Why Poland Is Getting on the Nerves of the U.S. and the EU
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s easy to lose count of the number of times someone has declared the death of Polish democracy; usually reports are exaggerated. Poland is large enough, diverse enough, noisy enough and liberty-minded enough to resist being dragged under a dark authoritarian blanket again.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried by recent developments. The erosion of democracy may be a gradual process — like frog boiling. But the country’s hard-line coalition government, led by the populist, nativist Law & Justice Party (PiS), has been turning the heat up fast enough to grab the world’s attention. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that an inflection point may also be an opportunity for Poland’s long disjointed opposition.
The list of PiS-led offenses against democratic norms and the founding values of the European Union ranges from undermining the independence of the judiciary to restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights. Two new bills in the same mould have led to further tensions with the EU but have also put Poland on a collision course with its most important NATO ally.
One makes it more difficult for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property that was seized by Nazis in Poland, leaving many Jews whose families perished in Poland and had their properties confiscated with no recourse to restitution but also a sense that their history is being denied. The other, passed by the lower house of parliament last week changes the rules on foreign ownership of Polish media assets, requiring New York-based Discovery, Inc. to sell its majority stake TVN Group, which runs TVN24, Poland’s last remaining independent television news station.
“The ruling party promised us Budapest and it is delivering,” tweeted former Polish Foreign Minister and current member of the European Parliament, Radek Sikorski last week. The reference to Hungary — a wholly owned subsidiary of Viktor Orban, Inc. — is telling. So far, there has been a clear hierarchy in the EU’s eastern members who flout democratic norms; all meaningful opposition has been snuffed out in Hungary.
Is Poland now heading that way? Like Orban, the PiS has used the urgency of the pandemic to strengthen its control, including rushing through changes to the electoral code last year that helped keep President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, in power. The ruling party’s brash bid to buy parliamentary votes and other tactics is certainly redolent of Hungary.
Of course, Poland has had free elections and the kind of large-scale protests that attest to democracy remaining in place. As for media ownership laws, they exist in other EU countries too, as well as the U.S. Poland’s law set the limit for non-EU ownership in broadcasting to a minority stake of 49%, similar to Austria’s restrictions for radio and TV. Spain limits the total amount of shares that can be held by non-EU citizens and companies in radio and TV to below 50%. Poland’s government argues that the change is to prevent Russian or Chinese owners coming in – no offense to Americans.
Still, Austria and Spain and others with similar laws have varied, media landscapes as well as real public service broadcasting. Poland’s state television network (TVP) is no such thing. Poland’s media landscape without TVN24 will be anemic. The takeover of regional newspaper group Polska Press by state energy company PKN Orlen last year is a pretty good sign of the direction of travel.
The draft law isn’t a done deal yet. It needs to go through the opposition-controlled Senate, where it could be watered down. Discovery has vowed to take legal action, citing a 1994 bilateral investment treaty. Poland’s pro-business deputy prime minister Jaroslow Gowin was sacked by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week for opposing the law (along with tax-raising in a new economic program), leaving the coalition without a governing majority and dependent on the far-right for support.
If there’s a glimmer of hope in all this, it is that PiS has finally overstepped but also that Poland’s opposition, so often a disappointment, has serious leadership in the return of Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and European Council president. Tusk is again leading the center-right Civic Platform, which he helped found two decades ago and which once dominated Polish politics, though complacency, sloppy messaging and scandal led it to lose power in 2015.
Overturning the PiS’s grip on power won’t be easy. The party has combined astute social spending — a child-benefit program, more money for pensioners and a higher minimum wage — with populist policies to appeal to a sense of national pride and also the conservative social values dear to its rural voter base. Second quarter GDP, at 10.9% is the country’s fastest ever annual growth rate, which may make it harder to dislodge the governing party. New elections aren’t due until 2023, unless opposition parties can force a snap vote.
Outside powers can’t return Poland to a rule-of-law based democratic trajectory, but they can make their voices heard. As the biggest recipient of EU funds — some $152 billion since it became a member in 2004 — you’d think the EU has leverage. But the bloc has not been able to use that influence to date and Warsaw usually does just enough to avoid major confrontation.
The U.S. has historic, filial (according to some estimates, around 9 million in the U.S. identify as Polish American) and defense ties with Poland that run deep. But Biden has been notably cooler toward Warsaw than Donald Trump, who flattered PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and allowed him to play Washington off Brussels.
Both the EU and the U.S. need to work to encourage Poland to avoid going the way of Hungary. But the real heavy lifting will have to be internal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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