Under the rule of PiS, Poland could become the last bastion of right-wing populism in the EU


Head of the Warsaw office and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, he is also a…


This year will be crucial for Poland’s place in the EU. The most important decisions will be made in Warsaw. They will determine the parameters of not only Poland’s policy in the EU, but also its national policy for a long time. The dispute over integration will become its inseparable dimension.

The French presidency of the EU, which is just beginning, is not just a cyclical changing of the guard in the Brussels bureaucracy. For Emmanuel Macron, it is also the centrepiece of his presidential election campaign, in which he wants – after all, as he did five years ago – to present himself as a European visionary and a statesman.


Macron is building his political strategy, being aware of France’s strong political polarization. One of its determinants is the attitude to the European Union. In the parliamentary elections that recently ended in Germany, where the consensus on issues regarding the EU is very broad, such an alignment of the campaign axis would have been unthinkable. No part was played in it by a dispute over the EU.


From the German to the French model

Poland was close to the German model of political culture in this respect for years. Today, we are moving in the French direction. This is not changed by the fact that, while the French are among the societies which are most critical of EU membership, in Poland, it is at the highest level in the EU.


This is because it is not the dilemma of ‘PolExit or remain in the EU’ that is at stake in the emerging polarization, but the visions of membership, the approach to the EU and the way they are differentiated by the political camps. Numerous surveys show increasingly deep cracks in the Polish public with respect to the EU, coinciding with the main party/political dividing line.


Similarly, the EU battles that Poland will be fighting in the coming months will only ostensibly be of a technical, financial or sectoral nature. The most important of them – those regarding the rule of law and the Reconstruction Fund, the Green Deal and climate policy, as well as further progress with integration – are taking on a political/identity nature in the Polish context.


A scenario can be easily imagined where the conflict over the EU will become the centre of the political dispute in the run up to the next parliamentary elections (whenever they take place).


The battle over the rule of law

There have already been plenty of such signals in recent months, while it seems as if it is only a matter of time before a Polish PolExit party is formed. This does not mean that the attitude of Poles to the EU will reverse. But already today, supporters of an active pro-European course of Polish politics need to prepare for the battle over Europe which Emmanuel Macron is currently waging in France.


The future of the rule of law in Poland will play the most important role in this game, while the coming months will determine whether it will be possible to avoid further confrontation and irreparable damage to Poland’s interests.


At the beginning of the PiS rule, the conflict with the EU institutions over the courts seemed a front of marginal importance on which no noteworthy moves were visible for years. The situation has become different since last year.


The fact that the Court of Justice of the European Union passed a judgment on 15 July 2021, in which it held that the disciplinary system for judges – which is the PiS government’s main tool of applying political pressure on the courts – is in breach of European law and is to be changed, is most important.


Since then, the discussion about courts in Poland has not been theoretical (what are the criteria of judicial independence?) or political (is it better or worse in Poland than in other countries?). The highest judicial authority in the EU issued a decision on the matter which must be implemented.


Our country’s place in the EU – its political influence, financial interests, credibility, and ultimately membership as such – depends on whether and how quickly Poland does this.


Funding for the rule of law

This year will see a renewed legal and financial epic related to making the disbursement of EU funds conditional on the observance of standards of the rule of law and EU law. This is also a fundamental change that was made last year.


The Commission has not given Poland the green light for its National Recovery Plan, under which we could have already received 4.7 billion euros by the end of December 2021. The reason for this is the Polish government’s objection, which is unprecedented in the history of the EU (supported by the bizarre ruling of Julia Przyłębska’s Constitutional Tribunal), to the implementation of the CJEU judgment of 15 July mentioned above and other decisions of the EU court regarding the courts.


We shall not see this money (a total of 24 billion euros in grants) for a long time to come, regardless of how matters progress.


The political deadlock in the government (Zbigniew Ziobro’s resistance to the changes that have to be made to implement the CJEU’s judgment) makes it difficult to imagine a win-win scenario – the Commission is ready to release funds to Poland, while the coalition of the United Right group is still together.


But even if this happened, the funds will not flow overnight and promises to liquidate the Disciplinary Chamber or make other changes in the judiciary will not be enough. According to the EU regulations, payments will only be possible after these promises are actually fulfilled within a specified time.


With the fairest of weather, it is hard to imagine that this could happen before the autumn. And time is running out for conducting the crucial (especially green) modernization of the economy with this money.


The investments must be ready by the end of 2023, whereas it is difficult to make such plans in conditions of uncertainty.


We are at risk of marginalization

The risk that Poland will squander the opportunity to take advantage of the huge funds earmarked to support the post-pandemic reconstruction – and this in the context of a worsening economic climate, inflation and rising energy prices which expose the weaknesses of the Polish system – is great.


We should not delude ourselves that this will not have political consequences both in the EU and in national politics. Opponents of the EU in Poland, such as Ziobro and the Konfederacja party, have no interest in EU funds coming to Poland. This is because they are interested in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the benefits of membership are illusory.


The same applies to Poland’s political marginalization in the EU. Meanwhile, the conflict with the EU, coupled with the PiS party’s authoritarian inclinations, will push us ever further onto the tracks of a debate about national sovereignty that is anachronistic but which resounds among a part of the population, where the real stakes are our civilizational choice of the democratic values of the West.


The fact that, in this dispute over values and principles, which PiS is currently waging with the EU, we will arrive at key settlements in 2022 – either a confrontation with difficult-to-foresee consequences for Poland and the EU, or the government’s turning back from the path it has taken so far – also arises for other reasons.


We are not only losing the National Recovery Plan

The noose around Poland’s neck is tightening not only with regard to the National Recovery Plan. Poland is threatened with a large fine for failing to comply with the CJEU judgment, for which the European Commission can (and from the point of view of EU interests must) apply at any time.


Poland is no longer paying the binding fines imposed for Turów and for failing to implement the decision to suspend the Disciplinary Chamber – sooner or later these hundreds of millions of euros (or more) will be taken away from the money due to Poland from the EU budget.


The Commission has already launched the first stage of a new procedure (the so-called conditionality mechanism) which, if agreed to by 15 EU Member States representing at least 65% of the population of the EU, could lead to Poland being stripped of funds from the main EU budget.


Not to mention any subsequent proceedings before the CJEU, which could end in penalties, like those initiated in December for the ruling by Julia Przyłębska’s Tribunal questioning the primacy of EU law. 2022 will therefore be a year of judgment for Poland in the EU in the many senses of the term.


Energy transformation is also struggling

The next area that will re-set the switch in the EU and Polish policy in the coming months is that of climate issues. The European Union is preparing to achieve the objective of climate neutrality in 2050 and to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 – the political decision on this was already made two years ago.


Last year, the European Commission presented a series of legislative proposals to ensure the achievement of the latter objective (the ‘Fit for 55’ package). This is a fundamental change not only in the EU’s energy policy, but also in the objectives and priorities of European integration.



When Poland was acceding to the EU, the main objective was to join together a divided continent, to even out the differences in economic development between its parts and to ensure prosperity through a common market. Another has now been added: sustainable, climate-protecting development, requiring a fundamental change in the way energy is managed and used throughout the continent.


To some extent, PiS is right: this is a different EU from the one we joined. But the one we joined was also very different from the European Economic Community of the 1980s. The Union is a living political organism which reacts, albeit often too slowly, to changes in its environment and the resulting needs.


Revolution in the functioning of the economy

Even so, this transformation of the priorities, instruments and method of operation of the EU, the main driving force of which is the Green Deal, is a fact, while its far-reaching political consequences cannot be denied. And it is they which are currently becoming the key nurseries of consensus on European issues in Poland, setting anew the parameters of the debate on the EU and on Poland’s development priorities in the coming years.


This year will provide new fuel for this debate through a number of EU initiatives. In order to meet the new target of a 55% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990), the EU must introduce fundamental changes in areas of key importance to the functioning of the economy. Because the regulations to date have been targeted at achieving a much more modest reduction target – barely 40%.


The EU has to introduce incentives for investing in low-emission energy sources, increase emission charges to encourage companies and States to withdraw from ‘dirty’ sources, promote energy efficiency and the development of green technologies, and raise the objectives for renewable energy sources.


But, simultaneously, to protect European producers and citizens from the negative consequences of these increasingly ambitious policies intended to protect the climate. All this and much more is regulated by the ‘Fit for 55’ package mentioned above, the individual parts of which will be negotiated and adopted this year.


The taxonomy takes into account nuclear power and gas

Poland has achieved its objective in the dispute over the so-called taxonomy (the classification specifying which investments are considered ‘green’). Everything points to the European Commission’s proposal that was presented just before the end of last year, stating that investments in nuclear energy and gas will be classified as ‘good’ investments, which will encourage banks and investors to commit to their development.


But perhaps the most important front, where Poland will find itself in a much more difficult position, is related to the reform of the EU carbon dioxide emissions trading scheme (ETS). This is a key instrument of the EU’s climate policy, through which the number and price of emission allowances are determined – the EU has a limited pool of allowances distributed among individual countries.


Carbon dioxide emitters (such as factories and power plants) buy them at a price that is set by the market. The more expensive the allowances, the greater the incentive to withdraw from coal, gas or oil. This is why the EU is planning to extend the system to the heating and transport sectors, which are responsible for no fewer emissions than electricity generation or industry.

The recent sharp increase in emission prices (which was especially painful for Poland because of the structure of our energy mix, which is dominated by coal) has incited criticism of this system in Poland. The Polish Sejm passed a resolution calling on EU countries to suspend its use; Solidarna Polska would like Poland to unilaterally withdraw from the system, while the Polish government submitted an official proposal for its reform a few days ago.


The discussion on how to adjust the ETS system to the new EU targets (which must mean a reduction in the pool of allowances and an increase in their price) is highly significant – not only for Poland.


While good ideas to improve it are at a premium, ideas to bury it or for Warsaw to abandon it are purely unrealistic ways of causing a commotion.


But the longer the energy crisis continues, and it is only just starting in Poland, the more the desire to blame it on the EU and its mechanisms will grow.


The reform of the ECJ is therefore acquiring important political and symbolic significance in Poland.


This means a clash with reality, which the Polish elite (and not only PiS) has been consistently ignoring for years, basing the assumptions of its energy policy on completely unrealistic projections of the development of emission prices and delaying the urgent need for a green transformation for ever.


Poland can and should now try to negotiate the largest possible number of emission allowances (the money from their sale goes to the Polish budget and can, and should be used for pro-climate modernization purposes), additional support from the so-called Modernization Fund within the ETS, and sizeable funds for a fair transformation.


Decisions on these matters will be made this year. But for Poland’s voice to be heard in this discussion, which is extremely difficult for us (most countries do not have the same problems as we do), we primarily need a credible and well thought-out plan for achieving climate neutrality over the coming thirty years.


Without such a plan, which would convincingly show how and for what purposes Warsaw intends to use the funds, as well as possible concessions made in the EU, we are in a very weak position. Not to mention Poland’s disastrous political reputation.


Polish isolationism in the clash with EU sovereignty

In 2022, Polish sovereign-nationalist isolationism will increasingly frequently clash with European sovereignty, which is being built slowly but consistently.


Underlying this vague notion is a trend, which is gaining increasing support, to reinforce the EU’s capacity to take action, particularly on the international arena, equipping it with new instruments and powers.


France, which has just taken over the Presidency of the EU, is perhaps the strongest advocate of this ambition, wanting:

  • to strategically strengthen important sectors of industry;
  • to build strategic autonomy in the defence policy dimension; 
  • to introduce a border tax on carbon dioxide emissions; 
  • to use commercial policy more strongly as an instrument of foreign policy; 
  • to limit the power of global internet corporations; 
  • to protect the European market from unfair competition from outside the EU.


Many of these projects give rise to controversy among EU countries, but most are already subjects of legislative initiatives taken by the European Commission and are supported by the Member States.


In order to meet the growing challenges and threats, which European countries are unable to face alone, the EU frequently has to take such steps ad hoc and under the pressure of the moment, not always having agreed mechanisms of action and treaty bases for this.


During the pandemic, in response to the expectations of the citizens, the EU took a huge step towards greater solidarity and cooperation: jointly purchasing vaccines and setting up the Reconstruction Fund, for which it took out loans, encumbering all countries.


EU countries had not previously agreed to any of these initiatives, and they are not mentioned in the EU treaties. But these steps are fundamentally changing the way the EU is operating, deepening mutual obligations between the Member States and changing the relationships between EU institutions.


The balance between EU States and institutions is changing

A more sovereign EU is not becoming a super-state, nor is it threatening the sovereignty of the Member States. But there is no doubt that this transformation of the EU, which is taking place without any sharp turns, but rather quietly making its way through the maze of procedures and decisions that make it difficult to interpret its true nature – is constantly correcting and changing the political balance within the Union, including between EU institutions and the Member States.


It is not easy to prejudge the direction of this evolution. Some mention the growing role of the European Council, namely EU summits that bring together heads of state and government, who make decisions themselves at key moments, without looking to national parliaments and other EU institutions.


This would represent a strengthening of the intergovernmental principle, in which the Member States play a key role. Other changes, such as those regarding the protection of the rule of law in the Member States or the strengthening of the EU in countering economic threats, place the European Commission in a central role, which often leads to accusations about the dominance of bureaucracy in Brussels.


The dilemma between the effectiveness of EU action and its democratic legitimacy is not new. But, together with the need for joint and coordinated action of the Member States in a growing number of areas, it is becoming a hotbed of increasingly heated disputes.


Why Kaczyński is creating fears about federalization

They are also becoming a part of Polish politics. Jarosław Kaczyński’s criticism of the emerging Fourth Reich in response to the provisions of the German coalition agreement mentioning the long-term objective of a federal Europe is only a harbinger of such attacks in the future.


A super-state, federalization, centralization, a Europe of sovereign nations – all these terms serve as triggers, the objective of which is usually not to solve the EU’s abundant real problems and dilemmas, but to delegitimize the whole of the European project for the benefit of short-term political interests.


There will certainly be no shortage of opportunities for populists and nationalists to use such tricks in 2022. Their opponents will not have an easy task, because hiding behind black-and-white schemes is also insufficient. The thoughtless defence of the EU’s solutions for internal purposes not only does the EU no favours, but can also lead to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.


It is difficult to be optimistic in a year in which the problems that are piling up are putting Poland to the test in the EU, for which it is not prepared.


PiS is silently counting on a change of power and course in France after the April presidential elections, and perhaps also on the collapse of the labile pro-reform coalition in Italy, if Prime Minister Mario Draghi decides to take over the country’s presidency.


There is no doubt that such a scenario would be disastrous for both the EU and Poland. However, it is quite possible that, at the EU summit in June, Macron, strengthened by his electoral success, will sit alongside Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s successor, as well Draghi, continuing his governmental mandate, and Peter Marki-Zay, Viktor Orbán’s vanquisher.


Poland could become the last major bastion of right-wing populism in Europe in 2022. This would be a poor claim to fame. But a cautious reason for optimism.


Translated by Roman Wojtasz


The article was first published in OKO.press.


Head of the Warsaw office and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, he is also a…



January 14, 2022


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