The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the Polish government’s EU strategy?

By boosting Poland’s international standing and reducing the credibility of the main EU powers on security issues, the war in Ukraine has opened up a range of possibilities for Warsaw’s right-wing government to increase its influence and re-shape the current system of European alliances. However, relations with Hungary, its previous main EU ally, have reached an all-time low, and it is unclear to what extent other post-communist states will follow Poland in breaking with the European ‘mainstream’.

‘Own stream’ not the ‘mainstream’

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took office in autumn 2015 with a commitment to re-orientate the country’s foreign policy and adopt, as it saw it, a more robust and assertive approach to advancing the country’s national interests within the EU. Its predecessor, led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – the country’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main opposition grouping – tried to exert influence by locating Poland within the so-called European ‘mainstream’, developing close ties with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Poland needed to adopt a more autonomous EU policy and develop its ‘own stream’, building alternative power blocs as counterweights to the dominant Franco-German axis.

To achieve this, the Law and Justice government tried to position Poland as a regional leader and develop a number of multi-lateral formats based on forging closer ties with the post-communist states of central and Eastern Europe. One of these was the so-called ‘Visegrad’ group: a forum involving Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, formed in 1991 to promote regional co-operation and accession to Western institutions which has, in recent years, become an increasingly visible EU lobby group. Indeed, Law and Justice developed particularly strong ties with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party led by prime minister Viktor Orban which was, until recently, Warsaw’s closest EU ally. Another such forum was the Polish-led ‘Three Seas Initiative’, a wider group of twelve post-communist states aimed at developing solidarity and co-operation on issues where they had tangible common economic interests, such as infrastructure, technology and energy security.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Law and Justice soon found itself in conflict with the EU political establishment, although the most serious clashes were actually over its domestic political reforms. The Polish government has been in a protracted stand-off with the European Commission and major EU powers over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues, particularly its fiercely contested overhaul of the country’s judicial system. The EU institutions agreed with criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. It accused the EU institutions of bias and double standards arguing that the Polish reforms were in line with practices that existed in other established democracies. It said that the EU political establishment was using the ‘rule of law’ issue as a pretext to victimise Law and Justice because the party rejected the EU’s liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural issues which it felt undermined Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Indeed, Law and Justice argued that the conflict arose precisely because it had adopted a more assertive approach to defending and advancing Polish interests and values within the EU.

Poland’s increased international standing

So how has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected Law and Justice’s EU strategy? Poland’s centrality to the West’s response has provided Warsaw with an opportunity to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key regional player. Its critical geographical location, together with the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, mean that Poland has become pivotal to the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. It has been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing from the conflict, with more than 3 million people crossing its Eastern border.

The war has also dramatically changed Europe’s geopolitical security dynamics, and potentially the balance of power within the EU bloc. The main EU powers, especially Germany, disregarded the interests of their central and East European allies by developing close ties with Russia; becoming dependent on Russian oil and gas and supplying Moscow with critical technology in the (as it turned out naïve) hope of drawing it into the West’s civilizational orbit. Resentment within the post-communist states over what they see as the West European powers’ over-conciliatory approach to the Kremlin – and, following the outbreak of armed conflict, apparent reluctance to take the lead in countering Russia – meant that, as international security became the dominant issue in the region, the EU political establishment lost considerable political and diplomatic capital.

At the same time, Poland’s credibility and international standing were enhanced by the fact that it had, for a long time, warned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs on the region. Warsaw had criticised Germany and other Western powers for developing economic and diplomatic ties with Moscow over the heads of the post-communist states, exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine (and which Berlin belatedly suspended). Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to the Russian invasion and ensure that sanctions are maintained and extended. The fact that Germany and the main EU powers have lost credibility on the security issue at a time when it has moved to the top of the political agenda, potentially makes other post-communist states more receptive to Poland’s ideas of closer regional co-operation as a counter to the EU political establishment. Previously, most of these countries saw locating themselves within the European ‘mainstream’ and working closely with Berlin as the key to advancing their interests.

Re-building links with Washington

Moreover, as the war increased the salience of the security issue the USA pivoted away from its previous approach of mediating European relations primarily through the EU political establishment. When US President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he effectively sub-contracted European regional leadership to Berlin. For example, although he initially signalled scepticism towards the ‘Nord Stream 2’ project, and declared repeatedly that his administration would continue to support making the post-communist states’ energy market less dependent on Russia, Mr Biden did not follow through on a threat to sanction German companies involved in the pipeline’s construction.

At the same time, Law and Justice had extremely fraught relations with the Biden administration. Poland’s ruling party enjoyed very strong ties with Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, whom it came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. Mr Trump gave strong support to the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, which he saw as a way of boosting Poland’s influence and challenging the existing EU elites. The Biden administration, on the other hand, viewed Law and Justice as being on the ‘wrong side of history’ on moral-cultural issues, and during the 2020 US presidential election campaign Mr Biden mentioned Poland as a country where democracy was endangered. For his part, Law and Justice-backed Polish President Andrzej Duda initially delayed acknowledging Mr Biden’s election until the results were officially ratified. Mr Biden also saw the role of European regional co-operation forums such as the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ as complementary to the EU ‘mainstream’ rather than a counterweight to the Franco-German axis.

In fact, even before the war began Mr Duda had been making a concerted effort to re-build links with Washington. Last December, he vetoed a controversial media law that the USA felt threatened the commercial interests of the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Moreover, following the invasion Poland became a key front-line NATO member and Washington’s most important strategic partner in promoting regional security and challenging Russian aggression. With Germany lacking the authority to lead Europe on security issues, the Biden administration made a pragmatic decision to put aside its political and ideological differences with Law and Justice and prioritise broader strategic co-operation; exemplified by Mr Biden’s high profile March visit to Poland when he tellingly did not overtly criticize the Polish government’s domestic policies.

Relations with Hungary at a low point

However, one clear political downside of the Russian invasion from Law and Justice’s perspective is that top-level co-operation between the four ‘Visegrad’ states has effectively been suspended due to Hungary’s stance of maintaining close relations with Moscow. Although, some lower level of co-operation will probably continue, for the foreseeable future the group is unlikely to function as a coherent regional lobby organisation.

Moreover, Law and Justice’s relations with the Orban administration are at an absolute low point. Previously, the two governments had been close political and ideological allies, regularly supporting each other in their respective clashes with the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ and moral-cultural issues. However, while Poland has taken a strongly anti-Russian line, Hungary held up tougher EU sanctions and refused to allow weapons bound for Ukraine to transit through its territory. Contrary to Law and Justice’s hopes and expectations, Mr Orban did not go further in distancing Budapest from Russia after Fidesz won Hungary’s April parliamentary election.

For sure, the two parties have long held divergent views on relations with Russia but, until the invasion, Law and Justice was prepared to tolerate Fidesz’s pro-Moscow tendencies and put the issue on the back-burner. However, the war has been a game-changer with Law and Justice seeing Russian aggression in Ukraine as a defining moment in international politics and Budapest’s close links with Moscow as undermining not only Ukrainian but also Polish security interests. For the moment, Law and Justice’s previous, seemingly wide-ranging, strategic partnership with Fidesz, based on a shared anti-federalist view of their preferred trajectory of the European integration project and rejection of the liberal-left EU consensus on moral cultural issues, has been reduced to tactical co-operation over ‘rule of law’ issues where both countries have been attempting to stave off EU sanctions.

Will regional security remain the dominant issue?

It is too early to tell to what extent the war will strengthen Poland’s efforts to draw other post-communist states away from their orientation towards Germany and the EU ‘mainstream’. The international situation is fluid and a lot obviously depends on how long and protracted the war will be, and whether it will have long-lasting or quickly-diminishing effects. Moreover, Germany remains the Union’s key political player and main economic powerhouse so, however frustrated they may be about Berlin’s indecisiveness over the Ukrainian conflict, central and East European states may still want to align themselves closely with the ‘mainstream’, particularly if security issues move down the political agenda and socio-economic concerns become more salient.

There is also an argument that deeper EU integration – and, therefore, closer alignment with the EU ‘mainstream’ – may actually enhance these countries’ security by helping to embed them more firmly within Western international structures. The Polish opposition has, for example, argued that Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment has undermined the country’s national security by weakening its anchoring in the West. Nonetheless, to the extent that regional security remains the defining issue in central and East European politics, it is unlikely that there will be an imminent return to the status quo ante as far as German leadership credibility is concerned. Although it is unclear how this will ultimately play out, the Russian invasion has clearly opened up a range of possibilities for Law and Justice to boost its EU influence and re-shape the current system of European alliances.

What are the prospects for Polish President Andrzej Duda?

Poland’s right-wing President was already trying to become more assertive and independent when the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave him an opportunity to carve out a new role as a key regional player and unifying force in domestic politics. But he remains a loyal, if somewhat more autonomous, member of the governing camp, and much of the time is acting intuitively rather than having a coherent plan for re-modelling the presidency.

Lacking a defining concept

Previously, the opposition harshly criticised President Andrzej Duda – who is backed by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – for his alleged passivity. They accused him of being marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acting as the government’s ‘notary’. Except for a few rare occasions, such as in July 2017 when he vetoed two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws, Mr Duda had not really made any serious attempts to carve out an independent role for himself.

In many ways, this was not surprising. The President’s most significant constitutional power was a negative one: a legislative veto that requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority (which Law and Justice lacks) to over-turn. Mr Duda largely agreed with the ruling party’s critique of the alleged shortcomings of the post-communist state and its core institutions and was elected on the same governing programme, so it would have been unusual if he had blocked key elements of it. His disagreements were generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. Moreover, most Poles appeared to generally accept Mr Duda’s model of the presidency; in a closely-fought contest he was re-elected for a second term in July 2020. More broadly, however, Mr Duda’s critics argued that his presidency lacked a clear defining concept and that he had failed to develop the strong intellectual and political support base required to carry forward independent initiatives, preferring to surround himself with technocrats rather than experienced operators.

More assertive and independent

Initially, after his re-election Mr Duda once again kept a low profile and confined himself to presidential routine. However, even before the Russian invasion he was already making efforts to re-build his image and become a more assertive and independent political figure. For example, last December Mr Duda vetoed a controversial government-backed media ownership law. A key driver of this was his wish to improve Poland’s hitherto rather frosty relations with the US Biden administration at a time when the prospect of Russian aggression was already increasing tensions across the region. The USA felt that the media reforms threatened the commercial interests of American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line.

Both the President and Law and Justice enjoyed very strong ties with Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whom they came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. During the 2020 US election, Mr Biden mentioned Poland as a country where democracy was endangered, and Mr Duda initially delayed acknowledging him as the new President until the results were officially ratified. Nonetheless, for some time Mr Duda’s staff has been working hard to re-build links with Washington.

Moreover, to further strengthen Poland’s ties with the Western international community, Mr Duda also made a concerted attempt to de-escalate Law and Justice’s ongoing dispute with the EU political establishment over the government’s controversial judicial reforms. The EU institutions agreed with Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that the reforms undermined the ‘rule of law’ and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. For its part, Law and Justice rejected the opposition’s critique arguing that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Nonetheless, the European Commission withheld the first tranche of billions of Euros due to Poland from the Union’s coronavirus recovery fund until Warsaw implemented a July 2021 EU Court of Justice ruling that it disband a newly created supreme court disciplinary chamber.

In February, Mr Duda submitted a draft law reforming the chamber which he hoped would meet the Commission’s concerns. However, the President’s draft is currently bogged down in a parliamentary committee due to opposition from ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), Law and Justice’s junior governing partner led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, on whom it relies for its legislative majority. Mr Ziobro, who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies including the judicial reforms, has been staking out a series of hard-line right-wing conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid.

A key regional player

The Russian invasion has also provided Mr Duda with an opportunity to carve out a role for himself as a key regional player. Poland’s geographical location as the most important frontline state, together with the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, mean that Warsaw has played a pivotal diplomatic and military role in the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. Poland has also been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing from the conflict with more than 3 million people crossing its Eastern border.

Although foreign and defence policy lie primarily within the government’s domain, Mr Duda appears comfortable in these fields and aware that the Constitution gives him a number of broad prerogatives (he is, for example, commander-in-chief of the armed forces) together with an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. For a long time, Mr Duda and Law and Justice warned about the international threat posed by what they saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of the region. Since Russia’s invasion, Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies and at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a robust response and ensure that sanctions on Moscow are maintained and extended. Mr Duda is also one of the governing camp’s most consistently pro-Ukraine leaders and has developed a close personal relationship with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. Moreover, following Mr Duda’s earlier efforts, Warsaw has become Washington’s most important security partner in the region as the Biden administration has prioritised defence and security issues and put its political differences with Law and Justice firmly on the back-burner; exemplified by the US President’s high profile March visit to Poland.

Since the war broke out, Mr Duda has also made a concerted effort to act as a unifying force in domestic politics. In March, for example, he vetoed a controversial education reform law which the government said was designed to prevent radical left-wing organisations from gaining access to schools but the opposition argued could have been used to ban any groupings which did not conform to Law and Justice’s socially conservative values. Mr Duda justified his veto on the grounds that, although he personally supported many of the law’s provisions, Poland needed to avoid polarising political disputes at this time.

Looking to the future

The fact that this is Mr Duda’s final presidential term and that he does not need to worry about re-election gives him much greater room for manoeuvre. In this sense, although the Ukrainian conflict provided him with a historical opportunity to re-define his presidency, it simply accelerated an already-existing process. In part, Mr Duda’s increased diplomatic activity has made him more conscious of the international context and impacts of certain domestic political actions, such as the government’s media reform law. To some extent he is also thinking about his future legacy and prospects beyond the presidency. Mr Duda appears to have become convinced that history will judge his presidency on the role that he plays in the current crisis, and that he is thus obliged to help maintain at least a minimal level of national political unity and consensus. Mr Duda also knows that in order to secure a senior international post in the future he will need the support, or at least acquiescence, of the USA.

In terms of Polish domestic politics, Mr Duda’s relations with Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński remain very uneasy. Mr Kaczyński – who, although he is only deputy prime minister, exercises a powerful influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – has never forgiven the President for his 2017 veto of the judicial reforms (even though the subsequently approved legislation was very close to the original proposals). However, as the international situation has built up Mr Duda’s standing, it has become more difficult for the Law and Justice leader to ignore him. Moreover, given that Mr Kaczyński is expected to stand down as party leader in the next parliament, Mr Duda and other key figures in the governing camp are already positioning themselves for future leadership scenarios. The President, therefore, has to assert his independence but in ways that will broaden his influence within, rather than alienate, the ruling party.

In fact, Mr Duda remains both emotionally and intellectually committed to key elements of Law and Justice’s radical state reform programme. So although, for example, he appears prepared to make quite far-reaching concessions in order to reach a compromise with Brussels, as the opposition has pointed out his draft law to reform the supreme court disciplinary system does not abandon the core principle at the heart of Law and Justice’s judicial reform programme: that giving elected politicians a greater say in determining the composition of the key bodies that oversee the Polish courts is both necessary and in line with practices in other Western democracies. In other words, Mr Duda remains, in essence, a loyal member of the governing camp; albeit a somewhat more autonomous one.

Mr Duda’s relations with prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki are also felt to have improved since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict. The two politicians have not always enjoyed the closest of ties but, as the key figure in Law and Justice’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing, Mr Morawiecki is instinctively sympathetic to some of the President’s pivots to the political centre. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that Mr Duda and Law and Justice moderates could even be trying to re-configure the governing camp and broker a new ruling coalition. The objective here, it is argued, would be draw in more centrist political groupings such as the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), either in the current parliament to jettison ‘Solidaristic Poland’, or after the next election if (as seems likely) Law and Justice loses its outright majority and needs to broker a deal with the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) to remain in office. However, Mr Duda has never previously shown any signs that he is interested in, or capable of, such political maneuvering, so there may be little point trying to find such hidden sub-texts in his recent actions.

Intuition rather than a coherent plan?

Most Poles appear to approve of the fact that, step-by-step, Mr Duda is becoming an increasingly autonomous and significant actor on the political scene. According to an April survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper, 76% of respondents, including 74% of opposition supporters, evaluated his activity since the outbreak of the war positively. However, arguably, rather than having a coherent and thought-through long term plan for re-modelling his presidency, much of the time Mr Duda is simply reacting intuitively to the changed political circumstances and, with the outbreak (and earlier threat) of a war on Poland’s Eastern border, felt obliged to become more assertive and pro-active.

Indeed, the whole political situation could change radically for Mr Duda if he has to ‘cohabit’ with a government led by the current opposition parties after the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, until his term of office ends in summer 2025. How Mr Duda’s presidency evolves over the next few months will provide some critical pointers as to how this possible future relationship may develop.

How long will Polish politicians remain united over the war in Ukraine?

The overwhelming imperative for national unity prompted by the war works in favour of Poland’s right-wing ruling party because it puts other problematic issues on the back-burner and the opposition lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level. However, political contestation is re-emerging over whether the government is providing the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

The imperative for national unity

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated political debate and overshadowed all other issues in Poland. It also prompted a remarkable degree of unity among the political class which had previously been extremely divided and polarised over attitudes towards the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015. Politicians are acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan divides and disputes pale into insignificance when the country faces a major security threat. A March survey conducted by the Kantar agency found that, by a 78% to 13% margin, respondents felt that Poles needed to put aside their differences and support the government’s actions at this time.

Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least previously salient domestic political divisions and issues have been put on the back-burner. For example, given the urgency of strengthening Poland’s military security, politicians from across the political spectrum voted in favour of the government’s ‘homeland defence law’, in spite of the opposition’s misgivings, thus ensuring its parliamentary approval without a single opposing vote. The law’s provisions include accelerating the pace of increased defence spending to 2.2% of GDP in 2022 and at least 3% in 2023, and more than doubling the size of the Polish armed forces.

There has also been broad political and societal consensus around responding positively to the two-and-a-half million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion. This resulted in the near-unanimous parliamentary approval of a ‘Ukrainian special law’ providing a new set of support measures including: allowing refugees to stay legally in Poland for up to 18 months (in the first instance); speeding up the registration process for national identity (PESEL) numbers which allow them to work and access health care and welfare benefits; and support for the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the education system. There was some controversy over the government’s decision to include a clause granting officials legal immunity for violating public finance laws when making decisions relating to emergency situations. Law and Justice said this was a standard measure intended to protect those officials who needed to respond quickly in difficult circumstances. The opposition argued that Law and Justice was trying to slip in an immunity clause that protected members of the ruling party who had broken the law during the coronavirus pandemic crisis. In the event, the broad immunity proposal was narrowly rejected after three Law and Justice deputies voted with the opposition.

Moreover, having previously been heavily criticised by the opposition for failing to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda has attempted to transcend the government-opposition divide and act as a unifying force in Polish politics. For example, Mr Duda vetoed a controversial education reform law which the government said was designed to prevent radical left-wing organisations from gaining access to schools. The opposition argued that it could have been used to ban any organisations which did not conform to Law and Justice’s socially conservative values. Mr Duda justified his veto on the grounds that, although he personally supported many of the law’s provisions, Poland needed to avoid polarising political disputes at this time.

Opposition frustration

At the same time, the current situation is very frustrating for the opposition because it lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level. Much of the media coverage of the war has focused on the efforts of Mr Duda and Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to position Poland as a key international player in the crisis. For example, Mr Morawiecki and Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński (who, although he is only a deputy prime minister, exercises a powerful influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities), together with the Czech and Slovenian prime ministers, travelled to the besieged Ukrainian capital to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. Even though some opposition leaders had private misgivings about the visit as a government public relations stunt, in public they felt obliged to defend it as a strong morale booster for Ukraine.

Interestingly, Donald Tusk, leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party in 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, does not really appear to have drawn upon his experience and contacts to give himself a higher international profile. Following a stint as Polish prime minister from 2007-14, and then European Council President in 2014-19, Mr Tusk is currently leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation. One exception here was when he spoke at a pre-election opposition rally in Hungary attacking Fidesz prime minister Viktor Orban, who has been Law and Justice’s closest EU ally, for his close ties with Russia. Civic Platform has frequently called upon Law and Justice to end its alliance with Mr Orban and other European right-wing leaders known for their links with Moscow. Law and Justice has responded by drawing attention to Mr Tusk’s own attempts while prime minister to develop warmer relations with Russia, and arguing that his allies in the EU political establishment, especially Germany, have had the strongest economic ties with Moscow and are currently the main obstacle to tougher EU sanctions.

The opposition also feels that, in many ways, the imperative for political unity suits Law and Justice because it means that other problematic issues are no longer in the media spotlight. When the war broke out, Law and Justice faced an accumulation of problems including: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing ‘rule of law’ disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living. Mr Tusk, in particular, has made total negation of the government’s record the core of his political message since he returned to front-line Polish politics last summer. The war has completely overshadowed these issues, or given Law and Justice an opportunity to relativise them as second order compared to national security.

Contestation is starting to re-emerge

However, politics abhors a vacuum and there are already signs that more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation are starting to re-assert themselves. Indeed, even as the conflict broke out Civic Platform called upon the government to end its dispute with the EU political establishment by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms. The EU institutions agree with criticisms levelled by most opposition parties and Poland’s legal establishment that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the constitutional separation of powers. Civic Platform argued that, as well as preventing Poland from accessing EU funds, Law and Justice’s conflict with the Union’s political establishment undermined national security by weakening the country’s anchoring in the West. However, whatever ones’ views of the merits of the various arguments here (for its part, Law and Justice says that the Polish judiciary has been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, and is thus incapable of reforming itself) to many Poles raising the ‘rule of law’ dispute at this time made Civic Platform’s appeals for national unity appear somewhat hollow.

A row between Law and Justice and the opposition also emerged over an unexpected government proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the possibility of confiscating assets belonging to entities and individuals involved in supporting Russia, and the exclusion of defence spending from public debt limits. The government argued that Poland’s basic law only allowed for these assets to be frozen not seized, while constitutionally-enshrined debt rules could block its plans for rapid increases in defence spending. The opposition, whose support is required to secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the Constitution, expressed scepticism as to whether such amendments were really necessary. Indeed, some anti-government commentators argued that they were a political trap for the opposition. If they co-operated with Law and Justice this could alienate their hard core supporters, but if they opposed the amendments the ruling party would argue they were preventing the government from acting against Russian oligarchs and blocking increases in defence expenditure.

Probably the most controversial rupture in the unity of the Polish political class followed a recorded address to the Ukrainian parliament by Tomasz Grodzki, the Civic Platform-nominated speaker of the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber. Mr Grodzki directly attacked the Law and Justice government accusing it of ‘financing a criminal regime that uses the money to murder innocent people’, by continuing to import Russian coal and failing to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs. Law and Justice accused Mr Grodzki making scandalous and misleading accusations, and has filed for his dismissal. The party said that it was private companies, not the government, that were purchasing Russian coal and that his demands related to issues that were the competencies of international organisations, mainly the EU, whom Poland was pushing to take more decisive action.

Civic Platform leaders reacted uneasily, and somewhat inconsistently, to Mr Grodzki’s remarks: to some degree distancing themselves from their tone, but also downplaying their significance and defending the substance of what he said. Interestingly, shortly afterwards the government announced measures to block the import of Russian coal by private companies, notwithstanding doubts about the legality of a unilateral embargo by an individual EU member state. This suggests that the scope and enforcement of sanctions against Russia, and solidarity with Ukraine more generally, is emerging as a so-called ‘valence’ issue, where the parties agree on an overall objective but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on this shared goal.

Divisions remain, but over different issues

So the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ‘re-set’ Polish politics but only in the sense that all other issues are currently very much on the back-burner and the public appetite is for politicians to avoid conflicts and unite. However, the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until autumn 2023 and the current overwhelming demand for political and societal unity is only likely to last until the war either ends or becomes ‘normalised’ as the media spotlight shifts to other matters. Ongoing concerns about issues such as rising costs of living are likely to re-assert themselves, although obviously exacerbated by the socio-economic effects of the war and the influx of Ukrainian refugees. Moreover, even if most politicians are still calling for unity there are already signs that they are reverting to more ‘normal’ patterns of politics, except that contestation is focused mainly on the question of which party is best placed to provide the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

Interestingly, for the moment at least, the war has not had a transformative effect on Law and Justice’s opinion poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 34% poll support in March – an increase of 4% compared to January, but still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority. Law and Justice does not yet seem to be benefiting as much as might be expected from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat. Obviously changes in public attitudes will take some time to fully crystallise and feed through, but it may be that, although the war has been dominating media coverage, attitudes towards other issues are so deeply ingrained that they are still the most powerful drivers determining party support.

How will the war in Ukraine affect Polish politics?

Poland’s raised international profile as a key regional diplomatic and military player, together with the tendency for citizens to rally around political leaders at a time of national crisis, are likely to boost support for the country’s right-wing ruling party. Although this ‘rally effect’ will subside, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive in determining election outcomes, this particular conflict could leave a more long-lasting domestic political footprint, making national security questions much more salient.

Consolidating support for the ruling party

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a whole series of huge diplomatic, economic, security and humanitarian challenges for Poland. These include: further increases in the price of energy and raw materials that will push-up inflation, already at its highest level for more than twenty years; the economic knock-on effects of Western sanctions; and a potentially huge refugee crisis, with estimates that more than one million Ukrainians could flee to Poland to escape the armed conflict. Although it remains ahead in opinion polls, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, has lost support over the last eighteen months as it faced an accumulation of political difficulties. These have included: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing ‘rule of law’ disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living.

However, the war in Ukraine has now completely overshadowed all of these issues and is likely to consolidate support for Law and Justice. The ruling party will probably benefit from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat. It is too early to tell how significant, or long-lasting, a boost for Law and Justice the crisis might provide. But there were already some indications that the party’s polling numbers had started to tick up, even before the outbreak of armed hostilities. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 34% opinion poll support in February – an increase of 3% compared to January, although still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

Warsaw’s raised international profile

Law and Justice argues that it has taken a series of measures to make Poland more militarily self-sufficient. The latest of these is the so-called ‘homeland defence law’ (ustawa o obronie ojczyzny) which, if approved by parliament, will accelerate the pace of increased defence spending and double the size of the Polish armed forces. However, much of the media spotlight has focused on the government’s international role in trying to resolve the crisis. This has provided Warsaw with an opportunity to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key strategic regional player. Given Poland’s critical geographical location, and the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, the country plays a pivotal role in the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow.

The Polish government and Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda have been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what they always saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of the region, and specifically to ensure that sanctions on Moscow were maintained and extended. Law and Justice has, for a long time, criticised Germany and other Western powers for their over-conciliatory approach towards developing economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow over the heads of their European allies. This was exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine; and which Berlin has now belatedly suspended approval of. Indeed, some observers argued that pressure from the Polish government, and specifically prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, played a pivotal role in persuading Germany to make an abrupt change of course after the invasion started by agreeing to reverse its historical non-intervention policy and send weapons to Ukraine, as well to increase defence spending to over 2% of the country’s GDP (a level considered a minimum by NATO), and block Russian access to the ‘Swift’ international payments system (having initially opposed such tough economic sanctions).

The crisis has also been an opportunity to improve Warsaw’s fraught relations with the US Biden administration. Law and Justice enjoyed very strong ties with Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whom it came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. This, together with Mr Biden’s pivot back to developing stronger ties with the EU political establishment (especially Germany), made it considerably more difficult for Warsaw to pursue its international policy agenda. However, Polish-US relations already started to improve last December when Mr Duda vetoed a controversial media law that the USA felt threatened the commercial interests of the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Now Poland has become the main destination for new US troops arriving in the region since January to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. The Biden Administration also announced a $6 billion weapons sale to Warsaw, which included 250 M1 Abrams tanks.

A tricky situation for the opposition

At the same time, the opposition parties lack the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level, and, for the sake of national unity, have largely refrained from criticising the government overtly, for the moment at least. Moreover, all the main Polish political groupings share the goal of strengthening Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation and countering Russian expansionism. Eastern policy has generally emerged in the context of domestic politics as a so-called ‘valence’ issue: where parties agree on overall objectives but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on these shared goals.

However, while agreeing with the government’s assessments of Russia’s actions and the potential threat that they pose to Polish national security, some sections of the opposition have tried to develop talking points critical of Law and Justice. For example, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – the country’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping – called upon Law and Justice to end its conflict with the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ issues as quickly as possible, by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms. Law and Justice has been in an ongoing dispute with the EU institutions who agree with the criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. Civic Platform has argued that Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment undermined national security by weakening Poland’s anchoring in the West and efforts to build alliances within Europe. The Ukrainian conflict, they said, also highlighted the fact that the main threat to Poland came from Moscow not Brussels or Berlin.

The government’s supporters countered that raising the ‘rule of law’ dispute at this time made Civic Platform’s appeals for national unity appear hollow, particularly as the opposition party also implied an equivalence between Law and Justice’s reforms and the lack of judicial independence in Russia. Moreover, Law and Justice rejected the opposition’s critique of its reforms arguing that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. Law and Justice’s supporters also argued that the EU political establishment had used the ‘rule of law’ issue as a pretext and that the root of the conflict stemmed from the fact that the Polish government had, they said, adopted a more robust and assertive approach towards defending and advancing the country’s national identity and interests within the EU.

At the same time, however, over the last few weeks the Law and Justice government and Mr Duda have been making a concerted effort to de-escalate the dispute with Brussels. This was mainly to secure Polish access to EU funds that the Commission is blocking, but also to help the West present a united front in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, by raising the ‘rule of law’ issue, the opposition mis-read the national mood which, for the moment at least, seems to want its political leaders to focus solely on the Ukrainian crisis and put other contentious issues to one side.

Disputes over international party links

Previously, opposition parties also strongly criticised attempts by Law and Justice to develop links with right-wing Eurosceptic parties that have enjoyed close ties with Moscow, such as Marine Le Pen’s French ‘National Rally’ and the Hungarian ‘Fidesz’ grouping led by Viktor Orban, the ruling party’s closest EU ally. For example, in January Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk, a former European Council President and Polish prime minister between 2007-14, criticised Mr Morawiecki for attending a summit meeting in Madrid involving these and other parties, which he described as ‘a facto meeting of the anti-Ukrainian international’. Law and Justice countered by acknowledging that these parties sometimes had a different view of Moscow to Poland, but also pointing out that the Madrid summit’s final declaration unequivocally condemned Russian military operations on Ukraine’s border (although the version posted on Ms Le Pen’s website apparently made no mention of this).

Law and Justice also argued that, in terms of practical policy preferences, the parties represented at the Madrid summit were no more pro-Moscow than many European centre-right and centre-left parties with whom the Polish opposition was closely allied and whose leaders often had business interests in, and close economic ties with, Russia. Indeed, immediately prior to the Russian invasion, Mr Morawiecki called upon Mr Tusk to resign as president of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation, which he dubbed the ‘Nord Stream 2 party’ due to the critical role played by the German Christian Democrats (the grouping’s leading member) in the development of the controversial Russo-German pipeline.

Leaving a lasting political footprint?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has completely dominated political debate in Poland overshadowing all other issues. In addition to benefiting from the ‘rally effect’, Law and Justice has been able to portray Warsaw as a key regional player while the opposition has no instruments to exert any real international influence. Politicians are also acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan political divides pale into insignificance when the country faces such a major geopolitical security threat. Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least disputes over the Law and Justice’s ‘rule of law’ conflict and other previously salient domestic political issues are on the back-burner. The same is true of disputes over the two main parties’ international links which, until just before the Russian invasion, were also a source of bitter political disagreement.

Nonetheless, in spite of the displays of national unity, political calculations are obviously still being made behind-the-scenes and all of these issues are certain to re-surface when Poland starts to return to more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation. In the longer-term, although the Ukrainian conflict will clearly have major geopolitical effects, it is unclear how long-lasting the domestic political impacts will be. At some point the ‘rally effect’ will wear off, the next parliamentary poll is not scheduled until autumn 2023, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive (or even particularly salient) in determining election outcomes. However, this particular conflict is likely to leave a more lasting political footprint given its profound geopolitical impacts, economic knock-on effects, and refugee crisis that it is likely to trigger. At the very least, security issues, both military and non-military, are likely to remain high on the Polish political agenda for the foreseeable future.

What is the biggest problem facing Poland’s right-wing ruling party?

For the first time since the right-wing ruling party took office six years ago, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity. But in spite of the government’s accumulation of difficulties, Poles still do not appear to trust the opposition on the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that they care most about.

An accumulation of problems

Last year was an extremely difficult one for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 32% opinion poll support in January. Although it remains Poland’s largest party, Law and Justice is well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow it to secure an outright parliamentary majority. A January survey for the CBOS polling agency also found that only 30% of respondents evaluated the government positively, its lowest rating since it came to office.

As Law and Justice entered 2022, the year before the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2023), it faced an accumulation of political problems. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, and associated social and economic dislocation, has had a terrible impact on societal morale, leaving Poles with an over-arching sense of uncertainty and constantly forcing the government on to the backfoot. Law and Justice is dependent upon anti-establishment right-wing rock star Paweł Kukiz’s small parliamentary caucus and maverick independents for its slim and precarious majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. The latter group of deputies includes the controversial Łukasz Mejza, who in December was forced to resign as deputy sports minister following allegations (which he strongly denies) that a medical company he once owned offered unproven treatments for people with incurable illnesses. There are also ongoing tensions within the governing camp – notably between the more technocratic and pragmatic prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Eurosceptic hardliners such as justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, whose right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party has enough parliamentary deputies to deprive the government of its majority.

The European Commission has held up the first tranche of billions of Euros due to the Poland from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund until Warsaw implements a July EU Court of Justice ruling that it should abolish a newly-created supreme court disciplinary chamber. The Commission is also gearing up to use a new ‘rule of law’ conditionality mechanism to withhold payments from the regular EU budget. (The Polish government has said several times it will abolish the disciplinary chamber but divisions within the ruling camp have prevented it from presenting detailed plans.) In January, the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber, set up a special commission to investigate allegations that the security services used the Pegasus spyware programme to eavesdrop on opposition-linked public figures.

However, at the moment most Poles appear to believe that their government is not unique in struggling to respond to an uncertain and constantly evolving pandemic crisis. Although the situation within the ruling camp has become increasingly complicated and fraught, Law and Justice does appear to have a working (albeit shaky) parliamentary majority. Government supporters tend to blame the EU political establishment for the ongoing ‘rule of law’ stalemate (although, in the longer-term, the issue could be more problematic, especially in the countryside where Law and Justice enjoys widespread support but access to EU funds is a very salient political issue).

For the moment, the Pegasus eavesdropping row also appears to be having little political cut-through. Law and Justice supporters accept the government’s argument that the spyware system was only used to monitor criminal activities and not for political purposes, while most Poles feel that the issue does not really concern them. Law and Justice is boycotting the work of the Senate investigative commission, which anyway lacks the powers that a Sejm commission would have, notably the ability to summon witnesses (although a Sejm commission could still be convened if Mr Kukiz, who has promised to support the idea if the opposition agrees to his conditions, and his three parliamentary allies vote in favour).

Price rises undermine social welfare programme gains

However, the biggest problem currently facing Law and Justice is growing public concern about increasing costs of living. In January, surging energy prices helped to drive Poland’s annual inflation rate to 8.6%, its highest level for over 20 years, and it is set to rise further in the coming months. A December survey conducted by the ‘Kantar’ agency for the ‘Polityka’ journal found that when asked what issue Poles were most anxious about the most common answer was inflation and price increases (47%).

This cost-of-living squeeze is a major threat to Law and Justice, whose voters are drawn disproportionately from among the less well-off. Up until now, one of the most important ways that the ruling party has been able to retain its support – particularly among less ideologically committed, ‘centrist’ voters, who may have concerns about some of its other policies – has been through its record of raising living standards for ordinary Poles. The Law and Justice government’s extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child benefit subsidy – together with substantial minimum wage increases, pension bonuses and other social welfare programmes – has provided a significant financial boost to low-income families. Many of these live beyond the large urban centres and felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. They felt that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice was the first party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale.

However, rising prices are steadily eroding the boost to household incomes provided by this large expansion of social welfare. Indeed, inflation is particularly problematic for less well-off Poles who now find their household bills increasing and spending power going down. Not surprisingly, the opposition has seized on the issue, running a campaign with the strapline ‘PiS=drożyźna’ (Law and Justice=high prices).

Law and Justice has responded by introducing a so-called ‘anti-inflation shield’ (tarcza antyinflacyjna) package of measures to cushion the blow for the hardest-hit households, including temporary six-month reductions of some taxes and VAT rates on energy and food. Although the government’s measures will not solve the problem in the longer-term, they will buy the ruling party some time by cutting the peak off inflation for a few months. At the same time, Law and Justice can at least partially blame the inflation spike on external factors beyond its direct control such as: high global energy, and soaring EU carbon permit, prices, and a tightening labour market, supply chain disruption and strong re-bound in demand arising from the pandemic crisis; although some commentators also criticize the government and National Bank of Poland for their (allegedly too loose) fiscal and monetary policies.

Too complicated tax reforms?

However, Law and Justice must take full responsibility for the disastrous rollout of the January tax changes that comprised a key element of the government’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) socio-economic reform programme. These tax reforms were supposed to be a political game-changer that would take Law and Justice through to victory at the next election. The government estimated that out of 27 million Polish taxpayers around 18-19 million with modest or lower earnings would benefit from the changes, 1.3 million better-off taxpayers would lose out, and 6-7 million would remain unaffected. But the introduction of a complex new tax system created widespread confusion and turned into a public relations nightmare for the government, with some public sector workers and pensioners actually receiving lower payouts in January. Critics argued that the new rules were so complicated, and drafted and introduced so quickly, that even expert tax advisers had difficulty in understanding them.

Law and Justice feels that critics have been too quick to write off the ‘Polish Deal’. Reforming a complex tax system so swiftly and radically was bound to lead to some mistakes and the losers from changes are often more vocal than the beneficiaries. Moreover, the government eventually admitted its mistakes and promised that compensating payments would be made in the coming weeks. Law and Justice is hoping that once the ‘Polish Deal’ fiscal reforms bed in, and assuming that no new major errors occur, the benefits for most Poles, especially the less well-off, will be both tangible and so substantial that they forget the initial chaos surrounding their introduction. Assuming that they are not eaten up too much by the increase in inflation, this significant improvement in Poles’ financial situation should, the ruling party hopes, help to stabilize the political situation and push up Law and Justice’s polling numbers.

Nonetheless, some commentators argue that, even if the government manages to correct the initial errors, the political damage has been done, particularly for Mr Morawiecki as the politician most closely associated with the ‘Polish Deal’. Moreover, the key issue that caused the problems with its poor implementation and lack of political cut-through with ordinary Poles, the sheer complexity of the reforms, is more difficult to rectify. The appeal of social welfare programmes such as ‘500 plus’ was their simplicity. The previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration also lowered income and payroll taxes, and pushed through a tax relief package for families, but did not derive sufficient political benefit because the impact of these policies was too diffuse. ‘500 plus’, on the other hand, was simple and easy for Poles to grasp, and many of them saw a direct and clearly identifiable financial impact on their family budgets. The complexity of the ‘Polish Deal’ tax reforms, on the other hand, has left even tax experts, never mind ordinary Poles, struggling to understand them.

Poles do not (yet) trust the opposition

For the first time since Law and Justice took office, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity. However, although the party’s popularity has declined, it has not suffered a devastating slump in support. Some commentators suggest that its disillusioned erstwhile supporters are currently planning to abstain rather than vote for the opposition parties, providing Law and Justice with sizeable reserves of support if it can get back on top of these ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. Indeed, Law and Justice’s great hope lies in the continuing inability of the opposition to capitalize on the ruling party’s weaknesses. A December survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczposolita’ newspaper found that 64% of respondents did not believe that the opposition was ready to take office and only felt 25% that it was; indeed, even opposition voters, by a 51% to 43% margin, felt it was not ready.

This is partly because the opposition parties remain conflicted over how they should contest the next election (separately or on common lists), so it is difficult for Poles to envisage them co-operating effectively if they have to form a government. The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can all rally. Civic Platform leader and former European Council President Donald Tusk, who led his party to two parliamentary election victories and was prime minister between 2007-14, enjoys strong support among the government’s hardcore opponents. But he is also a very polarising figure and for many Poles embodies the previous Civic Platform government which came to be viewed as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs. Interestingly, the Kantar survey for ‘Polityka’ found that, although many Poles were highly critical of Law and Justice, by a 42% to 40% margin they still preferred the current government to the previous administration. Perhaps most importantly, the opposition has failed develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the key socio-economic issues that Poles care most about. In spite of the accumulation of problems that Law and Justice currently faces, especially the squeeze in living standards and chaotic rollout of its tax reforms, it is too early to write the party off.

Why is Poland’s ruling party building closer links with right-wing Eurosceptic groupings?

Poland’s right-wing governing party appears to believe that the EU political establishment is becoming irredeemably hostile to it, and that its needs to seek out allies that share its view of the European integration project. But there may be short-term political costs to building links with radical Eurosceptic parties that have pro-Russian sympathies and are less influential within the EU institutions.

Right-wing Eurosceptic parties meet in Warsaw

At the beginning of December, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, hosted the so-called Warsaw Summit, a high-profile meeting of conservative and right-wing Eurosceptic parties. These parties are currently split between two main factions in the European Parliament (EP). Law and Justice is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the sixth largest EP grouping which also includes: the Brothers of Italy (FdI), Spanish ‘Vox’ party and Czech Civic Democrats (ODS). (Prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU the British Conservative party was also a member.) The grouping was formed in 2009 as a platform to promote policies associated with the European conservative political tradition distinct from the more centrist and federalist European People’s Party (EPP), which has its origins in Christian Democracy, and the radical right ‘Identity and Democracy’ (ID) grouping. Since the 2019 EP elections, Law and Justice has been the dominant force in the European Conservatives and Reformists comprising 24 of its 62 MEPs.

The Warsaw Summit was part of a broader effort to consolidate different sections of the European right by building stronger ties between Law and Justice and some of the parties that comprise ‘Identity and Democracy’. Some commentators see this as a precursor to the creation of a strong new pan-European party family. In addition to Law and Justice leader and Polish deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, the most prominent politicians present at the summit were Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán – whose Fidesz party is Law and Justice’s closest European ally, and has been looking for a new EP home since it left the European People’s Party in March – and French National Rally (RN) leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. The summit followed an earlier, well-publicised October meeting between Ms Le Pen and Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Brussels, her first with an EU state leader. Mr Morawiecki also hosted a dinner for Ms Le Pen immediately prior to the Warsaw Summit.

Taking risks to find allies

This rapprochement between Law and Justice and Ms Le Pen’s grouping marks a change of heart by Poland’s ruling party and follows years of antagonism between the two, despite them agreeing on issues such as national sovereignty and multi-culturalism. Law and Justice previously avoided co-operation with the National Rally – and, indeed, other parties in ‘Identity and Democracy’ – because of major disagreements over their respective approaches to relations with Russia. The Polish ruling party has been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what it sees as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of central and Eastern Europe; and specifically to ensure that EU sanctions on Moscow are maintained and extended. Indeed, Law and Justice sees Poland as playing the role of regional leader standing at the head of a broad coalition of post-communist states to counter Russian expansionism. Ms Le Pen, on the other hand, has been much more accommodating towards Mr Putin and in the past her party has received financial support from Russian banks. Ms Le Pen’s pro-Kremlin views provoked further controversy when, in an interview with the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper immediately prior to the Warsaw Summit, she suggested that it was the EU that had played a de-stabilising role in Ukraine because this was part of Russia’s sphere of influence.

As a consequence, Polish opposition parties strongly criticised Law and Justice for developing co-operation with Ms Le Pen and other radical right parties with strong ties to Moscow. Law and Justice countered by arguing that it did not share Ms Le Pen’s views on relations with Mr Putin, but that in terms of practical policy preferences she was no more pro-Moscow than many European centre-right and centre-left parties with whom the Polish opposition was closely allied. Their leaders, Law and Justice said, had business interests in, and close economic ties with, Moscow, citing a number of politicians from these parties who had taken jobs with Russian firms. Indeed, Law and Justice argued that the most pro-Moscow project currently underway in Europe was the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline supported by outgoing German Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Law and Justice is hoping that little of this opposition criticism will actually cut-through to ordinary Poles. Moreover, it is clearly prepared to risk some potential domestic political blowback from such co-operation because the party feels that it needs allies to advance its project of fundamentally reforming the EU. Law and Justice wants the EU to return to what it sees as its original role as a looser alliance of economically co-operating sovereign member states with a more consensual decision-making process. The departure of the British Conservatives from the EU means that Law and Justice lacks allies on the mainstream centre-right for such a project and hence needs to build closer ties with radical right Eurosceptic parties in spite of their pro-Moscow sympathies.

Is Law and Justice’s ‘twin-track’ EU strategy still viable?

Law and Justice also appears to believe increasingly that the EU political establishment has become irredeemably hostile to it. Although Law and Justice has often been labelled as Eurosceptic, up until now the dominant view within the party was that it could achieve its objectives by pursuing a ‘twin-track’ approach to EU relations. On the one hand, it accepted that there will be disagreements with the EU political establishment on moral-cultural issues where Law and Justice’s attachment to traditional morality and national identity stand in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European cultural and political elites. It felt that policy clashes with the major EU powers were inevitable because Poland often had interests that conflicted with the dominant Franco-German axis, and Law and Justice was, the party claims, pursuing a more robust and assertive approach than its predecessors. The party also recognised that the EU political establishment largely agreed with the Polish opposition and legal establishment’s argument that Law and Justice’s judicial reform programme undermined democracy and the rule of law; a claim that it strongly contests. At the same time, however, Law and Justice has tried to present Poland as a positive and constructive member of the Union, and de-couple disagreements over issues such as rule of law compliance from attempts to develop closer economic ties and normal pragmatic working relations between Warsaw and the EU political establishment on bread-and-butter policy issues.

However, the EU political establishment’s recent moves to link the disbursement and management of Union funds to rule of law compliance represents a major challenge to Law and Justice’s ‘twin-track’ strategy. For example, the European Commission has delayed approval of Poland’s draft national recovery plan (KPO), without which it cannot access the first tranche of billions of Euros that it is due from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, until Warsaw complies with a July EU Court of Justice ruling calling for the suspension of a newly created disciplinary chamber of the Polish supreme court. The Commission also appears to be planning to trigger a new EU conditionality regulation that allows it to withhold payments from both the coronavirus fund and the Union’s regular 2021-27 budget, from which Poland is set to be one of the largest beneficiaries, if perceived rule of law breaches can be shown to have directly endangered the proper use of these funds. The regulation’s implementation has been delayed pending a challenge to its legality in the EU Court by Poland (and Hungary), with a ruling expected in early 2022.

Law and Justice argues that rule of law conditionality is a political instrument based on vague and arbitrary criteria and lacks a legal basis in the EU treaties. It says that it could be used by the EU political establishment to curb national sovereignty and interfere in almost every sphere of public life by, for example, exerting pressure on Law and Justice to abandon its radical systemic reforms and accept liberal-left moral-cultural norms. The party thus appears to be coming to the view that the EU cultural liberal-left consensus is hegemonic and powerfully entrenched. Consequently, it feels that the EU political establishment will continue to use the rule of compliance dispute and the Union’s legal framework, specifically European Court rulings, to further advance European political integration and federalism by stealth, and marginalize and undermine right-wing conservative groupings committed to traditional values and national identity such as Law and Justice.

Missing leaders and no new EP grouping

However, there are still major question marks hanging over future plans for a new pan-European right-wing Eurosceptic party grouping. Firstly, the significance of the Warsaw Summit was undermined by the fact that not all of the leaders of parties that Law and Justice hoped would join such a new initiative were present. Among notable absentees were the leaders of the two large Italian radical right parties: Italy’s Matteo Salvini from the ‘League’ (Lega) – who was one of the signatories of an earlier July declaration by sixteen right-wing parties and movements, including Law and Justice, apparently laying the ground for a new Eurosceptic EP grouping – and ‘Brothers of Italy’ leader Giorgia Meloni. Czech Civic Democrat leader and prime minister Petr Fiala – who is the only other politician from among these parties apart from Mr Morawiecki and Mr Orban to head up an EU government – also failed to attend. Moreover, although the summit discussed closer co-operation between the respective parties within the EP, including aligning votes on sovereignty and immigration issues, and they agreed to meet every two months to continue talks on the project, there was no mention of forming a new common pan-European political grouping.

At the same time, Law and Justice does not itself appear sure how exactly it wishes to proceed with this project, and particularly how it relates to the extant European Conservatives and Reformists grouping. On the one hand, trying to carve out a distinctive, ideologically pure conservative EP grouping may come across as an indulgence when the most important issue facing the Polish ruling party seems to be finding as many allies as possible with a shared vision of the future of the European integration project. Indeed, if all the parties involved in the putative new European right-wing party family were to combine their forces this could, according to various reports, make them the third or even second largest EP grouping after the European People’s Party.

On the other hand, Law and Justice remains hesitant about abandoning the European Conservatives and Reformists for a speculative new grouping because its de facto leadership of the former provides it with practical advantages and short-term pay-offs within the EP. Law and Justice would have to compete for leadership of the new EP grouping on more equal terms with large parties such as the French National Rally and Italian ‘League’. Moreover, the ‘Identity and Democracy’ grouping and its member parties have been largely isolated in the EP and its committees by parliament leaders who do not want their views filtering into legislation and reports. At the same time, the (apparently less politically toxic) European Conservatives and Reformists remains attractive as a potential EP ally for mainstream groupings such as the European Peoples’ Party. Whatever the longer-term strategic considerations, a formal link-up with more radical pro-Moscow parties, therefore, not only risks domestic political costs but could actually lose Law and Justice influence within the EP in the short-term.

Why has the Belarussian border crisis failed to boost support for Poland’s ruling party?

The escalation of the Belarussian border crisis should have increased support for Poland’s right-wing ruling party given the tendency of citizens to rally around governments when their country appears to face an external threat. But its poll ratings actually fell last month as other issues, particularly concerns about rising prices, became more politically salient.

The crisis escalates

For several months there has been a growing crisis on Poland’s Eastern border with Belarus, following a significant increase in the number of attempts by migrants, primarily from the Middle East, to enter the country illegally with assistance from the Belarussian authorities. The Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – accused Belarus of orchestrating the influx by deliberately organising transport for thousands of migrants on the false promise of legal entry to the EU, and then inducing them to cross its Western borders illegally. This, Warsaw argued, was part of a Russian-backed ‘hybrid war’ aimed at violating the integrity of the Polish state, thereby creating a broader pan-European migration crisis. It was intended as retaliation against Poland and other post-communist states that had pushed for tough EU sanctions to be imposed on the Belarussian regime following President Alexander Lukashenka’s disputed 2020 re-election and subsequent brutal persecution of the country’s opposition.

Last month, the crisis escalated when, again encouraged by the Belarussian authorities, large numbers of migrants attempted to force their way across the border before being repelled by Polish security forces. In response, the Polish government took an uncompromising stance and strengthened its Eastern frontier by deploying thousands of additional troops and police to assist border guards, and pledging to re-inforce barbed wire border fencing with a new, more solid wall. Warning of the potential for armed escalation with such a large concentration of Belarussian and Polish soldiers facing each other off, Warsaw also joined other EU leaders in calling for tougher sanctions against the Minsk regime.

An opportunity for Law and Justice

In terms of domestic politics, the crisis provided an opportunity for Law and Justice to present itself as a robust defender of Poland’s Eastern border and clearly on the side of the security forces protecting the country’s territorial integrity. Ruling parties often benefit from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions when they feel that their country faces a dramatic external threat. Indeed, this was clearly an issue where Law and Justice was very much in tune with public opinion, as most Poles appeared to back its tough approach to forcefully securing the border. For example, a November survey conducted by the Kantar polling agency for the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper found that 54% of respondents supported the Polish government’s handling of the border crisis compared with 38% who evaluated its actions negatively.

At the same time, Poland’s liberal-centrist opposition knew that if it failed to back the government’s efforts it risked accusations of treason and losing the support of voters concerned about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. This left the government’s opponents struggling to develop a credible and popular critique of, and alternative to, its approach to border security. As a consequence, the opposition generally kept a low profile on the issue, and when it did criticise the government it was on matters that had little political cut-through. For example, it attacked Law and Justice for allegedly reacting too slowly to the crisis, and failing to consult with the opposition and build a national political consensus around migration and border security issues. It criticised the government for introducing a state of emergency in the two Polish regions bordering Belarus, thereby preventing access to these areas for the media and aid organisations (which the government justified by comparing the area to a combat zone). The government’s opponents also claimed that Law and Justice’s poor relations with Warsaw’s Western allies – and failure to involve international institutions, such as the EU’s ‘Frontex’ border control agency, in the crisis – made it more difficult to mobilise international support for Poland.

However, the opposition’s narrative was undermined by the fact that Poland received strong backing over the border crisis from the EU political establishment. This was in spite of the fact that Law and Justice had been in an ongoing political dispute with EU institutions over ‘rule of law’ issues throughout its six years in office. While the EU political establishment expressed general concerns about migrant rights, aware of how the 2015 Mediterranean migration crisis shook up European politics and strengthened the hand of Eurosceptics across the continent it also argued that Warsaw had a duty to defend the Union’s external frontier from illegal migration.

Moreover, while the opposition leadership, for all its criticisms of Law and Justice, agreed with the government that the entry of potentially thousands of undocumented immigrants to Poland should be halted, other well-known, opposition-linked public figures appeared to call for the migrants to be freely admitted into Poland and granted asylum status. At the same time, support for their cause has fallen in Poland since the escalation of the crisis last month as Poles were confronted with TV images of large and increasingly violent groups of migrants trying to cross the border by force. For a time, even some sections of the anti-Law and Justice liberal media started to frame the crisis as a national security rather than humanitarian issue. With the ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ Kantar poll showing that, by a 69% to 26% margin, Poles were opposed to admitting refugees (never mind economic migrants) located on the Polish-Belarussian border and allowing them settle in Poland, the government’s opponents risked finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion if they came across as more concerned about the migrants’ plight than border security.

No poll boost for the ruling party

Given Law and Justice’s clear, simple and popular message, and the opposition’s difficulties in trying to appear simultaneously tough on the border issue while developing a nuanced critique of the government’s approach, one might have expected the escalation of the crisis to have boosted support for the ruling party. However, while it may have strengthened Law and Justice’s appeal with its core supporters, perhaps surprisingly the issue did not have a transformative effect on the party’s opinion poll ratings. Indeed, according to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice’s poll average actually fell from 35% in October to 33% in November – well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed in summer 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

The problem for Law and Justice is that the border emergency coincided with other equally, if not more, politically salient crises. For example, mounting pressure on the Polish health service arising from the ‘fourth wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic crisis received prominent news coverage and helped to create a much more pessimistic public mood. Due in part to un-even vaccine take-up, Poland has a relatively low level of population immunity, and in recent weeks the media was saturated with reports of increasing numbers of Poles contracting the virus and being admitted to hospitals and intensive care units. The government thus came under intense criticism from both the opposition and anti-Law and Justice media for its alleged passivity, as it resisted calls for the introduction of restrictions on the unvaccinated. Instead, it concentrated on trying to increase health service capacity and encouraging vaccination uptake without compulsion; although, at the start of December, the government did tighten some restrictions on capacity limits in hospitality and entertainment venues (excluding the fully vaccinated) citing concerns about the possible impact of the new Omicron variant.

This was partly because Law and Justice felt that tighter restrictions came at a very high social and economic cost and were not justified unless the Polish health service was on the brink of collapse. The government was also sceptical that – short of a full national ‘lockdown’, for which there was very little public support – further restrictions would have any significant effect on virus transmission, given the low levels of compliance with existing measures such as compulsory mask-wearing. Moreover, Law and Justice faced both internal tensions within party over how best to handle the pandemic crisis issue and high levels of vaccine hesitancy in its electoral heartlands. Given the government’s slim and unstable parliamentary majority, the ruling party was forced to try and secure opposition support for more controversial measures such as plans to allow employers to check their workers’ vaccination status.

Growing concern about living standards

However, an even more important issue that, for many Poles, overshadowed the border crises was growing public concern about the rising costs of living; in Polish slang ‘drożyźna’. One of the main causes of this was a sharp increase in the rate of inflation – which, last month, went up to 7.7%, its highest level for over 20 years – together with concerns that prices could rise even more over the next few months. A November survey conducted by the IBRIS agency for the ‘Onet’ online news portal found that, when asked what the biggest problem was facing the government, the largest number of respondents, 42%, cited price increases compared with only 11% who mentioned the border crisis (although the survey was conducted immediately prior to the most recent escalation) and, interestingly, fewer than 1% cited the coronavirus pandemic. Some commentators criticised the government for fuelling inflation through its (allegedly too loose) fiscal policies and argued that the National Bank of Poland was too slow to raise interest rates. However, the uptick in inflation was, in part at least, caused by factors outside of the government’s direct control such as a tightening labour market and strong economic re-bound from the pandemic crisis, together with rising global energy prices and supply chain disruptions. Nonetheless, Law and Justice responded by introducing a so-called ‘anti-inflation shield’ package involving temporary reductions of some taxes and VAT rates.

This increased strain on household budgets is extremely politically worrying for Law and Justice. One of the most important ways that the ruling party has been able to retain support – particularly among less ideologically committed, ‘centrist’ voters who may have had concerns about some of its other policies – has been through its record of raising living standards for ordinary Poles. The Law and Justice government’s extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit subsidy – together with substantial minimum wage increases, pension bonuses and other welfare programmes – provided a significant, and clearly identifiable, financial boost to many low income families who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. However, rising levels of inflation are steadily eroding the boost to household incomes provided by this large expansion of social welfare spending.

Socio-economic issues more important than the border crisis

Up until now, Law and Justice retained public support because Poles felt that it had the most credible and attractive policies on the socio-economic issues that they cared most about. Once the border crisis recedes it is precisely these kind of ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, such as falling living standards, that are likely to be the most significant in determining the ruling party’s political fate. Worryingly for Law and Justice, another November ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ Kantar poll found that 67% of respondents felt that the Polish economy was in a state of crisis (an increase of 5% over the previous month) while only 24% said it was still growing. 46% feared a deterioration in their living standards in the coming years (an 8% increase) and only 15% said that they would improve. Rather than boosting support for Law and Justice, the ‘rally effect’ caused by the Belarussian border crisis may have simply prevented the party’s opinion poll support from falling back even further.

How will Poland’s dispute with the EU affect its national politics?

Although opposition claims that Poland’s right-wing ruling party is paving the way for the country’s EU withdrawal are unlikely to have much political cut-through beyond hard-core government opponents, the possible delay or loss of EU funds could be much more damaging. While the government will probably secure a short-term deal leading to the release of these funds, ongoing tensions with the EU political establishment are likely to continue, raising difficult questions about the country’s future relationship with the Union.

An ongoing ‘rule of law’ dispute

The Polish government has been in an ongoing dispute with the EU political establishment since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party was elected to office in autumn 2015. Initially, this was over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws, but escalated in 2017 to include Law and Justice’s fiercely contested judicial reform programme. The EU institutions agreed with the criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that the reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. The government’s opponents argued that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed the ruling party to pack the courts and supervisory bodies with its own, hand-picked nominees.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself and, in these circumstances, making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies was both justifiable and in line with practices in other established Western democracies.

The European Commission took the unprecedented step of initiating an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which can be invoked against any EU member state when it is felt there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, threatening Warsaw with sanctions including the suspension of its European Council voting rights. However, the Commission was unable to secure the qualified majority required among EU states to move beyond the initial stage of the procedure. The Commission, therefore, initiated infringement procedures against Poland in the EU Court of Justice, while some Polish judges also submitted a number of ‘prejudicial questions’ regarding various aspects of the reforms.

As a consequence, the EU Court issued a series of judgments ordering the Polish government to reverse aspects of its reforms. These included a July ruling calling for the suspension of a newly created disciplinary chamber of the Polish supreme court that, it argued, was incompatible with EU law because it threatened judicial independence. The chamber’s activities were partially frozen in August, while Law and Justice indicated that it would be disbanded as it had not, in any case, fulfilled its objectives. However, this commitment was too vague for the Commission and, at its request, last month the EU Court ordered Poland to pay daily one-million euro fines for non-compliance with the July ruling. The Commission also delayed approval of Poland’s draft national recovery plan (KPO), without which it cannot access the 57 billion euros it is due from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, until it complied with the July Court ruling.

Moreover, the Commission could also trigger a new conditionality regulation agreed by the EU last year that allows it to withhold payments from both the coronavirus fund and the Union’s regular 2021-27 budget, from which Poland is set to be one of the largest beneficiaries, if perceived ‘rule of law’ breaches can be shown to have directly endangered the proper use of these funds. However, the regulation’s implementation has been delayed pending a challenge to its legality in the EU Court by Poland (and Hungary), with a preliminary ruling expected in December or early next year.

The ‘Polexit’ spectre

Last month, the conflict between Warsaw and the EU political establishment escalated following a ruling by Poland’s constitutional tribunal in response to a motion filed in March by Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki questioning whether the EU Court had the right to block Warsaw’s judicial reforms. The tribunal ruled that some provisions of the main EU treaty had been interpreted or applied by EU bodies in a way that expanded their legal competencies beyond those transferred to it by Poland. These sections of the treaty, therefore, conflicted with the Polish Constitution which, like any part of the country’s legal system, EU regulations that were in force in Poland could not prevail over. The ruling triggered harsh criticisms from the Commission which argued that – by directly challenging the primacy of EU law over national law, and the concomitant notion that all EU Court rulings were binding on member states – it undermined one of the founding principles of the Union’s legal order.

Moreover, the Polish opposition accused Law and Justice of engineering the ruling from a compliant tribunal which, given that it was such an apparently open breach of Union rules, raised questions about whether Poland might actually leave the EU, so-called ‘Polexit’. They cited statements by some Law and Justice leaders who had openly suggested that Poland should consider alternatives to EU membership, and even compared the Union’s institutions to the country’s German wartime and Soviet occupations. Given that the vast majority of Poles appear to support the country’s EU membership – an October 2021 survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency, for example, found 90% in favour and only 6% against – Polexit is a toxic slogan for any mainstream Polish politician to be associated with.

Not surprisingly, Law and Justice bent over backwards to stress that it remained strongly committed to Polish EU membership. Indeed, although it has often been labelled as Eurosceptic, the dominant view within the party is still that it can achieve its objectives by pursuing a ‘twin-track’ approach to its relations with the Union. On the one hand, Law and Justice recognises that the EU political establishment has a different interpretation of how its judicial reforms impact upon the rule of law. At the same time, it has tried to present Poland as a positive and constructive EU member, and de-couple the dispute over rule of law compliance from attempts to develop closer economic ties and pragmatic day-to-day working relations with the Commission and major European powers.

More broadly, Law and Justice wants a fundamental reform of the European project to bring the EU back to what the party sees as its original role: a looser alliance of economically co-operating sovereign member states with a more consensual decision-making process. The party says that that it fully respects the primacy of EU laws over national ones, but only where this jurisdiction has been explicitly granted to the Union in the treaties. The functioning of national judicial systems, Law and Justice argues, is an area that remains solely within the competence of member states. It also points to the fact that other European constitutional courts, notably Germany’s, have challenged the supremacy of EU law; although the government’s critics argue that these rulings were fundamentally different from the Polish one.

Loss of EU funds would be politically costly

The opposition argues that, even if Law and Justice says it has no plans to lead Poland out of the EU, it could set in train a dynamic that eventually leads to Polexit, much as David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU when he was British prime minister culminated in Brexit. In fact, an October survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found Poles to be evenly divided on whether the tribunal ruling was a precursor to Polexit: 43% of respondents agreed, 45% disagreed. The same survey also found that 80% of supporters of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, agreed with this proposition compared to only 12% of Law and Justice voters. This suggested that the Polexit narrative was more likely to consolidate the opposition’s electoral base than cut through to and win over wavering pro-EU Law and Justice supporters.

Potentially much more serious for Law and Justice would be a further delay in the approval, or possibly even loss, of EU funds. Polish support for EU membership is now driven increasingly by the tangible material benefits that the Union is felt to deliver. Among these are the sizeable fiscal transfers that Poland receives, particularly EU regional aid of which Warsaw is currently the largest beneficiary. A September IBRiS survey for ‘Rzeczpospolita’, found that the largest number of respondents (68%) cited fiscal transfers as the main benefit of Poland’s EU membership. For sure, some in the governing camp have started to argue that the delay in coronavirus recovery fund payments is not a problem, as Poland’s strong economic position means that similar investment funding could be obtained from private financial markets at equally attractive lending rates. However, the party made maintaining Poland’s high level of fiscal transfers one of its main EU policy goals, and ran a very high-profile advertising campaign promoting the fact that it secured them as part of the 2021-27 budget round. This makes it difficult for Law and Justice to now claim that the country does not really need these funds.

So how is this issue likely to play out? Law and Justice remains committed to deepening and pushing forward with its judicial reforms as a key element of its radical state reform programme. If the Commission continues to try and cut Warsaw off from EU funds, then the Polish government could retaliate by itself blocking areas of EU decision-making that require unanimity. However, Law and Justice is, apparently, keen to reach a compromise with Brussels as long as it does not involve abandoning the core principle at the heart of its judicial reform programme: that elected politicians be given a greater say in determining the composition of the key bodies that oversee the Polish courts. At the same time, the Commission and major EU powers also appear to want to de-escalate the conflict by agreeing ‘milestones’ with Poland that would enable pay-outs of EU funds. A short-term compromise would involve the Commission ignoring the constitutional tribunal ruling and approving the country’s recovery plan as long as Warsaw shows in detail how it will abide by the Court’s rulings and dismantle the contested disciplinary chamber. Law and Justice is likely to do this as part of a broader judicial overhaul radically reducing the supreme court’s size and competencies.

Is Law and Justice’s EU strategy sustainable?

In that case, the opposition’s Polexit narrative could quickly run out of steam. However, below the radar a debate is slowly emerging about Poland’s future EU membership among right-wing commentators and within the ruling camp; particularly politicians linked to ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), Law and Justice’s smaller governing partner led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Some Polish conservatives argue that the cultural liberal-left consensus is so powerfully entrenched within the EU political establishment that it will continue to weaponise issues such as rule of law compliance and use the Union’s legal framework to marginalise and undermine traditionalist right-wing groupings like Law and Justice. They say that, whatever compromises Law and Justice may be able to secure in the short-term, these ongoing tensions mean that the party will, sooner-or-later, have to face some fundamental questions about whether its twin-track strategy, to which the linkage of EU funds to rule of law conditionality represents a major challenge, is really sustainable in the longer-term; particular if the cost-benefit analysis of the tangible material benefits that the EU was felt to deliver were to shift in the Union’s disfavour.

How is the Belarussian border crisis affecting Polish politics?

The Belarussian border crisis has boosted, but not transformed, the poll ratings of Poland’s right-wing ruling party, as most Poles have backed its tough stance on controlling migration. The liberal-centrist opposition has struggled to develop a clear and unified response as attempts by its leadership to convey a more nuanced message have been overshadowed by high profile public figures who, to many Poles, appear more concerned about the plight of migrants and political stunts than border security.

Fighting a ‘hybrid war’

Throughout much of the late summer political tensions in Poland grew over a migration crisis on the country’s Eastern border with Belarus. In recent months, border guards have recorded a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of attempts by migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Asia, to enter Poland illegally, apparently with assistance from the Belarussian authorities. The main controversy focused on a group of around thirty migrants who found themselves stranded for weeks with no shelter, nor access to regular food supplies and medical attention, in a makeshift camp on the Belarussian side of the border near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny, after Poland refused to admit them and the Minsk authorities prevented them from turning back.

The Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – accused Belarus of orchestrating the influx by deliberately organising transport for thousands of migrants on the false promise of legal entry to the EU, and then inducing them to cross its Western borders illegally. This, Warsaw argued, was part of a Russian-backed ‘hybrid war’ aimed at violating the integrity of the Polish state and thereby creating a broader pan-European migration crisis. It was intended as retaliation against Poland and other post-communist states that had pushed for tough EU sanctions to be imposed on the Belarussian regime following President Alexander Lukashenka’s disputed 2020 re-election and subsequent persecution of the country’s opposition.

In response, the Polish government took an uncompromising stance and strengthened its Eastern frontier by: deploying additional troops to assist border guards in sending migrants back to Belarus, laying barbed wire border fencing, and pledging to reinforce this with a new, more solid border wall. At the government’s request, the Polish President also introduced a state of emergency (initially for 30 days, but subsequently extended for a further 60) in parts of the two Polish regions bordering Belarus. This order, the first of its kind in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989, increased the powers of the border guard, police, and armed forces, and restricted large public gatherings in, and prohibited non-resident civilians (including politicians and the media) from visiting, the affected localities. An additional reason cited for bringing in the state of emergency was concern about the potential risk of provocations in the build-up to the September Russo-Belarussian ‘Zapad’ military exercises, which involved thousands of troops and took place near the Polish border.

An increasingly emotive debate

However, emotive images of migrants stranded in a field and exposed to the elements provoked an increasingly emotionally charged political debate in Poland about the border crisis. Migrant rights groups and opposition politicians described the government’s treatment of those trying to enter the country as a national scandal, claiming that the administration was breaching their rights and putting lives at risk. At the end of September, Polish authorities found the dead bodies of three men who had tried to cross the border, while a woman’s corpse was also seen on the Belarussian side. The government’s critics attacked it for failing to provide migrants stuck near the frontier with humanitarian assistance and accused border guards of blocking efforts to deliver aid to them from the Polish side by rights groups and opposition parliamentarians. They criticised what they described as illegal ‘pushback’ by the Polish authorities arguing that they had an obligation to let migrants cross the border if they declared a desire to apply for asylum.

Law and Justice’s critics also accused the ruling party of playing on anti-migrant (and specifically anti-Muslim) sentiments and (at least to some extent) of over-stating the severity of the border situation to fuel a moral panic. They argued that the Belarussian regime could only use migrants as geo-political weapons if the Polish authorities continued to present them as a threat. Many opposition politicians also said that the government’s state of emergency was disproportionate and constitutionally dubious, pointing out that Law and Justice never resorted to such a measure in response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis. They claimed that the government’s real intention was to prevent scrutiny by journalists and rights groups of the border authorities’ illegal and inhumane actions.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that border authorities were simply fulfilling their obligation to prevent migrants from crossing illegally, and that the Latvian and Lithuanian governments had introduced similar emergency measures. They insisted that the migrants in the camp near Usnarz Górny were on Belarussian territory, so Minsk was responsible for them, and that it was illegal for activists and opposition politicians to send aid across parts of the border that were not marked as crossings. The Polish government said that it had offered to send a convoy of humanitarian aid to help the migrants, but the Belarussian authorities refused to let it cross. Law and Justice also argued that admitting even a small group would set a dangerous precedent and could lead to an even more serious crisis that the Belarussian authorities and people traffickers would exploit to orchestrate further and larger migration waves.

The migration issue boosts Law and Justice

In fact, the border crisis boosted support for Law and Justice which had faced an accumulation of problems over the summer. These included internal divisions within the governing camp which led to the loss of Law and Justice’s formal parliamentary majority, and ongoing clashes with the EU political establishment over the government’s judicial reforms and the US Biden administration over a foreign media ownership law which would impact negatively upon the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster. The crisis provided Law and Justice with an opportunity to present itself as a strong and determined defender of Poland’s external borders against those who, it argued, wanted to open the country up to a mass influx of uncontrolled immigration.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that Law and Justice had been in an ongoing political dispute with EU political establishment throughout much of its six years in office, it could even count on the Union institutions’ support over the border crisis. This is interesting because during the 2015 parliamentary election, which first brought Law and Justice to power, the party benefited hugely from its robust opposition to the EU’s then-mandatory quotas for re-distributing (predominantly Muslim) Middle Eastern and North African migrants located in Greece and Italy, which the previous Polish government – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently Poland’s main opposition party – had agreed to. This time, well aware of how the 2015 crisis shook up European politics and strengthened the hand of Eurosceptics, while the European Commission expressed general concern about migrant rights and offered Poland assistance from the EU Frontex border agency, it also argued that Warsaw had a duty to defend its external frontier (as the Eastern border of the Union’s passport-free Schengen zone) from illegal migration.

Polls also showed that Law and Justice’s approach to this issue was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion. For example, a September survey conducted by the CBOS agency found that 48% of Poles were even against admitting refugees (never mind economic migrants) fleeing from countries where there were armed conflicts, with only 40% in favour (and only 9% wanted to allow them to settle permanently in Poland rather than granting temporary sanctuary until they could return to their home countries). 52% were against allowing those migrants located on the Polish-Belarussian border to apply for political asylum, and only 33% were in favour. 77% supported strengthening Poland’s borders and only 14% were against. Not surprisingly, therefore, the border crisis issue improved, although did not transform, Law and Justice’s poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice’s poll average increased from 32% in July and 33% in August to 35% in September; still short of the 40% average that it enjoyed last summer, which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

Mr Tusk struggles to control the opposition narrative

All of this left Poland’s opposition in an awkward position as it struggled to develop a unified and credible response to the crisis. Indeed, it provided the first real test of leadership for former prime minister and EU Council President Donald Tusk, who returned to front-line Polish politics at the beginning of July once again taking over as head of Civic Platform. Conscious of the difficulties that the migration issue caused his party in the run-up to the 2015 election, Mr Tusk attempted to steer a centrist course claiming that there was no contradiction between maintaining border security and responding to migrants’ humanitarian concerns. On the one hand, he criticised Law and Justice for reacting too slowly to the crisis and failing to build a national political consensus with the opposition around migration and border security, while calling upon the government to help the migrants stranded on the border on humanitarian grounds. At the same time, knowing that the opposition was in danger of finding itself on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue, and concerned that the ‘open borders’ rhetoric coming from pro-immigration radicals was playing into Law and Justice’s hands, Mr Tusk also admitted that Belarus was primarily responsible for the crisis and appeared to endorse a tough stance on strengthening the Polish border.

However, Mr Tusk’s efforts to steer a more nuanced, middle course were undermined by the public statements and actions of more outspoken opposition-linked public figures. Public perceptions of the opposition’s stance on the border crisis were often shaped by politicians such as Civic Platform deputy Franciszek Sterczewski, who made headlines attempting to escape from border guards preventing him from crossing illegally in order to take supplies to the trapped migrants. While this may have appealed to the anti-Law and Justice liberal-left hard core, it also appeared to confirm the ruling party’s narrative that, while the government was on clearly the side of the Polish army and border guards protecting the country’s territorial integrity, much of the opposition seemed to be calling for migrants procured by the Belarussian regime from unstable parts of the world to be freely admitted into Poland and the EU Schengen zone.

A crisis lasting weeks – or even months?

The Belarussian border crisis provided Law and Justice with an issue where it was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion, and an opportunity to present itself as heading up a strong government defending the country’s border security. For sure, media interest will wax and wane and it is difficult to tell how long the crisis will remain a salient issue or whether the government’s other problems will re-assert themselves and overshadow it; although there is every chance that it could last for several more weeks, and possibly even months. While Law and Justice has a clear, simple, and popular message, Mr Tusk has struggled to control the opposition narrative with, in the eyes of many Poles, many of its other, most high profile and vocal public figures apparently more interested in political stunts than developing a credible and popular critique of, and alternative to, the government’s response. Although Mr Tusk is often portrayed by opposition-linked commentators as its most effective political strategist and convincing authority figure, the border crisis is a good example of the kind of problems that he faces trying to set out more nuanced stances on controversial issues where the political centre ground is more sympathetic to Law and Justice than its opponents.

Can Poland’s ruling party still govern?

In spite of losing its majority, Poland’s right-wing ruling party is very unlikely to call a snap autumn election. However, given the precarious parliamentary arithmetic this could change if the situation proves too unstable, and it may call an early spring poll if it can secure the passage of flagship economic reforms.

Mr Gowin leaves the government

Earlier this month, the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – fractured following the dismissal of deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin. Mr Gowin is leader of the liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) party, Law and Justice’s junior partner in the ‘United Right’ (ZP) coalition, and his sacking was followed by the immediate departure of a group of his closest allies from the governing camp’s parliamentary caucus.

Mr Gowin’s departure is the culmination of months of unrest within the government. The dispute dates back to last summer when he resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. On that occasion, ‘Agreement’ remained within the ruling coalition, the election was postponed by a few weeks, and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following an autumn ministerial reshuffle. Nonetheless, Law and Justice remained wary of him, suspecting he had undertaken behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition, and the next few months were characterised by ‘Agreement’ deputies repeatedly contesting and voting against key elements of Law and Justice’s governing programme. Indeed, some commentators argued that Mr Gowin was a semi-detached member of the government, and it was only a matter of time before he left it formally.

The situation escalated dramatically in August when Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired Anna Kornecka, one of Mr Gowin’s deputy ministers and also an ‘Agreement’ member, after she criticized the ruling party’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) post-pandemic recovery programme, claiming that proposed tax increases would not be limited to higher earners. Launched in May, the ‘Polish Deal’ includes a wide range of (partly EU-funded) ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards including tax reforms favouring lower and middle-income earners. Law and Justice is hoping that the ‘Polish Deal’ will re-build support for the government and help the party win an unprecedented third term in office.

‘Agreement’ responded to Ms Kornecka’s sacking by placing three conditions on its future membership of the government. These included calls to amend plans to introduce steep increases in health care premiums and tax burdens for small and medium-sized firms, and supplement the ‘Polish Deal’ with new rules to protect local authorities, who they argue could see a substantial drop in funding. A third condition involved amending a draft media ownership law designed to strengthen the existing ban on companies from outside the European Economic Area (EU states, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) from owning a controlling stake in Polish media firms.

The latter is widely seen as targeting TVN, Poland’s largest private television network which is controlled by the US-based media conglomerate Discovery but formally owned by a Dutch-registered company so that it meets existing Polish rules; which it would not if the new law is passed. TVN’s news channel TVN24 provides extremely critical coverage of the government from a liberal-left perspective and Law and Justice’s opponents argue that the legislation is intended to silence the independent media; as well as damaging Poland’s image and creating a rift with the USA, the country’s main international security guarantor. Law and Justice, on the other hand, says that the new rules are similar to those in other EU countries and necessary to prevent companies from non-democratic states taking control of Polish media companies, and money launderers and the narco-businesses entering the country’s media sector.

Relying on Mr Kukiz and independents

This ultimatum proved to be the tipping point that led to Mr Gowin’s dismissal. The key question then became: how many of his allies would follow Mr Gowin in leaving the governing camp? There were originally 18 ‘Agreement’ members elected to parliament in autumn 2019 but since then deputies have been peeling away from the group. In February, for example, a pro-Law and Justice faction within ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried (reportedly with the ruling party’s tacit support) unsuccessfully to wrest control of the party from Mr Gowin. In June Mr Bielan’s supporters formed a breakaway grouping, the Republican Party (Partia Republikańska), which four ‘Agreement’ parliamentarians joined. Although most of the party’s deputies stuck with Mr Gowin, by the time of his departure from the government he was down to a hard core of 11 and only five of these left the ‘United Right’ to form a new ‘Agreement’ parliamentary caucus (together with one previously unaffiliated parliamentarian), while the remainder continued to support the administration.

Nonetheless, the departure of Mr Gowin and his allies reduced the ‘United Right’ caucus from 232 to only 227 deputies out of 460 in total in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of parliament. This deprived the government of its formal majority and left Law and Justice dependent upon deputies outside of the governing camp to win key votes. There are currently two independents who, although not formally part of the ruling party, normally vote with Law and Justice. The party also has a co-operation agreement with right-wing anti-establishment rock star-turned-politician Paweł Kukiz, who leads the eponymous Kukiz’15 grouping comprising four deputies, and has promised to back the government in key votes; it can normally rely on the support of three of these. Assuming, no further defections, this gives the government a de facto parliamentary majority, albeit a very narrow and unpredictable one. Law and Justice also hopes to secure support from the 11-strong ‘Confederation’ caucus, an eclectic mix of radical free marketeers and nationalists, in at least some votes; although this is a very unreliable and controversial partner whose strategic objective is to replace the ruling party as Poland’s main conservative grouping by challenging it on its radical right flank.

The first test of the government’s parliamentary strength was a vote on the media law which, as noted above, was one of main bones of contention between Law and Justice and ‘Agreement’. Indeed, the ruling party suffered a shock defeat when the Sejm passed, by 229 votes to 227, an opposition-sponsored procedural motion that would have delayed consideration of the law until September. However, Kukiz’15 deputies said that they supported the opposition motion by mistake and Law and Justice-nominated Sejm speaker Elżbieta Witek repeated the vote, illegally according to the opposition. The draft media law was then finally voted through with 228 deputies in favour, 216 against and 10 abstentions (including nine ‘Confederation’ deputies).

Is the ‘Polish Deal’ a game-changer?

The parliamentary arithmetic is, therefore, very precarious for Law and Justice and it has clearly taken a huge risk in forcing out Mr Gowin. The ruling party will now have to engage in numerous policy compromises and concessions, as well as using its full arsenal of state appointments and government patronage, to keep Kukiz’15, independents and potential defectors on board. Law and Justice is particularly vulnerable to losing second-order and procedural votes through pro-government deputies peeling off to demonstrate their independence or simply being absent; especially as many ruling party parliamentarians also have day-to-day ministerial responsibilities. Moreover, to over-turn amendments voted through by the Senate, Poland’s opposition-controlled second chamber, Law and Justice needs an absolute majority of all Sejm deputies present, not just those voting for or against, so any abstentions (by, say, ‘Confederation’ deputies) count as votes against.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice is very unlikely to gamble on an early election (the next one is scheduled for autumn 2023), at least not before next spring. This is partly because a motion to dissolve parliament requires a two-thirds majority so needs opposition support. An early election can also be called if the government resigns and there are three unsuccessful attempts to secure a vote of confidence in a successor, but this is a potentially lengthy and politically debilitating process that Law and Justice could easily lose control of. There is also a serious risk that the ruling party would lose an early election. Although – according to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys – Law and Justice remains Poland’s most popular party, its poll ratings have fallen from an average of around 40% last summer and now fluctuate around the 30-35% mark, which would leave it short of a parliamentary majority.

Law and Justice is instead hoping that its ‘Polish Deal’ programme will be a political game-changer. Up until now, it has had not had a transformative effect on the ruling party’s polling numbers. But Law and Justice believes that this is because many Poles associate the plan with the tax hikes that are required to help finance it, rather than the package of tax cuts and social spending measures from which a large majority will benefit. A June survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 23% of respondents felt that they would benefit from the proposed tax reforms, 30% thought they would lose, and 31% that the effects would be neutral.

And a key reason for this, Law and Justice feels, has been the criticisms of the programme’s fiscal elements by Mr Gowin and his allies. This is why the party concluded that losing its formal parliamentary majority was a lesser evil than having a leading government member constantly undermining the ‘Polish Deal’. Law and Justice is hoping that when these reforms are enacted, and most Poles realise that they will benefit from them, this will push up its polling numbers. That is why it is so important for the party to secure the passage of the relevant legislation before the next election is held.

A spring 2022 election?

Whether or not the government really has a stable majority will become clearer when parliament resumes in September. In addition to securing the passage of the main elements of the ‘Polish Deal’, a key test for Law and Justice will be whether it can defend its ministers and other key appointees from parliamentary votes of no-confidence. The first trial of strength here is likely to be an opposition attempt to oust Mrs Witek, following her controversial chairing of the parliamentary session on the draft media law.

If it transpires that the government lacks a reliable majority, there could still be an autumn election. For sure, Polish experience suggests that it is possible for a party to govern for a considerable period of time as a minority administration. To replace a government an opposition has to secure the passage of a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in favour of a specific alternative prime ministerial candidate. This will be extremely difficult in the current parliament where even a minimal majority for any alternative to Law and Justice would have to encompass an extremely broad range of parties ranging from the radical left to radical right. However, Law and Justice knows how debilitating it will be if it finds itself simply being in office administering but unable to govern effectively. It could then conclude that the only way to break the deadlock is to risk a snap parliamentary poll

In fact, even if Law and Justice finds that it can command a working majority over the next few months, with the parliamentary arithmetic being so uncertain it is still unlikely to let the parliament run its full course. If it can secure the passage of the ‘Polish Deal’ reforms and starts to see its polling support recover, the most likely scenario is probably a spring 2022 election. Not least because, if Law and Justice can block approval of next year’s state budget, there is a more straightforward constitutional pathway to dissolving parliament at the start of next year that only requires the consent of party-backed President Andrzej Duda.