For Radosław Sikorski, once Poland’s foreign minister, now one of its government’s most prominent critics, recent events may have put his country on track to leave the EU – calling into question the survival of the union itself.
On 7 October, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that some EU law did not have supremacy over the Polish constitution. It was a hugely controversial decision, rejecting one of the foundational principles of EU integration: that all member states share common rules, underpinned by common enforcement.
Sikorski, 58, is now an MEP for the centre-right Civic Platform party. In an interview with the New Statesman, he accused the conservative nationalists of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, who lead the governing coalition, of wanting to take his country out of the EU by stealth.
“This is not a constitutional issue for the EU, but an existential one,” he said. “Institutions in all the member states have to trust one another for the single market to operate.” Poland’s policies, he said, were undoing that trust.
“[In the EU], we don’t do extraditions between member states nor examine prima facie evidence, we just send our citizen or a foreign citizen for trial in another country because we trust their courts to be equivalent to ours,” Sikorski said. “Courts in Ireland, Holland and Spain have already disregarded Polish European arrest warrants because they are unsure of the independence of Polish courts.”
This is the heart of the dispute between Brussels and Warsaw. In 2018, Poland changed its system of appointing judges, giving the government a much greater say. The European Court of Justice ruled in March that those changes were contrary to EU law. In turn, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki challenged that decision in the constitutional court. The judges, a majority of whom were appointed by PiS, found in the government’s favour. It was the first time ever that a member state had questioned EU treaties in this way.
Days after the court decision, on 19 October, Morawiecki addressed the European Parliament. In a defiant speech, he accused the EU of blackmailing Poland by threatening to withhold around €36bn from the European recovery fund in retaliation for the court’s decision. “Poland will not be intimidated,” he told European lawmakers, while simultaneously vowing that he would not lead his country out of the EU. In the ensuing debate, Sikorski accused Morawiecki’s government of replacing independent judges with “pushovers”.
A longstanding Anglophile, Sikorski studied at the University of Oxford and took British citizenship in 1987, renouncing it only when he became Polish defence minister in 2014. He deeply regrets the UK’s departure from the EU: “The European Union with Britain in it was better,” he told the BBC in 2016, a few days after the Brexit referendum.
He compares the dynamics within PiS to those within the UK Conservative Party in the early 2010s, which led to the decision to call the referendum. He told the New Statesman that he saw the ruling party as having been captured by a “small group of Europhobes” pressuring the government to adopt the faction’s “anti-European agenda”.
The PiS is leading Poland “on the path of Hungary, and, ultimately, Russia in trying to abolish the separation of powers”, he said. Having packed the constitutional court, the government is seeking to appoint pliant judges to lower courts too, extending its control over other levels of the judiciary. “And the reason for doing that is that they want immunity from prosecution for the thievery that they’re doing on an unprecedented scale,” he said. Independent rankings have Poland slipping down corruption perception indexes since PiS came to power in 2015.
Poland has a powerful incentive to cooperate with the EU: it receives about four times as much from the EU budget as it puts in. In 2018 it contributed €3.9bn, while receiving €16.3bn. In addition, it is waiting for €57bn in EU Covid-19 recovery funds. However, the EU may not approve the payment until after the legal dispute is settled.
With this in mind, Sikorski said that he was expecting a conciliatory tone from Morawiecki. “Instead he went full Farage, full nationalist,” Sikorski lamented, referring to the British anti-EU politician Nigel Farage. “He used the language of sovereignty in a Europhobic manner, namely that sovereignty means that I can enter into treaties and then I don’t have to abide by them.”
Poland is already moving away from democracy, Sikorski said. He argues that its elections are undemocratic, though not stolen. “State media and state resources have been abused by the ruling party.”
Sikorski believes that the current path taken by PiS might ultimately lead to Poland leaving the EU, even though there are no mechanisms within the European treaties to eject a member state against its will. The Polish government has said that it supports EU membership and will not seek to leave the union.
“There is no requirement to hold a referendum in Poland to take us out of the EU,” Sikorski remarked. “The joke we have in Poland is that while the British had to pay [more than] €40bn to leave the EU, we will do it for free.”