Poland’s Government Is Stuck with its Internal EU Tug of War

November 09, 2022
Andrzej Bobinski
Wojciech Szacki
7 min read
Photo credit: Adam Wasilewski / Shutterstock.com
The EU policy of Poland’s government is the object of a constant tug of war. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki holds one end of the rope, Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro grasps the other.

Each heads a team of loyal players, has a crowd of supporters, and a group of onlookers who sometimes roll up their sleeves and join in. Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, alternates the roles of referee and puppet master. On one hand, he understands the need for EU funds and must know that waging a war with Brussels is not going to win the party extra votes. On the other, throughout his political career he has been deeply distrustful of Brussels, which, in his mind, Germany uses to stop Poland’s development in order to have a buffer zone to the east and a sweatshop for German industry.

Morawiecki needs EU funds to make the budget stick. One of the reasons why he was chosen by Kaczyński to replace the popular Beata Szydło as prime minister in 2017 was that he was supposed to be a better diplomat. A man who seemed to understand foreign and European policy and, as a former banker, international finance, Morawiecki has often travelled to EU capitals and tried to negotiate Poland’s way out of the rule of law confrontation with Brussels it has been in since 2016. At the outset, he said that the EU needed to listen to him or else other forces would take over in Warsaw and start dismantling the union from within. He managed to get a good deal for Poland in the 2021–2027 EU budget negotiations. Soon after, Morawiecki commissioned billboards that boasted of how the government had secured 770 billion złotys for “the Polish countryside, towns, and cities.” But this was the beginning of the end of his winning streak on Europe. What was missing from the billboards was that EU funds now come at the price of a conditionality mechanism that allows to Brussels block them if Warsaw does not cooperate on the rule of law.

Their feud is personal, political, and existential. Both men see themselves taking the helm of Poland’s right once Kaczyński leaves the stage.

What the billboards failed to mention, Ziobro—whose Solidarna Polska party is PiS’s coalition partner—has pointed out over and over again. He has been Morawiecki’s archrival from their first days in government. Their feud is personal, political, and existential. Both men see themselves taking the helm of Poland’s right once Kaczyński leaves the stage. Ziobro has built his career in government on a botched reform of the justice system. Over the last seven years, he has tried to make the judiciary more efficient, to subjugate judges, and to politicize the system. For several reasons, he has only ticked the last box on that list: now the system is highly politicized, extremely polarized, and completely dysfunctional. It is in this context that Ziobro’s lieutenants decided to escalate the conflict with Brussels, especially when it comes to energy and climate policy, on which they staunchly oppose the EU’s green legislation and try to defend Poland’s coal industry.

Between Morawiecki and Ziobro are the rank and file of PiS as the party is on the fence on the EU issue. Poles are still one of the most Euro-enthusiastic people in the union. Although some believe that this is because of EU funds, the fact that pro-EU sentiment in polls spiked once the war in Ukraine started (and today exceeds 90 percent) suggests that this is also due to a sense of belonging and security that the EU helps guarantee. Furthermore, the rural population, which has recently given PiS most of its electoral victories, is not only very conservative but also staunchly pro-EU. Here the role of the Common Agricultural Policy and other EU funds is not to be underestimated. On the other hand, some inside PiS do see a downside to the EU. In their eyes, it is too progressive, has been overrun by immigrants, and puts Catholic values on the defensive. They also say that Brussels wants to build a superstate and strip Poland of its sovereignty, with the rule of law confrontation as the best example.

Ultimately, every PiS loyalist knows that, when in doubt, they need to listen to Kaczyński. He is a Eurosceptic who labels himself a Euro-realist. As noted above, he has strongly distrusted the EU, perceiving it as a postimperial vehicle for Germany, which uses Brussels to advance its economic and political interests. However, Kaczyński understands that Poland needs to be in the EU and needs its funds to grow and develop. He dreams of a “Europe of nations” that will be run by Marine Le Pen in Paris, Georgia Meloni in Rome, Viktor Orbán in Budapest, and himself in Warsaw. But this vision is materializing too slowly for Kaczyński.

Earlier this year, Warsaw and Brussels failed to reach a deal over legislative measures that would have helped freeze the rule of law conflict and to disburse money from the European Recovery Fund that Poland is hoping for. In August, Kaczyński gave an interview in which he attacked the EU, and he has been attacking Brussels and Berlin in practically every speech ever since. But then, in the last couple of weeks, PiS has started signaling that it is willing to come back to the negotiating table. It seems that Morawiecki is having one last go at trying to reach an agreement with Brussels.

The reasons for this are threefold. First, the political situation in the EU is changing. Since taking office as prime minister in Rome, Meloni has proved to be more pro-EU than many in Warsaw thought, and some in the government believe she can help Poland reach a deal. At the same time, Hungary has started looking for a compromise on its own rule of law confrontation with Brussels and Poland does not want to be left behind. Second, the economic situation is not getting any better and people in government got a bit of a scare when Poland’s 10-year bonds recently exceeded a 9 percent yield. This precipitated the internal government judgment that Poland needs to reach an agreement with Brussels. Third, PiS knows that escalating the conflict and risking a suspension of EU funds would be a huge problem in the 2023 electoral campaign, allowing the opposition to mobilize its electorate by playing the Polexit card.

Even if Kaczyński decides an agreement needs to be reached with Brussels, he is not at all sure to be able to muster the votes in parliament to pass any concessionary bill.

Thus, today the government is quietly negotiating a new agreement with Brussels. Its propagandists are beginning to prepare their supporters to accept that a compromise might need to be reached. Meanwhile, Kaczyński is looking on and waiting to see what sort of deal will be on the table once the negotiations end, and the anti-EU voices are on the attack. Ziobro and his followers are shouting loudest but many PiS ministers, parliamentarians, and supporters are also sowing dissent. Many PiS loyalists do not like or trust Morawiecki and would like to see him gone. They know that he is very weak and could lose his job once Kaczyński looks for a scapegoat ahead of the imminent electoral campaign.

Finalizing the negotiations with the EU and managing to free up the recovery funds could give Morawiecki a much-needed breather. Theoretically, it is up to Kaczyński to decide. He could weigh in and help Morawiecki or block the prime minister’s efforts. However, at this point, even his help might not be enough. Kaczyński’s hold over PiS has begun to weaken since the last elections and there has been dissent over some of his decisions. It is more than probable that Ziobro will veto any bill that will be negotiated with the European Commission. So, even if Kaczyński decides an agreement needs to be reached with Brussels, he is not at all sure to be able to muster the votes in parliament to pass any concessionary bill. And looking to the opposition for the votes needed to perform a U-turn on the EU would look like a disaster for Kaczyński.

That is why the most likely scenario is a lot of wheeling and dealing over the coming weeks and months until things end up pretty much where they began—with PiS and the government grappling with a Gordian knot that they cannot cut through before the 2023 elections.

Andrzej Bobinski is the Managing Director of Polityka Insight and Wojciech Szacki is Head of Political Desk at Polityka Insight.