By David Wemer
2015 was a year of crises in Europe: Greece, the refugee influx, and potential Brexit to name only a few. The end of the year saw a further challenge emerge, as Poland's new government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, implemented an anti-democratic program of court-packing and media control, which for many echoed the political tactics of the Soviet era. PiS's actions led the European Union to launch a "preliminary assessment" on January 13th 2016 into Poland's adherence to the "rule of law" requirement for EU membership. This assessment, which has already seen Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo field questions from the European Parliament, could in theory result in a member state vote on the suspension of Poland's EU voting rights.
The European Union's response is unprecedented. Anti-democratic developments in member states, such as the electoral win of the xenophobic Austrian Freedom Party in 2000 or the media control laws of the current government of Viktor Orban in Hungary, never received the level of scrutiny Poland now faces. The symbolic importance of Poland as one of the most successful cases of post-Cold War democratic transition, as well as Poland's political importance as a "bridge" between the core EU states and more skeptical members such as the United Kingdom, has led many to call for the European Union or even the United States to crack down. Officials in Brussels worry that without a strong show of force against the actions of PiS, Poland and other eastern EU members risk reversing the many gains democracy has made in the region in the last twenty-five years.
In this atmosphere of crisis, however, EU officials would be better served by showing restraint, rather than initiating a potentially damaging conflict with Poland. Make no mistake: the actions of PiS are concerning, especially those that seek to control independent media. These actions, however, must be taken in the larger context of Poland's ongoing democratic transition. PiS politicians have argued (with some justification) that their actions are not dissimilar to what the previous party, Civic Platform, did in their eight years of power. Indeed, the attempt by Civic Platform to appoint five new judges in the waning hours of its government can be viewed just as cynically as PiS's attempts to pack the courts with its own judges.
Poland's democracy only recently turned a quarter-century old. The West's belief that the transition from communism would be seamlessly achieved through political and economic integration has proven naïve at best. EU membership has not turned Poland or any of the new member states into perfectly consolidated democracies, and political corruption, censorship, and minority rights will continue to be issues for years to come. There are positive signs, however, as PiS's approval ratings have dipped and opposition protests have taken place without retaliation from government authorities. In fact, the Constitutional Court has recently put forth a potential compromise solution, which would allow for the new PiS appointed judges to take their seats once the terms of three existing judges expire in the next 18 months.
The European Union should allow Poland the breathing room needed to put democracy back on track on its own. Indeed, the European Union has already done its part, demonstrating that Poland's European neighbors would not hesitate to criticize what they see as serious democratic backsliding. The mild-tempered debate in the European Parliament with Prime Minister Szydlo was appropriately civil and should serve as a model going forward.
What should be avoided is an effort to "send a message" to PiS and other Euroskeptic or populist parties in Europe who may approve of PiS's actions. The last thing the European Union should do is give more ammunition to the growing voices across the Continent who see Brussels as exerting too much control and violating member state sovereignty. The image of foreign MEPs interrogating Prime Minister Szydlo should have sent shivers down the spine of David Cameron and others who could see a punishment of Poland as the first step in the European Union's takeover of domestic policies. To push too hard here would not only ostracize Poland, but also embolden those hoping to reverse the last sixty years of integration in Europe.
Perhaps Ronald Reagan's favorite Cold War proverb "trust but verify" is the best prescription. The path for compromise in Warsaw is open, and European officials must trust that Polish democracy will self-correct, while at the same time keeping a close eye on the situation to make sure democratic backsliding does not continue. The European Union has already demonstrated that it will not ignore threats to democracy within its member states, but in its reaction it must be careful not to add further fuel to the Euroskeptic fire already spreading throughout the Continent.
David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.