Poland – Defiant PiS Forces Showdown

The replacement of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo by her finance minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, on December 11 brought a dramatic end to a year marked by rising tensions in Poland’s relationship with the EU. Morawiecki is a former independent who joined the PiS in 2016, but previously served in the Cabinet of the PO-led government headed by Donald Tusk, the current president of the European Council. The new prime minister has a background in banking and experience in European affairs, and his English and German language skills will facilitate his efforts to repair frayed relations with European partners, particularly Germany.

His mission got off to a rocky start, as less than 10 days into his tenure as prime minister, the EU took the unprecedented step of exercising the so-called “nuclear option,” invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the bloc and the imposition of sanctions. The EU’s move came in response to the Polish parliament’s approval of measures that significantly tighten the government’s control of the Supreme Court, a development that Chief Justice Małgorzata Gersdorf has decried as a coup against the judiciary.

Poland has been given three months to correct course, and has been warned that a more immediate move to sack sitting members of the top court will bring swift reprisals. In fact, the danger that the harsh penalties implied by the activation of Article 7 might actually be imposed is mitigated by the Hungarian government’s pledge to use its veto to protect its ally in a battle with Brussels over domestic political matters.

However, the EU could penalize the Warsaw administration by significantly reducing the amount of development funds Poland receives under the seven-year budget for the period beginning in 2020. The UK’s withdrawal from the bloc will reduce the amount of funds to be redistributed among the remaining members, creating both a justification for adjustments to the current formula and an opportunity to send a message to Poland, which currently is the largest net recipient of EU transfer funds. The fact that the government has not moved against the current members of the Supreme Court would seem to indicate that political leaders are weighing their options carefully.

That said, the retention of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of the judicial reforms, signals that the government has no intention of climbing down on that issue. Nor is there any evidence that the PiS is prepared to soften its opposition to the entry of non-European immigrants.

Morawiecki has expressed confidence that he can clarify the government’s positions in a way that defuses conflict with the EU without requiring Poland to make concessions. However, that seems highly unlikely. Poland and the bulk of the EU membership remain far apart on their interpretation of the extent to which EU members are (or should be) permitted to tinker with the institutions of democracy, and it will not matter much to Brussels that Poland’s defiance comes with a smile rather than a scowl.

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