the European Parliament. Four other MEPs will join the S&D Group from Hungary, representing the social-liberal Democratic Coalition (DK), which won 16.18% of all votes

Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński’s influence at the European level will be limited: Orbán’s Fidesz is struggling to remain part of EPP and Kaczyński’s PiS is affiliated with the unsuccessful ECR.

Of all traditional social-democratic parties in the Visegrád states, only the Slovak Smer-SD managed to independently reach a meaningful result of 15,72%. However, it still lost 8% compared to 2014. Three MEPs from Slovakia will join the S&D Group, losing one seat. Nevertheless, Slovakia still stands out in the Visegrád Group, resisting Euro-sceptic moods. At the same time, voter turnout was the lowest there among all V4 countries: 22,74% as compared to exceeding 40% in both Poland and Hungary and almost 51% on average in the EU.

It seems that in the V4 countries, the traditional left – Social-Democrats – struggle to survive, despite their popularity in the past. Radical or social left (even the most successful Czech communists – KSČM, not to mention the Hungarian Workers Party or grass-root RAZEM in Poland) remain practically insignificant, with hardly any political influence. However, speaking of fringes, the right wing is far more visible in the V4, like the Hungarian Jobbik, the Slovak People’s Party Our Slovakia or the nationalist Konfederacja in Poland, for whom the final result of 4,55% was a close call to make it to the EP. Yet, even if they were able to enter elected bodies, be it at a regional, national or European level, it seems that the far right will remain a loud but impactless opposition.

As of political alternatives, the green wave that hit the political scene in Western and Northern Europe does not exist in the V4 states. Green parties are generally marginal there, some not even present in any elected body. Most probable reason for it is of historical nature: When the environmentalist movement was forming in the European core, the South and the East were wrestling with authoritarianism, be it far-right or authoritarian real socialism, respectively. Thus, values such as freedom, democracy, human rights were represented and associated by other well-established opposition actors. Also, in times of latter socio-political transformations, the green agenda had to yield to bigger tasks of forming new state institutions, launching functioning economies, resetting social structures.

As of today, it seems the major beacons of pro-European hope in V4 are liberal actors, like newly elected president Zuzana Čaputová and her Progressive Slovakia party, or two surprise wins: Momentum in Hungary and the Pirates in Czechia. In fact, the Czech governing ANO party, which also won the EP election, despite populist tendencies and corruption charges against its leader, remains in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE). Moreover, the great anti-PiS mobilisation in Poland was initiated by the liberals from the Civic Platform (PO) and the Modern Party (Nowoczesna), both joining either EPP or ALDE in Strasbourg. Even the Polish Wiosna and Hungarian Democratic Coalition, although joining the S&D Group, set on a liberal agenda not only regarding values but also some economic issues. It seems that in the eyes of the voters, there is more potential in this “fresh” left wave than in the traditional social democracy.

To sum up, the political scene in the V4 is visibly tilted to the right and polarised, with two Eurosceptic leaders – Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński – cementing their power. Nevertheless, their influence at the European level will be limited: with Fidesz struggling to remain part of the European People’s Party (EPP) family and PiS affiliated with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). At the same time, there is a slight refreshing breeze in the V4, with new parties emerging and trying to counterbalance the sinister Euro-sceptic mood. Nevertheless, the left, once so powerful, does not seem able to redefine itself, with their social agenda hijacked by right-wing populists and progressive ideals seemingly more appealing if advocated by new faces.

This text was originally published in The Progressive Post: https://progressivepost.eu/wp-content/uploads/PP12-EN-1.pdf

The New MFF: A Horizon of Hope for Central and Eastern Europe?

The eastern flank of the EU has proven not only capable of social and political transformation but also economically resilient. There are significant differences, however, between the European core and its peripheries.

The twentieth century proved cruel for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), not only as a scene of brutal war conflicts but also letting it fall prey to totalitarian regimes. In fact, only recently has a sense of historical justice been brought to these lands thanks to joining the European Union (EU). Those who assumed, however, that this would be the end of history were wrong. The last decade indicates that the EU is an incomplete project, still more of a forming process than a final product. Doubts inflicted by the Euro debt crisis were augmented by mismanaged migration inflows to the EU. Voices of mistrust have arisen, bringing Eurosceptics popularity.

In fact, the issue of the East-West gap popped out during EP campaigns in the region and problems of inequalities tearing Europe apart, most recently also along the North-South axis, persist.

Worrisome tendencies are visible all over the continent—not only in Poland or Hungary but also in France, Italy, Germany or Sweden, not to mention the chaos inflicted by the Brexit referendum. A new vision for Europe is definitely needed. With the newly elected European Parliament, a new Commission to be chosen and the next EU budget on the horizon, Europe can now gain momentum to realize it. How could it optimally benefit the CEE?

The Persisting East-West Divide

Despite more than a decade in the EU, its eastern flank still tends to be called New Member States (NMS), which indicates an assumed quality difference with this pocket of Europe. In fact, the issue of the East-West gap popped out during EP campaigns in the region and problems of inequalities tearing Europe apart, most recently also along the North-South axis, persist. Shouldn’t a new model of socio-economic cohesion, therefore, be the most important issue for the entire EU?

Although the debates on convergence have been going on for a long time, the most tangible and determined action came from Europe’s still fresh and therefore energetic leader, Emmanuel Macron. Instead of focusing on abstract constructs, he kicked off with a very particular manifestation of the East-West divide: the costs of labor and services. In his speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, Macron explained his policy on reforming the Posting of Workers Directive as a crusade against social dumping and a fight for social justice in Europe.

What Emmanuel Macron seems to overlook, in his protectionist and pro-regulation stance, is that the unequal standards within the EU have proven profitable for other business sectors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

He expressed the urgency of developing “true social convergence” and gradually bringing “our social models closer together” through defining “common minimum European social standards”.¹ It is difficult not to support this bold call. The choice of this particular issue is also understandable as it aims to protect the competitive potential of Western companies suddenly faced with cheaper but just as good services from the East. What Emmanuel Macron seems to overlook, in his protectionist and pro-regulation stance, is that the unequal standards within the EU have proven profitable for other business sectors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

For example, in Romania, one of the poorest societies in the European Union, the largest foreign investors are French companies, ranging from the automotive industry through retails, energy, banking to the food and pharmaceutical industry.² Similarly, German industry branches have integrated the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia into their production chains. Yet, lining up the standards has not followed. For example, “the highest wages at Volkswagen Slovakia do not approach the lowest pay at Germany, even though productivity in both countries is comparable. The average salary at the plant is 1,800 euros (…), according to the company. Slovakia’s average salary is 980 euros per month”.3 In fact, the minimum wage in Germany is three times higher than in any of the Visegrad countries,4 with this disparity applying not only to Germany.

Annual net earnings and median net income in the Visegrad Group are 2.5-3 times lower than the European average, not to mention the harsh Romanian and Bulgarian reality.

Annual net earnings and median net income in the Visegrad Group are 2.5–3 times lower than the European average, not to mention the harsh Romanian and Bulgarian reality.5 Many western investors have benefited exactly from this very favorable ratio of the skilled labor force and available infrastructure to low labor costs and very often—tax exemptions, for example in the Special Economic Zones. What a paradox: what poses a threat for businesses in the West, proves to be profitable if moving operations to the East. Taking the principle of “equal work, equal pay” serious should, therefore, embrace far more than the mere Posting of Workers Directive and focus on striving for more convergence and progressing cohesion in the EU as a whole.

Out of the Middle-Income Trap

Unquestionably, competing with low costs of labor and favorable taxation brought jobs and investments to the eastern flank of the EU. Indisputably, the inflow of foreign capital not only improved the living conditions of the local populations but also, in all probability, prevented ever-greater emigration from the region. Nevertheless, as much as this strategy of attracting investors might have made sense in difficult times of transformation, its persistence pushes the CEE countries into a trap of low/middle wages and hardly any genuine investments in innovations.

The eastern countries of the EU are currently boosting the European economy. It is a success story, on the one hand, of European structural funds. On the other hand, it is also the effect of the Eurozone crisis, which completely reshuffled the European map of economic performance. As a result, the eastern flank of the EU has proven not only capable of social and political transformation but also economically resilient. There are, however, significant differences between the European core and its peripheries when it comes to technological innovations, innovation ecosystems, living standards wages, access to social services and public infrastructure.

These problems have been gradually tackled over the last decade, but still, persist. As a matter of fact, quality of life is the main reason keeping CEE migrants abroad—as opposed to the years straight after joining the EU when their motivations were of a purely financial character. The argument, popular in the 1990s, that working one’s way up means accepting austerity, inequality and sacrifices is no longer convincing. The CEE can and should take a step further, also overcoming a mental constraint on daring more generous, European standards—looking at the social policy as an investment, not an expense. It is also crucial to shift to an innovation-driven growth model. Therefore, it is in the very interest of the “New Member States” to seek a new direction of EU’s development that will contribute to closing the gaps but at the same time give Europe an impetus to compete globally. In this sense, Macron’s initiative is just the tip of the iceberg and treating the symptoms instead of the disease.

Europe Needs to Dare More

As for the future, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-20276 is being negotiated right now. It will definitely be much different from the previous EU budget, offering new priorities, new tools and different allocation of funds. It will not in all probability continue to favor the eastern flank of the EU, rehabilitating the societies raided by the debt crisis and austerity instead. It will also shift priorities, in recognition of the global challenges that Europe is facing: digital revolution, climate change, security threats and instability in the European Neighborhood.

The eastern countries of the EU are currently boosting the European economy. It is a success story, on the one hand, of European structural funds. On the other hand, it is also the effect of the Eurozone crisis.

It will cut down on cohesion and agricultural policies in favor of investing more in R&D and improving the EU’s position as a global player due to a common foreign and defense policy.

While there is broad agreement on the need to update and readjust the European development strategy, the issue of final funds redistribution raises anxiety in the eastern flank of the EU. Extra stress factors include Brexit, which can shrink the EU budget as well as the hesitation of some “old” European Member States to chip in more to cover the gap. At the same time, all seven MFF priorities are prime concerns to Europe. Additionally, the conditionality of EU payments is being discussed, opening up the possibility of tying EU funds to member states’ records on upholding rule of law. The final funds allocation will therefore involve trade-offs and will perhaps leave some hungry for more.

This setup of MFF headings and geographic allocation of common funds may help, however, overcome the clichés of the poor eastern neighbors entering the rich club. Although the convergence has not yet occurred, the socio-economic map of Europe does not resemble that of 2004 or 2007. Perhaps it is a good moment for the CEE to use this impetus to embark on more ambitious projects, not only regarding domestic policies but also embracing the European strategy. On the one hand, it is giving up competing through a cheap labor force and abandoning the status of “a European assembly line”, focusing on innovations and striving for academic excellence. On the other hand, current economic growth should serve to close the gaps between the Member states. Investments in social policy are still needed in the CEE region to build European standards in access to services such as health-care or childcare, which are fundamental for the wellbeing of societies. Moreover, recent developments in Hungary, Poland, but also Romania demonstrated that the EU needs to develop mechanisms that effectively protect the integrity and the principle of government by  law within the community. The controversial idea of budget conditionality is still a journey to the unknown.

The CEE can and should take a step further, also overcoming a mental constraint on daring more generous, European standards—looking at the social policy as an investment, not an expense.

In any case, the race to the bottom is not the way to compete with booming Chinese capitalism or transatlantic competition. Widening socio-economic inequalities and uncertainty have become a low hanging fruit for the populist Euro-sceptic agenda that has been trying to take over the mainstream in many places in Europe. It is therefore in the interest of the European Union—and in particular its Eastern flank—to subscribe to projects promoting investments in innovation and technological advancement. At the same time, the cohesion component of a united Europe must not be neglected or abandoned. This can not only stop the brain drain that the East and the South have been experiencing in the recent decade but also close the gaps between and within (!) societies.

Recent developments in Hungary, Poland, but also Romania demonstrated that the EU needs to develop mechanisms that effectively protect the integrity and the principle of government by law within the community.

A more stable and sustainable Europe, with less social disparities and with chances for social mobility, will not be such an easy target for populists, or for the illiberal ones already in government in a few member states. In order to achieve this, a broad consensus of European countries is needed: an understanding of different development stages on the path to one common goal. Otherwise, the existing divisions will implode Europe by feeding its enemies. And if the EU sinks, all of Central and Eastern Europe will sink as well.

This text was originally published by the Aspen Review: https://www.aspen.review/article/2019/new-mff-horizon-hope-central-eastern-europe/

The European Parliament Elections and Beyond

Next month, EU citizens will again cast their ballots to elect their representatives to the European Parliament. This year’s elections have so far received special attention due to the far-from-normal political circumstances. Over the last few years, rising Euroskepticism has grown and it is clear a lot is at stake in May. It is difficult to precisely predict the outcome, but it is clear that there are some tendencies that can significantly affect the results.

Status Quo

In 2014, the European People’s Party group (EPP) proved to be the strongest faction in the European Parliament. But, faced with a reduced gap between them, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) decided to divide up the political posts in the European Commission, forming a sort of “grand coalition.” Other factions in the outgoing parliament are the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the center; the European United Left/Nordic Green Left and the Greens/European Free Alliance on the left; and on the right the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, and the Europe of Nations and Freedom group. With only a few members not belonging to any political group, the current distribution of seats is fragmented and slightly right-leaning, representing a broad spectrum of views and interests.

But a lot has happened in Europe since 2014, with the most tangible change being the outburst of Euroskepticism. This was first triggered by the aftermath of the 2009 debt crisis and then fueled by the mismanagement of the migration influx to the EU in 2015–2016. A populist tide resulted in disruptive events. First, the Brexit referendum was an unprecedented act, undermining the purpose of the EU. Second, disputes with Poland and Hungary about the rule of law and the founding principles of the EU resulted in open conflict and desperate attempts to find effective disciplinary measures to protect European integrity. Last but not least, the disagreement over Italy’s budget for 2019 again fueled a narrative of sovereignty and criticism of EU interference in the domestic affairs of member states.

At the same time, though, the EU has been doing well. It has successfully overcome a recession. Unemployment has fallen in the euro area as well as in the union as a whole. In 2017, the EU economy expanded at its fastest rate in a decade, with eurozone GDP rising 2.4 percent, faster than that of the United States. The economic situation has stabilized and most of the member states have recovered from debt anxiety.

This slight optimism is reflected in public opinion polls. According to the Parlemeter 2018 survey, there is a growing appreciation of the EU: “62% of respondents […] believe that their country’s membership to the EU is a good thing. A majority of respondents in all 28 Member States also considers that their country has benefited from its EU membership. This opinion grew since the last survey in April 2018 by one percentage point and now registers at 68%, the highest result ever measured since 1983.”

Yet, this confidence in the EU is held by a “silent majority,” i.e. those who take it for granted. Euroskepticism, even if a minority belief, consequently elbows its way through and enters the mainstream. Radical challengers have a high mobilization potential, as they are able to catalyze the still existent anger or fear in certain social groups across Europe.

Predictions

Voting choices for European Parliament elections tend to be made through the lens of the domestic situation and often reflect political competition at the national level. Particularly relevant this year is the decline of traditional social-democratic parties across Europe while alternative left-wing movements are emerging, even if without massive success so far. This apparent weariness of voters toward the center-left parties has at times resulted in liberal and green ones gaining in popularity. On the other hand, protest voters are also abandoning centrist and center-right parties too, predominantly tending to place their hopes in Euroskeptical actors further to the right, as has been seen in Italy, Hungary, Poland, France, Sweden, and Germany.

Taking these tendencies into consideration, all prognoses foresee the EPP retaining a leading but weakened position in the European Parliament, with the S&D as a possible junior partner. This time, though, a third pillar might be needed to build another effective grand coalition, presumably in the form of the liberal ALDE, which according to the polls should enjoy a better result than five years ago. Therefore, either with a continuation of an EPP/S&D coalition or with one that adds ALDE, there will not be any groundbreaking changes in the structure of the European Commission. However, the composition of the next parliament will very likely not resemble closely that of the current one.

The general expectation is that the newer Euroskeptic parties and movements will enjoy unprecedented support across Europe. In particular, the EFN will likely feel empowered thanks to the recent popularity of its national member parties. However, the two other right-wing groups in the European Parliament, the EEFD and the ECR, are likely to erode once Brexit is completed and they lose their U.K. members. Therefore, in the long run, the consolidation of a Euroskeptic bloc might be a far-fetched scenario, but not a completely unrealistic one. Even though they are very diverse and divided, a pragmatic take on single-cause alliances or building a long-term coalition might at some point prevail.

At the same time, disappointment with the big established parties does not always result in voters turning to the Euroskeptic ones. There has been a rise in the popularity of green and regional parties that offer alternatives and a more local approach, such as the Scottish National Party, the Greens in Germany, or the different regional parties in Spain. There have also been bold attempts to innovate with pan-European, transnational parties and movements, like Volt, that fully embrace the European spirit and further federalization. It is unlikely that any of them will grow into a major European force, but their potential to confront the Euroskeptical tide should not be overlooked nonetheless.

Determining Factors

Several factors will be decisive to the result of the elections and the composition of the next European Parliament.

As agreed in June 2018, after Brexit the parliament’s size will fall to from 750 members to 705. Other member states will be allocated 27 of the United Kingdom’s 73 seats, reflecting their demographic size more accurately. The loss of U.K. members will drain the right-wing ECR and EFDD as well as the left-wing S&D.

Developments at the national level strongly affect the European vote as it often reflects the domestic situation and depends on political competition of national parties. What happens in the biggest member states, which have the highest number of seats in the European Parliament, will be particularly crucial. How will recent developments in France, in particular, the emergence of the Gillets Jaunes protest movement affect the popularity of President Emanuel Macron and his party? Will the failure of Germany’s Social Democrats continue to boost the Greens? How will the emergence of a new left-liberal formation in Poland affect the European vote?

At the same time, should the triumphant march of the anti-EU movements continue, and be reinforced by the attempt of Italy’s Mateo Salvini to build a transnational coalition among them, the Euroskeptic faction in the European Parliament could expand significantly.

Possible foreign interference might also be a factor. In 2018, the European commissioner for justice and consumer policy, Vera Jourova, warned against possible Russian meddling in European elections. Russian influence is already visible in some member states. Also, Steve Bannon’s “Movement” initiative, which aims to support “populist nationalists” across Europe can be interpreted as an external attempt to impact the result of the vote, given its foreign funding. As of today, his endeavors have failed, confronted with the election laws of targeted countries.

And, of course, turnout will be crucial. Electoral results do not reflect the general mood in societies but rather the preference of those who are mobilized enough to cast their vote. Turnout for the European Parliament elections has not only been steadily deteriorating since the 1970s (from 62 percent in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 2014) but also varies dramatically among member states (from 90 percent in Belgium to 25.5 percent in Croatia in 2014). Absent the mobilization of the large numbers of moderate, generally pro-EU voters, the chances of fringe parties to enter the European Parliament grow.

Conclusion

This year’s European Parliament elections will be decisive for the European project, due to unprecedented political tendencies observed in many member states. All signs suggest a further erosion of support for the big mainstream parties and their electorate leaking to smaller or less established ones. Nevertheless, the leadership in the EU is not expected to change drastically.

The most significant difference will be in the more nuanced composition of the parliament, as a result of the enduring popularity of Euroskeptic populist actors in numerous countries. Fringe parties might also capitalize on a typical lower voter turnout. The growing popularity of green and regional parties will most probably be not enough to overcome this tendency. The various Euroskeptic factions uniting into a new pan-European parliamentary group is quite unrealistic but theoretically possible.

Therefore, the next European Parliament is likely to be fragmented, polarized, and more to the right, with more vocal Euroskeptical forces and pro-EU forces on the defensive. However, electoral success for the Euroskeptic side will not impair the parliament’s effective functioning or seriously affect EU policies through legislative processes, even if they try obstructive tactics as they have in some member states. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that politically charged issues such as migration, anti-globalism, strengthening nation-states, or economic protectionism may be put higher on the agenda, which in turn could impact the general atmosphere in the EU and foreign relations with key partners and allies, including the United States.

This text was originally published by The German Marshall Fund of the United States: http://www.gmfus.org/blog/2019/04/05/european-parliament-elections-and-beyond

Politics in Poland: eternal duopoly or refreshing breeze?

While the European Parliament elections near, politics in Poland is at such a crux that the later parliamentary polls there will have wide reverberations. 

This month, the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini of the Lega, travelled in search of possible partners for a ‘European spring’ alliance —‘a new plan for Europe’—comprising similar right-wing, populist, Eurosceptic movements. On his way, he had to stop by in Poland, governed since 2016 by the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which seems a natural partner for this enterprise.

Salvini’s initiative is apparently aimed at the European elections in May 2019. In the Polish context, however, the autumn will be much more critical. In October parliamentary elections will either petrify the ruling party’s power or weaken the right-wing tide in Europe.

Last year’s local elections left only two dominant actors on the political scene: the PiS, which, according to the polls, has been consistently enjoying support of 30-40 per cent, and the united opposition—a liberal bloc of Civic Platform (PO), the party of Donald Tusk, and its once-biggest rival, Nowoczesna (Modern), a party attracting less conservative voters disappointed with the PO. The left alternative is now nearly non-existent: the post-communist Left Democratic Alliance (SLD) came in below 7 per cent last autumn, while the new grassroots left RAZEM won only 1.5 per cent. Independent candidates from local initiatives turned out to be the dark horses, winning especially outside the metropoles. If one took these results as a proxy for 2019, one could arrive at the tempting assumption that there is a political vacuum to be filled soon.

Battle for the centre

Most analyst are of the opinion that the parliamentary elections will be a battle for the centre. This is particularly evident in the strategy of the PiS government, which after two turbulent years exchanged the revolutionary cabinet of Beata Szydło with a more moderate team around Mateusz Morawiecki, a technocrat acquainted with the western and domestic establishment. It’s already become routine in approaching elections for the PiS to hide away its most radical and controversial figures to attract more centrist voters, who do not necessarily believe the 2010 Smolensk air crash to have been a plot by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, or don’t feel the need to enthrone Jesus as the king of Poland.

As experts suggest, this ultimate clash between the PiS and the liberal bloc under the leadership of the PO can result in two alternative scenarios. Either it will petrify the duopoly on the Polish political stage—polarising the positions into anti-PiS and anti-PO camps—or it will allow more air in, if new players win the trust of voters weary with this black-or-white status quo. But who could win these hearts and minds?

New actors are emerging on the Polish political scene. First, there is Robert Biedroń,former mayor of Słupsk, renowned LGBT activist and former MP. Biedroń, labelled a ‘Polish Macron’, is building new structures in the country, based on direct encounters with citizens and positive messages, openly addressing the problem of polarisation of the political arena. He offers an agenda which merges social and liberal arguments, most resembling western Greens. His so far non-existent party scores third in polls today.

Yet, as in other EU countries, Poland also experiences the rise of right-wing populism and a nationalist temper. The Kukiz15 movement, a bizarre combination of anti-establishment and anti-vaxing seasoned with nationalist slogans, arrived in 2015 at the Polish Sejm as the third political power. Ever since—even if this fragile coalition is nowadays bursting at the seams—the potential of populist voting and the capability of populist movements to mobilise non-voters cannot be ignored.

What’s more, the nationalist faction of the coalition quickly emancipated itself, also sometimes teaming up with the governing PiS, as in the case of the centennial Independence March in November 2018 in Warsaw, when the president’s celebrations practically merged with the biggest far-right demonstration in Europe. Also, the recent nomination of a nationalist activist and MP, Adam Andruszkiewicz, as secretary of state at the Ministry of Digitalisation is a clear sign of the PiS flirting with the nationalist right. Perhaps it is learning from the Hungarian experience: it wants to disable the nationalist movement before it becomes a serious political opponent, as Jobbik became to Fidesz. For sure, the nationalist circles will call in the big guns in May as well as in October 2019.

Left fragmented

Last, but not least, there is the left—weakened and fragmented, yet hopeful. These are difficult times for progressive actors all over Europe and Poland is no exception. Nevertheless, after its bitter defeat in the local elections, both the older and younger generations of the Polish left came to their senses, buried the hatchet and opened informal coalition negotiations. Should these succeed, the European elections will be the first test for this marriage of convenience. Yet this initiative is overshadowed by Biedroń and his campaign. The risk is that the fragmentation on the left will once again leave it outside the parliament.

This gradual development of the Polish political arena has recently been disrupted by the lethal attack on Paweł Adamowicz, a liberal mayor of Gdańsk for 20 years. There is evidence the murder was politically motivated. Many commentators attribute the emergence of a generally hostile atmosphere in the country, leading to this act of political terror, to the communication strategy of the PiS and its tolerance of hate speech in public. Members of the governing party never miss the chance critically to attack key figures of the opposition. Government-controlled public television has been championing this art since 2016—also intensively targeting Adamowicz, a vocal advocate of independent local governments. This tragedy may have an impact on the PiS and weaken its popularity with the less dogmatically conservative electorate, not accepting violence and fearing radicalisation.

In 2019 the stakes are high in Poland. For the PiS it is a matter of maintaining its monopoly and keeping the more radical right under control. For the liberals, it is about revenge and regaining power, lost after eight years in 2015. The new, emerging actors have nothing to lose—they can only win by mobilising voters tired of the PO-PiS duopoly. The biggest challenge, however, is that facing the left: the European and especially the parliamentary elections will be a fight for its survival on the Polish political scene.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/politics-in-poland

Poland’s Left: Fragmented and in disarray

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the results of the Polish Left were not good enough to enable them to win seats in the Polish parliament. Today, the biggest problem on the path towards challenging the governing national-conservative PiS party is that left wing parties are fragmented. Maria Skora looks back at the last elections and paints a picture of the state of the Left in Poland.

The national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has been in government in Poland for over two years now. It has satisfied its most dedicated voters by implementing the announced “conservative counter-revolution” through bold reforms to its judiciary, changes in its media laws and by reframing historical narratives. With the new era marked by the nomination of the second PiS cabinet of the soft-spoken former banker Mateusz Morawiecki, the unstoppable machine broke down. A controversial defamation law, a dogmatic approach to reproductive rights and the latest scandal over generous rewards for the ministers from the party’s first term of government has cost the PiS the support of some of its voters. According to the latest polls, although the party has maintained its pole position, other political forces are appearing on the horizon, including the Polish Left.

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the results of the new left (RAZEM party) and the old one (SLD, Social Democratic Alliance) were not good enough to enable them to win seats in the Polish parliament, known as the Sejm. As a result, the political landscape at the national level ranges from the liberal positions of the Civic Platform and its previous junior coalition partner, the agrarian PSL, and their core rival, Nowoczesna, to the national-conservative agenda of PiS, flanked by a right-wing populist movement called Kukiz’15, a broad coalition including nationalist elements. Left wing parties have therefore had to prove their relevance on other battlefields than in the Sejm.

The future of this alliance is, however, hitherto unclear. Analogies between him and Emmanuel Macron are being drawn although Macron does not really represent the traditional Left.

But drifting away from the political mainstream does not seem to be the biggest problem of the Polish Left. What prevents its meaningful comeback on the political scene is the fact that it is fragmented. The post-communist SLD continues to be the most prominent left wing party but is neither capable of mobilising enough voters to mount a serious challenge to the PiS nor can it facilitate the emergence of a broader progressive coalition. The new left, Podemos and Syriza-inspired RAZEM party, rejects thoughts of cooperation with its older comrades and is engaging locally and running very appealing virtual campaigns. However, that is still not enough to grant them support exceeding the election threshold of 5%. Last but not least, a new figure is emerging. The eyes of many are turning to the former MP and first openly homosexual city mayor, Robert Biedroń, teaming up with the leader of the pro-choice movement, Barbara Nowacka, as offering hope for left-liberal voters. The future of this alliance is, however, hitherto unclear. Analogies between him and Emmanuel Macron are being drawn although Macron does not really represent the traditional Left.

According to the latest research figures, less than 20% of the overall electorate describes itself as left-leaning. Meanwhile, at least three initiatives mentioned above are competing for their support. By contrast, not only are conservative sympathies much more common in Polish society, but they are also represented by a very disciplined and consolidated political force: the PiS and Jarosław Kaczyński. The Polish left must therefore remain vigilant and make use of widespread and growing disappointment with the current government to mainstream their agenda. More importantly, it must also avoid fragmenting its electorate and growing too fast for it. Theoretically, cooperation seems the only way to go, but for ideological reasons it is impossible. The state of the left in Poland is therefore currently unclear and in unchartered waters.

This text was originally published by The Progressive Post: https://progressivepost.eu/debates/polands-left-fragmented-disarray

The illiberal tandem vs Europe

It’s not only the language and resetting of the agenda that the ruling parties of Hungary and Poland have in common. However, they do not mirror each other either.

Poland and Hungary tend to be paired up when discussing the political crisis of the European Union (EU). The reason is the emergence of so-called “illiberal democracies” in these eastern member states, which do not comply with some of the founding values of the EU. Viktor Orbán seized power in Hungary in 2010, and he’s just won the elections for the third term. In Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS) has taken over after winning parliamentary elections in late 2015. Shortly after, in the Krynica Forum in October 2016 both party leaders, Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán, announced they would stand together for “cultural counter-revolution” and renewal of the post-Brexit EU. So, how long will it last?

Hand in hand

Poland and Hungary are two independent states, with individual historical paths and nuanced political systems. Nevertheless, the ways in which Orbán and Kaczyński plotted their strategies to seize and keep power are alike.

There are striking analogies in political communication applied by Fidesz and PiS. Their rhetoric embarks strongly on “anticommunism”, stressing the need for erasing communist leftovers and calling on the remaining post-communist establishment to finalise the transition. History is often thematised and reframed in current political debates.

This process of awakening national pride goes hand in hand with euro-sceptic slogans, highlighting the cultural distance of the left-liberal West to Eastern Europe. Here, the Brussels-based dictate of European bureaucracy is invoked. The fight for economic independence and Christian values, especially in times of massive immigration to Europe, is its own moral imperative.

In this context, the practical dimension of political mass-communication needs mentioning. Both in Hungary as well as in Poland, country-wide billboard campaigns have been orchestrated, explicitly explaining the rationales behind governmental decisions, e.g. on not accepting refugees (Hungary) or reforming the judiciary (Poland).

National re-branding together

Hungarian inspiration is also visible in the latest “rebranding” of the PiS government. Prime minister Beata Szydło was a literary embodiment of the “conservative counter-revolution”: fiercely attacking previous elites, rushing through far-reaching reforms, openly confronting the EU.

After that phase, the “revolutionary cabinet” was replaced with that of Mateusz Morawiecki, a well-educated, soft-spoken ex-banker, however still of a conservative mindset, stressing national and Christian values, and promoting the “Polish” perspective. Morawiecki simultaneously comes across as open for dialogue with Europe and pro-business, with a focus on regaining Poland’s national economic assets. This is a blatant attempt to follow the Orbán-model in the competition to win the hearts of the middle class.

Copycats

It’s not only the language and resetting of the agenda that Fidesz and PiS share. Shortly after taking over power, a fundamental reorganisation of the judiciary was one of the first decisions of the Fidesz government: systemic reforms and institutional changes affected the Supreme Court/Kúria and the Constitutional Court. The National Office for the Judiciary was established.

Developments in Hungary culminated in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the country violated the rights of András Baka, the former President of the Hungarian Supreme Court. In Poland, judicial reforms started with fusing the offices of Attorney General and Minister of Justice, then followed with organisational and administrative changes in the functioning of the Constitutional Court, National Council of the Judiciary, and the Supreme Court.

These steps were heavily criticised in 2016 by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission; then the European Parliament passed a resolution declaring concerns about the paralysis of the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland. In December 2017, the European Commission decided to initiate Article 7.1 against Poland, taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe.

Civil society, media and electoral law

Another example: manoeuvres around organised civil society, were embodied not only in the demonising of George Soros. Both in Hungary and in Poland, the credibility of organisations (co-)founded by foreign donations was publicly questioned. In Hungary, according to the proposed new law package on NGOs, the organisations working with migrants will have to undergo national security screening, under the threat of a penalty fine. In Poland, the National Freedom Institute was launched, a central body responsible for coordinating dialogue between the government and the civil society. Some organisations worry that it has not been equipped with high enough standards in grant-making procedures, posing a threat to the sustainability of the independent third sector.

Other analogies are to be seen in the changing media landscape. Both Kaczyński and Orbán understand the significance of mainstreaming their narratives and language into the public discourse through mass media, whether by taking control over public broadcasters (Poland) or local press (Hungary).

Next, some actions around electoral law introduced in Hungary, like redrawing constituency boundaries known as “gerrymandering”, were also discussed in Poland. A common modus operandi is therefore clearly visible in the actions of these freshly elected authorities.

Same, but different

Although there are many similarities to be found between Hungary in Poland, it is not justified to present these countries as mirror cases. It is often forgotten that despite pulling all strings, Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS party leader, is just an ordinary member of parliament, abstaining from taking any public offices. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán has held the PM position unchanged since 2010. This also tells us a lot about the leadership style of both gentlemen as well as about the structure of their parties: the hierarchical, commanding style of a single authority in PiS differs from the court united around Viktor Orbán.

Here, another distinction: Orbán’s Hungary is more and more often referred to as an “oligarch state” or “state capture”, where close personal links overlap with lucrative investments and public contracts. A certain coterie benefits from it in monetary terms. Meanwhile, Kaczyński operates in a more disciplined way. In the early 1990s, in times of massive privatisation, the predecessors of today’s PiS party were handed over to a previously state-owned publishing house, together with the accompanying estates in Warsaw. Today, these assets are said to be a reliable and unconditional backup for the party, a collective wealth serving the cause, not individual profits.

Fidesz and PiS are conservative in their mindset and therefore stand for traditional values. However, the Hungarian government seems to be more relaxed on minority rights. Unlike in Poland, same-sex partnerships have remained recognized in Hungary since 2009. No amendments around reproductive rights have been put in place either. Ever since PiS has taken over, Polish women regularly face the risk of restricting abortion laws. After all, it is not by accident that at the European level, Fidesz is affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP), centre-right Christian-democrats, whereas PiS has joined the European Conservatives and Reformists, the Euro-sceptic right-wing of the European Parliament.

Last but not least: Russia. Poland’s approach to its big neighbour has been overshadowed not only by the past but also by the Smoleńsk aircrash in 2010, which cost the lives of 96 top ranking passengers, including the former President, Lech Kaczyński. In 2018 Putin’s Russia is still perceived as a danger, whether in the economic sense (e.g. by exercising embargo on Polish agricultural products) or in the military one, due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. By contrast, the pragmatism of Orbán is reflected in Hungary seeking infrastructure partnership and building bridges with Russia. Paks nuclear power plant is the flagship investment for that matter and a tangible example of Orbán’s pragmatism.

Future prospects of the illiberal revolution?

The ideological stimulus of PiS is different from Orbán’s goal-oriented tactics and relative flexibility. He knew when to take a step back when the EU Commission and EPP critically addressed the amendment to Hungary’s higher education law, whereas the collision course chosen by Beata Szydło pushed Poland into the ominous Article 7 procedure.

At the same time, in the confrontation of the European Commission and Poland, Orbán explicitly stated that “Hungary will be there and form an insurmountable roadblock” against sanctioning the Polish government for introducing reforms contradicting the European understanding of the rule of law. His firm position is a kind of self-insurance in case the EU would one day turn against Hungary. After all, as demonstrated above, the means and measures implemented in both countries are similar.

Jarosław Kaczyński, usually not very keen on travelling, lately made his way to Budapest to manifest his support for the Hungarian ally shortly before elections. In his address after the successful vote, Orbán expressed his gratitude to the Polish leaders. And so, the illiberal affair in East-Central Europe continues. Nevertheless, its future depends now on the performance of the Polish partners in the parliamentary election in 2019. There, the results should not be taken for granted.

This text was originally published at open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/illiberal-tandem-vs-europe/

In The European Spotlight: Future scenarios for the Visegrád Group

The Visegrád Group (V4) has lately been in the European spotlight. This once peripheral, regional alliance suddenly proved capable of single-cause impromptu mobilisation within the EU framework. In times of the European “polycrisis”, when the European community is facing a profound lack of agreement on which principles it should follow, questions emerge on how sustainable this alliance is and how it can affect the European Union (EU). What future scenario for the V4 would we wish for?

From the Eastern Block to the European Union

The Visegrád Group was founded in 1991 by the Presidents of the Czechoslovak Republic and Poland, and the Prime Minister of Hungary. After Czechoslovakia’s disintegration in 1993, the Group grew to four countries, including the two independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The V4 stood for eliminating the communist bloc’s remnants in Central Europe and succeeding in social, political, and economic transformation. Fostering European integration was an ultimate objective, as all four countries always believed in being part of the joint European cultural, intellectual and historical heritage. This goal was reached when they joined the European Union in 2004.

Today, the Visegrád group tries to play an active role in the European dialogue, but with different consequences for European integration. Its initial Euro-enthusiasm seems to have weakened as the political situation in the region developed: the V4 countries have witnessed right-wing conservative backlashes and rising populism, also noticeable in Western Europe. When the massive influx of migrants to the EU exposed internal mismatches and the lack of a common approach, resulting in political crisis within the EU, the Visegrád Group opposed relocation quotas proposed by the European Commission and formulated the idea of “flexible solidarity”, suggesting a voluntary distribution mechanism. Simultaneously, in the debate on Brexit and its consequences, when facing anti-immigrant attitudes and the threat of cutting social benefits for foreign workers in the United Kingdom, the V4 (many of whose citizens live and work in the UK) took a firm stand on highlighting the social dimension of European integration. The next opportunity to test the integrity of the Group presents itself in the emerging debate on European labour policies, triggered by Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to reform the posted workers’ directive.

The illusion of homogeneity

The internal dynamics of the Visegrád Group are fluctuating too. The Group is not institutionalised in the sense of a formal administration, but its struggle to embrace many contradictory interests could effectively impair its internal cohesion. The Visegrád cooperation is based on multilevel meetings of the V4 leaders, with the Group’s presidency rotating annually. The country in charge is responsible for executing the programme agreed upon in advance by all V4 countries. Currently, Hungary holds the presidency until June 2018.

Of all the V4 countries, Poland seems to have developed the most confrontational attitude towards the EU, or even the Western model of liberal democracy in general. Having ignored the recommendations regarding deformations of its judiciary, or leaving questions about media freedom unanswered, the country faces the ultimate measure the EU can resort to for restoring law and order in a member state: triggering Article 7. Often referred to as the “nuclear option”, this clause can lead to disciplining a chosen member state even to the extent of suspending the voting rights of the country in question, should it persistently violate core European values, introduced in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). Poland has lately changed its rhetoric by reconstructing the government and replacing dogmatic Law and Justice (PiS) politicians with softer spoken technocrats. Nevertheless the damage was done and Poland’s self-assumed leadership role in the region, be it V4 or the imagined Intermarium (The Three Seas Initiative), has faded away.

Meanwhile, the forerunner of the “conservative counter-revolution” in Central and Eastern Europe, Viktor Orbán, also presents an ambivalent attitude towards the EU, however with a more pragmatic approach. Hungary has so far avoided punitive measures designed to discipline member states that go astray. Orbán’s pragmatism is reflected in Hungary building investment bridges with Russia or seeking infrastructure and industrial partnership within the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative. Orbán is aware of the benefits the EU membership brought Hungary, but at the same time he has his vision of the European Union, favouring less federalisation over more sovereignty of the member states and selective integration proceeding only in chosen fields, making him a possible ally for Poland.

Even if the impression of the “troublesome” V4 was strengthened by Poland and Hungary, the Czech and Slovak attitudes towards the EU are not alike. In Czechia, the centrist-populist Ano party won parliamentary elections in October 2017, shortly followed by the triumphant re-election of the outspoken populist candidate, Miloš Zeman. However, it is not clear which path the country will choose, as the new prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is still on the mission of forming a cabinet that would finally win the confidence vote. As of now, a possible coalition with Social Democrats (ČSSD) is under discussion, a party with a clearly pro-Western (pro-EU and pro-NATO) course; however, a future with this kind of coalition is not certain, as a third junior coalition partner would still be needed.

Slovakia stands out in the region not only due to the most advanced integration with the EU through joining the eurozone in 2009. At the beginning of the socio-economic transformation in 1990, the country was the poorest in the region, visibly lagging behind its neighbours. European integration boosted its development as Slovakia depends on the single market and Western investments. Thus, its Euro-enthusiasm is of pragmatic character, backed by a nightmarish vision of a multi-speed Europe becoming a reality. Under such circumstances, Slovakia sees the Visegrád alliance as nice-to-have, but easy to let go if it becomes dysfunctional.

Possible future scenarios

So, what are the possible scenarios for the Visegrád Group in the foreseeable future? The positive one would embrace the emergence of the “Benelux of the East”, a loose but effective macro-regional alliance contributing to the European agenda, functional NATO membership, and initiating mutual integration of stronger infrastructural and diplomatic ties. To come true, this scenario would not only require setting things straight in the relationship with the EU but also abandoning nationalist rhetoric and resisting populist temptations. A different plan would see integration inwards as an alternative or counterbalance to the EU. Here, the V4 cooperation would have to tighten not only in the institutional sense but also in relation to its agenda setting. Differences of interests would have to give way to newly up-scaled cooperation, perhaps also accompanied by developing alternative economic ties with other global players like Russia or China. Finally, a completely adverse scenario of thorough “disintegration” is also conceivable, if contradicting interests and antagonisms turned the existing strategic alliance into a mere political ritual, occurring now and then, without consequences. This, in turn, would mean the end of Visegrád’s ambitions to actively shape the future of Europe.

On 8 April, parliamentary elections will take place in Hungary. Fidesz still holds the pole position. However, its latest defeat in Hódmezővásárhely, a small town in southern Hungary, leaves us with a tiny glimpse of uncertainty about the final results. In Poland, the next parliamentary elections are expected in 2019, in Slovakia in 2020. Perhaps the inner ambience of the V4 is about to change?

This text was originally published by The Magazine of Die ERSTE Stiftung: http://www.erstestiftung.org/en/in-the-european-spotlight/

The V4 Lack a Shared Vision For Social Europe

The Visegrád Group (V4) has lately been in the European spotlight. This once peripheral, regional alliance suddenly proved capable of single-cause impromptu mobilisation within the EU-framework. In the middle of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ it actively resisted the European Commission on relocation quotas. How sustainable is this new capacity and how can it affect the European Union? The opportunity to tackle these questions presents itself again due to the emerging debate on European social and labour policies.

Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004. Nevertheless, they are still called ‘new member states’ as the long-awaited convergence of wages, living standards, and access to social services never fully materialized. What did happen was mass emigration, especially from Poland and Hungary, causing a so-called brain-drain of the economically active population and putting national social-security systems in jeopardy.

At the same time, competitive advantage in the region has mostly been gained through a cheap and qualified labour force, tax exemptions, and more flexible labour rights. As a result, the economic strategy that makes the V4 countries attractive for business is simultaneously holding them hostage in the middle-income trap. Building a solid welfare state could change that, but other political interests outweigh social concerns. For example, in January 2017, the European Parliament voted on a resolution on the Pillar of Social Rights, prepared by the centre-left Socialists & Democrats group. In the plenary vote, the vast majority of MEPs from the V4 countries were against it, even though the proposals for strengthening labour rights were restricted to the Eurozone.

The economic strategy that makes the V4 countries  attractive for business is simultaneously holding them hostage in the middle-income trap

This attitude is in line with the initial discontent of some Eastern European states with the initiative to reform the posted workers’ directive. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy in approaching only the chosen Eastern member states while by-passing the hardliners, like Poland and Hungary, paid off. He won the backing of Slovakia and Czechia as well as Romania’s and Bulgaria’s readiness to seek compromises on the contested regulation.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of some member states, coordination of social policy at the European level is still perceived as harmful. In their view, harmonisation of labour regulations or introduction of common European social transfers could lead to the loss of their competitive advantage or increase their budget deficit. In other words, social policy is by some still considered an expense, not an investment.

Special V4-meeting in Warsaw

In March 2017, shortly after the White Paper on the future of European Union by Jean-Claude Juncker had been published, a special meeting of V4 leaders was held in Warsaw. They agreed that the values on which the EU is based remain valid and one should strictly avoid any kind of disintegration of the single market, the Schengen area and the European Union itself. It is evident that Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary are not in favour of federalisation, but a return to the single-market-only model does not seem satisfying either.

The conclusion is that the V4 needs Europe, but is incapable of delivering any constructive visions. The Group is not even institutionalized in the sense of a formal administration and embraces many contradicting interests. There are some fundamental differences between the dogmatic collision course of the Polish government and Hungary’s pragmatic approach towards the EU, symbolically embodied in Victor Orban’s support for Donald Tusk as President of the European Council.

Poland appears to be losing its leading position in the V4, while Slovakia would be the readiest to break out from the group

Even if the impression of the ‘troublesome’ V4 was strengthened by Poland and Hungary, the Czech and Slovak attitudes towards the EU are not alike. In particular Slovakia significantly advanced integration with the EU by joining the Eurozone in 2009. Initially the poorest of all V4 countries, today it’s one of the world’s leading car manufacturers per capita, drawing direct foreign investments mostly from Germany, France and Asia. The internal dynamics of the V4 will now change again, after the centrist-populist Ano party has won the elections in Czechia.

Individual interests within V4 tip the balance in debate over Social Europe

Today, the Visegrád Group seems dependent on immediate political circumstances and individual interests will therefore most likely tip the balance in the debate over ‘Social Europe’. Poland, the biggest and lately the most confrontational country of the region, seems to be losing its leading position. Slovakia (which) would be the readiest to break out from the Group, not keen on being “left behind” if the multi-speed scenario for Europe gains traction.

When it comes to others, the flexibility of Orban and Andrej Babiš, likely the next Czech prime minister, will allow them to treat the V4 in a rather opportunistic way, uniting to seek favourable trade-offs and reach satisfying, ad hoc deals.

Generally speaking, the upheaval of the social pillar could become a tangible proof of the EU’s value and purpose after years of ‘polycrisis’. However, there are hurdles on the way, not only of an institutional or structural character. There is a profound lack of consent what the EU should look like in the future and which principles it should follow. What for some comes across as a “betrayal of the European spirit”, others consider to be free and fair competition. On top of that, recent failures in managing the migration influx has lowered public confidence in European institutions. Thus, the coordination of social policy within the Community seems as complex as necessary a task for years to come.

This text was originally published by Clingendael Magazine: https://www.clingendael.org/publication/v4-lack-shared-vision-social-europe

Europe’s Outcast: Cautioning Poland On The Rule Of Law

For years Poland was depicted as a success story in the great transformation of Central and Eastern Europe. A democratic system was built swiftly, with stable institutions. At the international level, Poland aspired to be a bridge between East and West. Economic growth continued despite the financial crisis, resulting in improved social conditions and living standards. However, a deep belief in trickle-down economics never really eliminated social inequalities. The latest developments in Poland, including declining rule of law, are directly attributed by some commentators to that unhealed fracture within the Polish society. But as much as incomplete cohesion is a domestic matter, the ensuing institutional destabilisation and political turmoil have become a European issue: a threat to further integration and democratic standards that demands a strong response. Is the EU capable of one?

Years of latent conflict

Years of liberal governance under the Civic Platform (PO) left many with the impression that Poland is a modern country of Euro-enthusiastic people. The liberal elites enjoyed a long run of luck, to some extent due to horrifying alternative scenarios of a Poland run by volatile right-wing populists. The politics of “warm water in the tap” – stability and predictability – proved convincing. However, unquestionable economic progress also came with market liberalisation: precarious employment conditions, privatisation of social services, ongoing polarisation within society. But exclusion and marginalization were also present during the turbulent period of the 1990s. Shock doctrine unscrupulously introduced in Poland aimed at an immediate and total transformation. Social costs were simply calculated as inevitable, but in the long run manageable by the invisible hand of the market. Little did we know that the effects of that planned injustice will haunt us for decades. There are still regions and professional groups that have never fully enjoyed the progress made and for which any redistribution of wealth was insufficient. Deep cleavages resulted not only in widening social gaps, but also in a petrified culture clash: urban middle-class versus the peripheries. As Karol Modzelewski, renowned historian and dissident once put it: there is an air-tight barrier between these two tribes – the folkish Poland, represented by those pauperised by transformation and left behind in grief, and the enlightened one, applying Western lifestyles and worldviews, looking down on those unmodern and unfit to adapt. These two worlds are not only distant and impenetrable, but apparently irreconcilable.

Delayed eruption

Democracy is strong as long as the citizens believe in it. In Poland, liberal democracy complemented by laissez-faire left many in doubt and some even in misery. The Law and Justice (PiS) party spoke on their behalf: against neoliberal doctrine, globalisation, deindustrialisation, race to the bottom, additionally seeking refuge from Westernisation in “Polishness” and tradition. In fact, Law and Justice was not the first advocate of a conservative crusade. In 2010, Victor Orban took power in Hungary, becoming an inspiration for the Polish party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Already in 2011 in a TV interview he blustered that one day soon would come when Warsaw turned into Budapest. A few years later, Kaczyński up-scaled his ambitions, announcing Poland should rather resemble Turkey, which today sounds even gloomier. Nevertheless, in 2015 he defeated the long ruling liberals not by means of violence or fraud but in free democratic elections. Launching an aggressive campaign, based on anti-establishment slogans, economic resentments and reaching out to those left behind, the Law and Justice party hit the bullseye. But the populist tools were used not only to carry out the long announced illiberal counter-revolution, but first and foremost to implement a carefully plotted series of reforms dismantling fundaments of the state in favour of introducing a more authoritarian regime. These interventions are accompanied by long-overdue welfare improvements, like increasing the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, introducing family allowances. Whilst the opposition tries to mobilise visible resistance and civil disobedience, some people feel really content, and many just don’t really care about abstract ideas. It’s just the latest actions of the government that give rise to doubts about its motivations with serious PR damage.

Signal from Europe

During the last two years of Law and Justice in power, Poland has been many times confronted by the European Union, expressing concern about developments in the country. Changes in the constitutional court, new media law, and finally reshaping the country’s judicial system aretaken together, perceived as a systemic risk to the rule of law and democracy – and may now be vetoed by Andrzej Duda, the Polish president. It is an important issue for the whole European community – only law-abiding states are accepted into the Union and any violations should be immediately countered to ensure that the rule of law is universally honoured. In 2016 the European Commission intervened with recommendations calling on the Polish government to improve its behaviour. The governing party, however, does not seem to take the EC seriously. Their target group is the domestic electorate, not European bodies or international opinion leaders. In the worst-case scenario, the EU can take recourse to Article 7 TEU, which empowers EU institutions to suspend the voting rights of national governments in the Council of Ministers. Frans Timmermans, European Commission Vice President, was very clear in his judgment of the situation. In his opinion, rule of law is under direct threat in Poland and if the dialogue fails to deliver solutions, “any measures […] necessary in this framework” will follow. But exercising sanctions on Poland would truly be water on the mill for PiS demagogy, proving the existence of Brussels dictation and an evil plot against Poland.

With allies like Donald Trump and everlasting sympathy for the Brexit campaign, any corrective measures towards Poland may be counterproductive and result in, maybe even playing, the “Polexit” card – perhaps not meant seriously, but just as political blackmail. Delusional and power-blinded leaders sometimes make catastrophic decisions and at the end of the day its citizens pay the price. There is some hope among that part of Polish society that is critical of the government that the world won’t forget Poland. There are big expectations that Europe “will do something”, that the authorities will find a way to stop Kaczyński, that his accomplices won’t escape justice. There is a belief that the EU will not forget that Poles are also EU citizens and thus it also must stand up for their rights. The question is whether the EU meets that burden of hope and has measures fine enough to solve the situation without violating its own principles. But it would be the best for both the EU and Poland, if the Poles find consensus above divisions and differences on their own, without external interventions.

Update: The European Commission, opening infringement proceedings, gave Poland a month from July 26 to stay its hand on judicial ‘reforms’ (see here)

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/europes-outcast-awaiting-response-poland