As has been true for almost a decade now, the European Union has seen better days.
With the British seriously considering “Brexit” — a British exit from the union — and the various PIIGS dramas submerged but always lurking beneath the surface, the economy in malaise, and the European Central Bank torn between independence and the biggest players in the EU, there were already numerous cracks showing in the once-proud edifice. When added to the limp response to Ukraine’s dogged efforts to join Europe under former President Viktor Yanukovych and now Petro Poroshenko, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the degrading security situations in Eastern Europe, the fumbled refugee crisis…
It’s a mess.
And now there’s Poland.
Poland got a shiny new government at the end of last year in no small part because of how the European Union was more or less completely unresponsive to Poland’s prior, center-left, EU-friendly government. When that government begged Brussels to bring Kyiv in from the cold in 2013, Germany — leery of another Greece — went the other way. When Poland basically underwrote the Maidan revolution, precipitating Moscow’s invasion, Brussels (again, arguably at Berlin’s behest) kept sanctions at the minimum needed to save face. Today, Warsaw and Brussels are locked in a dispute over a reorganization of the Polish judiciary that is either a perfectly legal undertaking (Warsaw’s position) or a terrible threat to the rule of law (Brussels). The subtext here is that the Polish judiciary is wildly pro-EU, favors European Union laws and norms on social and economic matters over Polish ones, and is stocked with allies of the prior (wildly pro-EU) government; this is a fight over the EU’s voice in Poland as much as over an internal clash between government branches. The new government was elected — and remains overwhelmingly popular — explicitly for rejecting these things.
The essential problem here is in how the European Union is perceived — by itself, by its member states, and by the more recent EU entries from the former Eastern Bloc like Poland. Germany and France see it as a bulwark for peace, formed in the wake of the second and to prevent another world war. Poland (and the Baltic states especially, and Moldova at least) see the EU as a bulwark against Russia. The European Union see itself as … well, that depends on the year, and whether it has an independent view of its existence, but at times, as a power in its own right that must deal with a complicated world, and as a guarantor of a certain political worldview and order inside of Europe.
All of the fighting over the next few weeks on whether Poland will retain voting rights in the EU, whether the defeated opposition’s former leader (now the President of the European Council) and the EU will extract marginal concessions, and so on — all of these things are mere sideshows. The greater story now is whether the European Union has a future beyond an existence as a trading zone. The old rules are breaking down, and of all the states to lead the charge, it may be Poland — the first rebels against Soviet tyranny, some of the EU’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders in the East — at the van.
Stefan Muller contributed to this article.