Analysis: opposition and government at loggerheads over EU budget

The ruling party and the opposition are totally in disagreement over how Poland should react to the rule of law conditionality provision in the EU budget. The centre and left want the mechanism maintained and the government to back down.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government, together with Hungary, is threatening to block the EU budget and recovery fund unless the European Council agrees to withdraw the rule of law conditionality mechanism which has been negotiated between the EU Presidency country, Germany, and the European Parliament. The Polish and Hungarian governments believe that the EP and the EC are attempting to by-pass Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the only vehicle in an EU treaty by which a member state may be sanctioned financially on grounds of breaching EU values.

Some on the opposition side agree with the government

The Polish government has reminded its critics that it was none other than the former President of the European Council Donald Tusk who criticized the EC’s proposal in 2018 to introduce a provision into the EU budget by which funds could be stopped on the grounds of rule of law abuses. He argued that such a clause would be regarded as being political and arbitrary.

Paweł Piskorski, leader of the Democratic Party (SD), who is usually a critic of the government, has also come to the government’s aid. He has argued that Poland should sort out its rule of law matters at home and that it would not be good for EU institutions to be given blanket power to decide on stopping funds on that basis. He is concerned that such power could be used in the future to interfere with a whole raft of domestic cultural, social and even economic policies.

The government has also received parliamentary support from rock musician Paweł Kukiz and four of his MPs. They voted against the line taken by the Polish People’s Party (PSL) with whom they are in political alliance in the “Polish Coalition”. The PSL argues that Poland has nothing to fear if it respects the rule of law, and the party’s leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has even proposed that membership of the EU should be written into the Polish constitution. Mr Kukiz however disagreed, and feels that giving the EU such powers would be tantamount to a loss of the country’s sovereignty.

The radical right “Confederation” wants Poland to leave the EU altogether. It has taken the line that the government is bluffing over its veto in the EU and therefore wants no part in such a game. But obviously it would not be against the government vetoing the EU budget.

Liberals and the left against the veto

The largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO) and the Left are at one in protesting against the government’s blocking of the EU budget. One PO MP Jakub Rutnicki even argued that the rule of law conditionality mechanism was required help bring down the PiS government.

More considered views coming from the opposition concentrate on the fact that the EU budget and recovery fund settlements are very favourable for Poland and it would be self-destructive for Poland to veto them. They also point to the fact that only Poland and Hungary seem to object to the rule of law mechanism on the European Council.

Both the PO and the Left are arguing that the government’s stance on the EU budget endangers Polish membership of the EU. In reality, it is more a case of there being a danger of Poland becoming marginalized inside the EU, should the 25 member states ready and willing to back the rule of law mechanism decide to set up a recovery fund on the basis of inter-governmental agreements. But such a move is one which Germany and others are very reluctant to pursue.

Ruling block’s unity on the issue fragile

The ruling block, on the face of it, is united on the matter. The PM, in a hard-hitting speech in the Lower House, told deputies that the government would not back down on the matter of rule of law conditionality, as Polish sovereignty and independence was at stake.

However, the justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro and his allies in his “Solidarity Poland” party, a junior partner in the ruling PiS block, feel that the PM may be bluffing - and that Mr Morawiecki may be preparing to compromise at the European Council come December. But this time, unlike July, when the PM accepted a compromise feeling it would not be used against Poland and Mr Ziobro argued that the PM should have used the veto, Mr Ziobro seems to have the ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński on his side.

PM Morawiecki’s position on the matter has been rather compromised by the fact that his interpretation of the European Council resolution has proved to be inaccurate. The Polish PM argued that the provision for the rule of law conditionality to return to the European Council protected Poland. But in fact the mechanism became the domain of the EU Council of Ministers in which it only needed a qualified majority for a mechanism to be adopted. In the European Council PM Morawiecki could therefore only threaten to veto the budget and recovery fund as a whole unless the offending conditionality mechanism is removed.

The only compromise that Mr Ziobro and Mr Kaczyński now seem willing to accept is for the rule of law mechanism to refer only to the propriety and legality of actual spending, removing the question of conditionality on the rule of law in general terms. But this severely limits the Polish PM’s room for maneuver. If he cannot persuade the party leadership to move, it would mean that he would have to reject any proposal to defer the change for a number of years or to, as the Hungarians are suggesting, submit the proposed mechanism for decision to the ECJ.

Both Mr Ziobro and Mr Kaczyński do not trust EU leaders. They believe that PM Morawiecki was at best deceived by those leaders arguing that the mechanism would not in reality be used and Poland had nothing to fear. But the way the mechanism was augmented during the negotiations with the EP, which has been screaming for sanctions against both Poland and Hungary, seems to have given the lie to those reassurances. This is why Mr Ziobro and Mr Kaczyński seem to be demanding that the rule of law mechanism must be removed from the budget resolution in total.