Wednesday 21 February 2018

Another blow for EU as big player seeks more control

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (R), leader of the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) is congratulated by Marta Kaczynska, daughter of late president Lech Kaczynsk.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski (R), leader of the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) is congratulated by Marta Kaczynska, daughter of late president Lech Kaczynsk.
Beata Szydlo, candidate for prime minister of the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) celebrate.

Pawel Swidlicki in London

The triumph of Law and Justice (PiS) in the Polish elections is yet another headache for Brussels and Berlin.

Although the party is not anti-European Union (as some lazy commentators tend to suggest), it is very much sceptical of deeper European integration as a desirable end of itself, and it also wants Poland to assert its national interest more forcefully in a number of key areas, ranging from energy and climate policies to the EU's stance towards Russia. The key point is that while Poles still overwhelmingly back EU membership, they want a greater degree of control over its development and direction.

A PiS-led government will also break with the previous Civic Platform government's approach to the refugee crisis, which tried to accommodate expectations of "European solidarity" with a sceptical public. The issue dominated the last couple of months of the campaign and the results illustrate there is no appetite to cede sovereignty in such a sensitive area.

A crucial test will be whether PiS will accept the 7,000 or so refugees Poland is due to receive via the relocation scheme agreed last month. Although the decision is legally binding, the government will need to proactively make arrangements to take in these people and it remains to be seen whether PiS will attempt to put in place practical obstacles and what the consequences of that would be.

A more distant, but no less fundamental, issue is that of Poland's euro membership. Although this question would have been kicked into the long grass even under a PO-led government, PiS has gone even further by arguing that Poland should only join the single currency when living standards have caught up with those in the West, which could be a matter of decades. With the eurozone set to embark on a course towards deeper integration, the absence of such a large member state will have consequences for the development of the EU more broadly.

Overall, the result is good news for British Prime Minister David Cameron's case for a restructured EU. It strengthens his argument that the union is at risk of overreaching itself and that it needs to be reformed to become more accountable to its citizens.

PiS shares Mr Cameron's desire to reassert the primacy of nation states within the EU over the traditional pro-integration drive led by France and Germany. Polish ambivalence towards the single currency also makes it increasingly clear that 'ever closer union' is not the desired end-point of every single member state. PiS could be a strong ally for Cameron in his bid to achieve a more flexible EU with differing levels of integration, including safeguards for non-euro member states.

However, that is not to say that Poland's new government and the British Conservatives will see eye-to-eye on every EU issue. For example, it is not a given that PiS will unambiguously support the UK's economic agenda of cutting EU red tape, expanding the single market and striking free trade agreements with other global economies - the party's policies are more protectionist and interventionist than the Tories'. Most fundamentally, the two sides will continue to clash over the issue of EU migrants' access to benefits, and PiS will want to avoid the perception that it has "sold out" Polish expat voters.

Now the elections are out of the way, PiS could adopt a more pragmatic stance, while as a result of the refugee crisis, Poland has experienced its own heated migration debate which should at the very least lead to a greater understanding of the dilemma Mr Cameron is facing. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Pawel Swidlicki is an analyst at Open Europe

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