EU tensions herald fierce battle over future of Poland’s right

Zbigniew Ziobro did not mince his words when he asked Poland’s top court to rule on whether the EU’s new conditionality mechanism was compatible with the country’s constitution.

“I do not have the slightest doubt that it . . . is blatantly at odds,” Poland’s hawkish justice minister said, arguing that the EU rules — making access to funding from Brussels conditional on adherence to the rule of law — could be used to “blackmail” Poland.

Besides the punchbag of Brussels, there was a second, implicit butt of Ziobro’s criticism. Poland could have blocked the mechanism in December 2020 by vetoing the EU budget. But in the end, Poland’s prime minister — and Ziobro’s great rival — Mateusz Morawiecki did not do so.

Ziobro’s double-edged salvo was emblematic of the hardline stance he has staked out during Poland’s half-decade battle with Brussels over the rule of law. But it was also an example of how relations with the EU are part of a battle over the future of the Polish right between rival groups in the conservative-nationalist ruling coalition.

For now, Poland’s right remains dominated by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who co-founded Law and Justice (PiS) — the largest party in the ruling coalition — and is widely regarded as the country’s most powerful politician. But a younger generation of politicians, with Ziobro and Morawiecki among them, is jockeying for position ahead of both parliamentary elections, due by 2023 at the latest, and the day when Kaczynski’s hegemony eventually ends.

“The retirement of Kaczynski will be the beginning of division on the right . . . and I can’t imagine Morawiecki and Ziobro on the same boat without him,” said Wojciech Szacki, a political expert at Polityka Insight. “They have different ideas, different visions, different backgrounds, different goals, so basically there will be no peace between them.”

Morawiecki is a relative moderate. The multilingual former banker entered frontline politics via the ministries of development and finance before being installed as prime minister by Kaczynski in 2017, in part to improve relations with the EU after the bruising premiership of Beata Szydlo.

Zbigniew Ziobro, centre, with members of his United Poland party © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Ziobro, by contrast, is a hardliner. He served as justice minister in Kaczynski’s first government in the mid-2000s, before being expelled from PiS for questioning its direction. He then founded his own party, United Poland, which has adopted uncompromising positions on everything from LGBT rights to climate policy. After a period in the wilderness, the party became one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners ahead of its return to power in 2015.

United Poland has just 19 MPs in Poland’s 460-seat lower house, and opinion polls rarely give it more than a few per cent support. But since PiS’s second junior coalition partner — Jaroslaw Gowin’s Agreement — left the government in August, depriving it of its formal majority and forcing it to cobble together majorities on a vote-by-vote basis, the votes of United Poland have taken on outsized importance.

Ziobro and his allies have taken aim at other EU policies accepted by Morawiecki, including the bloc’s ambitious climate goals. One of the most explicit attacks came in December, when Janusz Kowalski, a United Poland MP, called for Konrad Szymanski, Europe minister and an ally of Morawiecki, to resign, criticising several aspects of Poland’s relationship with the EU.

Allies of Morawiecki say he has his own reservations about some of the EU’s actions towards Poland. But they say he still hopes to resolve the long-running feud over the rule of law that has prompted Brussels to delay approving billions of euros in funding, and argue that Ziobro’s manoeuvring and attacks on the EU undermine his efforts to do so.

“The prime minister is . . . very keen to find a compromise. But there are some red lines that even he couldn’t agree to,” said one person close to the government. “And there is of course huge internal pressure, especially from the ministry of justice, not to help the negotiations.”

Ziobro’s supporters bristle at such suggestions, and argue instead that Poland’s mistake was not taking a harder line with Brussels.

“More and more politicians from PiS see that we were right in this argument with Morawiecki. That we should have fought harder with the EU, that Ziobro won that argument,” said Kowalski.

“There was meant to be money, and there isn’t; everything was meant to be great, and it isn’t. And people are asking why? Who was right, who was not? To put it briefly, we were right.”

The simmering tensions have prompted renewed speculation over the coalition’s durability. However, analysts are sceptical that a divorce before the 2023 elections would help either party. PiS would be well short of a parliamentary majority without its junior coalition partner. And if United Poland ran alone, it is not clear that it would clear the 5 per cent threshold for representation in parliament.

“The thing that keeps United Poland on board is the thought that a scenario outside an alliance with PiS is not a rosy one,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex. “[Gowin’s departure] strengthens them . . . But on the other hand it’s a warning of what could happen [if they fall out with PiS].”

In the longer term, however, many observers think that United Poland has broader ambitions. “I think that Ziobro has never given up on the idea of creating a party that is capable of an independent life outside PiS,” said Szacki. “He is preparing the ground for an even more anti-European movement once Kaczynski retires, and the right has to start over.”

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