Beyond NATO, Brexit and Putin: Europe's Poland problem


Europe’s been having a rough go of it lately. President Donald Trump raked NATO over the coals for alliance members’ failure to pay their fair share of military spending. Brexit angst has got members of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s team jumping ship. And now Trump breaks bread with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a sit-down that European leaders have worried would allow Putin to play Trump like a balalaika.

But if Europe wants to size up its biggest threat, it only needs to glance in the mirror.

In Poland, a nationalist government has systematically dismantled judicial independence. Supreme Court judges have been purged and replaced with government loyalists. The country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which ensures that laws don’t stray from Poland’s constitution, lost its independence in 2015 when the ruling party, the mismonikered Law and Justice Party, stacked the court with its own adherents.

Many in Poland fear the government is veering their country away from democracy and back toward the authoritarian-style leadership that Lech Walesa helped topple in the 1980s. Walesa shares those fears. The 74-year-old Pole who led the Solidarity movement against Soviet rule was back on the streets of Gdansk this month, lambasting the current government as more “perfidious” than the communist regime he helped oust.

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The Law and Justice Party’s actions have plunged Poland into dangerous waters. Poland isn’t alone in its plight, though. What’s happened in Poland has put Europe at a crossroads. How the European Union handles the Polish government’s abandonment of the rule of law will foretell how it handles other populist-nationalist movements coursing through other European nations.

We know the script: A backlash against the status quo, a populist leader’s rise to power and a subsequent erosion of the checks and balances that serve as bulwarks for Western democracies. That script has played out in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has commandeered much of the media, now a conduit for anti-immigrant, nationalist vitriol. Right-wing populist governments have also taken power in Italy and Austria.

The problem with right-wing populism is that its playbook is antithetical to the European Union’s, which espouses the rule of law, judicial independence and a continent unified in its policies toward terrorism, immigrants and the Kremlin.

So far, the EU has tried to sound angry with the Polish government. It has launched an “infringement procedure” against Polish leaders, a step that could lead to a referral to the European Union Court of Justice. That court could declare Warsaw’s actions unconstitutional, though the EU court has no power to intervene. It has threatened invoking its so-called nuclear option, Article 7, which would yank Poland’s voting rights as a member state. That would require all 28 other EU nations to sign off, an unlikely prospect given Poland’s kinship with other right-wing governments.

The EU’s best weapon may be its purse strings. The bloc sends hundreds of millions of dollars in aid payments to member states. Withholding aid to governments that run roughshod over the rule of law would send a strong message that the EU wants Poland and other right-wing administrations to heed the European values that supposedly bind all these countries.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration can help its Polish ally by reminding Warsaw that the ideals it’s endangering now — rule of law, judicial independence, checks and balances — are the same ideals Poles were deprived of for so many years under the thumb of the Russian Politburo.

Poland needs the U.S. and the rest of NATO to have its back as it faces the ever-present threat posed by its neighbor to the east, Russia. So Poland has good reason to rethink — and reform. A nudge from Washington should help.

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