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Poles Face Choice Over Their Country’s Standing in Europe

At risk in October is whether Poland is going to be at Europe’s heart, shaping decisions, or on the bloc’s periphery, losing important benefits and clout.

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.

Poland’s elections on October 15 will be the most consequential in the European Union this year. The future of the country’s democracy may be at stake – so too its role and influence in Europe.

A lot has been said in the last year about the balance of power in the EU “moving East” due to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. This is an exaggeration. For as long as the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party rules the roost in Warsaw, there is always going to be a limit on Poland’s ability to lead.

The many sources of conflict between Brussels and Warsaw highlight why.

For one, there is the ongoing fight over the independence of Poland’s judiciary, which continues to prevent Warsaw from accessing €36 billion in Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) funds. While the government has taken steps to pass several judiciary reforms earlier this year, Warsaw has so far failed to implement the legislation, which remains stuck in its highly politicized constitutional court.

Poland also continues to fail to meet the standards for the EU’s fundamental rights, which could risk the country losing over €70 billion in cohesion funds next year.

Moreover, instead of resolving some of its long-standing rule-of-law disputes with Brussels, the PiS-led government picked a new fight with the European Commission in June, passing a controversial “Russian influence law.” Primarily aimed at discrediting former European Council President and former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the law established a body to supposedly investigate Russian influence in the country between 2007 and 2022.

The Commission has responded to the law by launching yet another infringement procedure against Poland.

By contrast, a centrist coalition led by Tusk — although comprising at least three other parties, including Poland 2050, the Polish People’s Party, and the Left (now known as the Third Way) — would, as its first priority, aim to tackle legacy issues from the PiS era, such as depoliticizing the country’s judiciary and reorienting relations with the EU.

At a minimum, this would result in sweeping judiciary reforms and the restoration of the rule law — in the name of democracy and to unblock the RRF funds as well, as the €36 billion in financing available to Warsaw needs to be tapped by the facility’s 2026 deadline.

Importantly, a Tusk-led Polish government would then take steps to reset and improve the country’s position within the EU. This would, for example, include more openness toward the bloc’s climate policy. Tusk’s cabinet would likely seek to accelerate Poland’s green transition as well, removing regulatory barriers and investing EU funds in renewable energy to make the country less dependent on coal.

This is where the opportunity lies.

As Germany and France both remain inward looking — with Germany not inclined or interested in leading in Brussels, and French President Emmanuel Macron constrained in his ability to do so — a real opportunity exists for a leader of Tusk’s caliber to set the agenda for Europe.

This could prove significant, not least because the bloc is gearing up for next year’s European elections and the appointment of new leaders to advance the EU’s strategic priorities for the next five years — something Tusk can perhaps drive and shape.

Importantly, this would include the bloc’s reorganization and reforms in order to get it “match ready” for Ukraine’s eventual accession, tackling important questions of how and where the bloc distributes its budget funds, how an enlarged EU will take decisions and, possibly, where its final borders may lie.

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Yet, the vote in Poland will likely be very close. A hung parliament — something that is a real risk — would usher in a period of political uncertainty, which would result in weak government, or a repeat vote in early 2024. Both outcomes would be bad news for Poland’s position in the EU, as power struggles would dominate politics in Warsaw for the foreseeable future — not reform progress.

So, voters should take note. At risk in October is not only the country’s democracy but a choice over its standing and clout in Europe — either at its heart, driving decisions, or on its periphery, losing important influence that the EU surely offers.

Source: Politico