Poland Upset With EU But Not Enough to Follow U.K. Exit Path

The Polish government is getting increasingly upset with European Union efforts to add conditions to budget funding, but the issue isn’t enough for them to consider quitting the bloc, a deputy minister said.

While Hungary and Poland have long flouted democratic values that other European countries hold dear, officials in Brussels have struggled to discipline them as each can veto punishments against the other. That changed with a recent initiative tying development cash to rule-of-law standards, prompting the pair to threaten to block the EU’s seven-year budget, including 750 billion euros ($900 million) of pandemic aid.

“Poles are wise and they don’t blame the whole EU,” Waldemar Buda, deputy minister in charge of EU funds, told TVN24 private television on Sunday. “They understand that it’s only a group of leaders who are absolutely liberal and left-wing and impose their views on all countries.”

Government officials in Warsaw have long said that talk of a “Polexit” is merely “political fiction,” even as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said this month that being in the bloc “sometimes benefits Poland, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Looming Deadline

With a deadline looming to approve the spending plan, Hungary and Poland wager the EU will bend. The countries, which stand to receive more than 180 billion euros in the coming years, call the new rules an attack on their sovereignty.

But despite the health crisis and last-minute wrangling over a Brexit deal with the U.K., the EU is adamant it won’t cave, and has ratcheted up the rhetoric in a similar fashion. EU government envoys in Brussels will discuss the stalemate on Monday.

One EU diplomat said Hungary and Poland are moving toward deeper isolation. France’s ambassador to the bloc warned the quarrel could signal a “fundamental rupture” that raises questions about the EU’s very future, according to people present at a meeting of envoys in Brussels last week.

The clash has been building since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban began cracking down on independent media and bringing the courts under political control a decade ago. The EU objected but found itself largely powerless to stop him.

Instead, he has spurned the bloc’s values on everything from education to immigrants, likened the EU to the Soviet Union for meddling in Hungary’s affairs and painted his country as a victim of a liberal plot to undermine Europe’s “Christian heritage.”

Last week he called George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor and donor to liberal causes whom he’s made out be a nemesis, an “economic criminal.”

Then Orban’s culture czar, Szilard Demeter published an op-ed over the weekend where he likened Soros, a Holocaust survivor, to Adolf Hitler, and the EU to his “gas chamber.” Hungarians and Poles were Europe’s “new Jews,” he wrote. Hungary’s main Jewish group called the remarks “unpardonable.” Demeter retracted the op-ed Sunday but Orban hasn’t said whether he’d heed calls to fire him.

Budget Stance

Poland’s nationalist Law & Justice party took note, mimicking many of Hungary’s policies after winning elections in 2015. Again, EU objections to a judicial overhaul that gave the government more sway made little difference. Other disputes have arisen, namely over the treatment of LGBTQ minorities.

Orban and officials from Poland’s government revel in the role of standing up to what they call EU bullying, using a news conference in Budapest last week to cement their stance on the EU budget. But weaknesses in their position are becoming apparent.

France has raised the prospect of reorganizing the virus-relief money to exclude Hungary and Poland. Further delays in the budget would lead to the bloc operating under an emergency monthly budget, with the rule-of-law conditions still applying.

Closer to home, there’s little support for the two countries in eastern Europe. Slovenia’s prime minister is the only leader to speak up for them, and he’s embarrassed himself recently by prematurely congratulating Donald Trump on getting re-elected.

The domestic situation is getting more precarious too, with majorities in both Hungary and Poland backing EU membership, which has helped transform their economies through funding that far exceeds what they pay in.

Poland has been racked by protests over harsher abortion rules, while business groups including banks and employers’ associations sent protest letter to Morawiecki Monday, saying the veto plan would leave Poland “with no partners and no money.”

“I hope the EU won’t upset Poles as much as it did in Britain’s case, because it actually ended badly,” Buda said. “But I think Poles are wiser and they won’t let it happen.”

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