And Then There Was One
The far-reaching consequences of the opposition’s recent victory in Poland’s parliamentary election extend beyond the country’s borders. Quick shifts in the country’s foreign policy, under a new government led by Donald Tusk, are likely. Relations with Berlin and EU institutions will soon turn cordial, and Franco-German-Polish cooperation, the so-called Weimar Triangle, may be revitalized. A renewed commitment to support Ukraine is also expected.
But not everyone will be happy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stands to lose from the Polish people’s choice. His strategic tandem with Warsaw’s outgoing leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, despite all their differences on Russia and Ukraine, helped secure their authoritarian agendas from EU interference and sanctions. Of utmost concern was the EU treaty’s infamous Article 7 procedure, which allows for suspending member states’ voting rights in the EU Council. Orbán may yet garner some support in Brussels from his right-wing Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, and the incoming Slovak government of Robert Fico, but it will be much more limited than the near-carte blanche that Kaczynski offered. Neither Italy nor Slovakia faces the EU sanctions or suspension of bloc funding imposed on Hungary and Poland due to their democratic backsliding. Meloni and Fico are also unlikely to upset their relationship with the European Commission to help Orbán.
The tables are now turned, with Tusk’s Civic Platform party and future coalition partners, all vocal critics of Orbán, on the cusp of assuming power in Central Europe’s most powerful country. That will effectively eliminate Europe’s recent East-West cleavage over Orbán and complicate any calls from the Hungarian prime minister for Central European solidarity. Poland will now be among those calling out Budapest’s pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian policies. Orbán’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin already increases the likelihood of his isolation within the EU.
Orbán may also face more obstinate European institutions, especially a European Commission in no hurry to forge a deal with the Hungarian government on releasing parts of €22 billion in suspended EU funds. Under current circumstances, a quick agreement without significant Hungarian concessions could lead the Commission to face an even greater barrage of criticism for its weak-kneed handling of Hungary, especially from the European Parliament. And Orbán’s ability to push through a release by blocking a planned increase of the EU budget ceiling has weakened. Poland’s new government will withdraw its support for the Hungarian threat, making it easier for Brussels to circumvent it.
Orbán’s party, Fidesz, also faces challenges on the European level. It is unaffiliated since being pushed out of the European People’s Party (EPP) group in 2021 and now wants to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), in which Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is a key player. But with PiS out of power, ECR’s influence over the EU Council takes a big hit. Once Poland installs a new government, ECR will remain represented in the Council only by Fratelli d’Italia and ODS, the largest Czech governing party, making the group less potent in Brussels’ halls of power. And given no chance of regaining sway before European Parliament elections in June 2024, ECR may well see its influence over the European Commission also wane.
The Polish election could emerge as a game changer for Orbán, perhaps soon to be the EU’s last autocrat. That could provide an opportunity for the EU to reconsider using some of its long- neglected leverage. Suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the bloc, which would require the unanimity of the other member states, may remain unlikely, but it is less so than before the Polish election. The first stage of the Article 7 procedure, a naming and shaming which requires a four-fifths majority of member states, is now within reach if Poland mobilizes others in Central Europe. After 13 years of autocratization in Hungary, the EU may finally be in a position to officially conclude that in Budapest, as Article 7 states, “there is a clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values.