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New faces, same tensions for Poland’s embattled government | The World Weekly

Few agree on what is driving the Polish government at home and abroad. Its critics argue the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is perpetrating a rapid slide towards authoritarianism with its judicial reforms, fueled by nationalistic language. Others argue labels of fascism are an unjust attempt to punish a government for daring to be ‘patriotic’. 

Poland’s foreign policy goals are similarly polarising. The government sees itself as simply defending its reforms, and other controversial policies such as logging in the UNESCO-protected Bialowieza natural forest, against Brussels’ invasive bureaucrats. Pointing to its frequent cries of ‘anti-Polonism’, critics accuse the leadership of cynically exploiting their growing pariah status to boost nationalist sentiments at home.

However, for a brief moment around the New Year, it looked as though the party wanted to turn the leaf on what was its most divisive year since coming to power in 2015. A sudden reshuffle in December saw Mateusz Morawiecki replace Beata Szydło as prime minister, and many wondered whether the arrival of a multilingual economist distrusted by many of the party’s core nationalists might shift the tone. It was under Ms. Szydło, a popular figure with a contrastingly down-to-earth image, that the country’s ongoing tensions with the EU spiralled into crisis. 

“The swap was a signal that Poland wanted to be more cooperative and compromise-oriented,” says Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office.

Mr. Morawiecki instigated another reshuffle in January which pushed out a number of the government’s most controversial ministers, a move widely seen as an olive branch to the EU. Antoni Macierewicz, who lost his position as defence minister, was one of PiS’ most powerful figures, and had been accused of overseeing a politically motivated purge of the Polish military. 

While there were hopes of a warmer atmosphere between Warsaw and Brussels, neither side was under any doubts that there were still many bridges to be mended. 

“There is no place in our Union for countries who take EU money, who want to participate in the single market but who reject our shared values,” Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s liberal grouping, tweeted ahead of Warsaw’s first major meeting with Brussels since the reshuffle. 

Poland and the EU are still at loggerheads over many of PiS’ key policies, which Mr. Morawiecki never hinted at renouncing. The new prime minister’s cabinet is still bent on seeing through the judicial reforms, arguing the country’s judicial system is inefficient, often corrupt, and plagued by a clique of elitist judges. Critics maintain PiS simply want to stack the courts with its own candidates. 

The European Commission’s decision to trigger Article 7 - the unprecedented ‘nuclear option’ that could lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the bloc - still stands, although sanctions have yet to be implemented. Some believe the situation could still be defused before the sanctions are enforced, with talks between Warsaw and Brussels ongoing. 

Mr. Morawiecki and his new minister for foreign affairs, Jacek Czaputowicz, have notably avoided directly attacking the European Commission in the same way that their predecessors did. 

The Holocaust controversy

A scandal that has embroiled the Polish government over the last week, however, has convinced many that PiS has little interest in backing down against its supposed international conspirators. A new law criminalising public statements that “falsely and intentionally” attribute Nazi crimes committed under German occupation during WWII to the “Polish nation” has sparked a diplomatic crisis that spans beyond the already large confines of the EU.

The law itself engendered the kinds of accusations of undermining free speech for nationalistic purposes that PiS is used to, but comments made by Mr. Morawiecki at the Munich Security Conference on February 17 have led to a dramatic deterioration in Poland’s international standing.

In response to questions from a journalist at the event, the prime minister compared "Polish perpetrators" of the Holocaust to supposed "Jewish perpetrators”, sparking outrage from the Israeli government. 

The controversy may even cost Mr. Morawiecki one of his most valuable allies in the form of US president Donald Trump, who has long been supportive of Poland’s attempts to challenge the EU. But the US State Department recently issued comments criticising the Holocaust law as a potential harm to Poland’s strategic interests. Experts often refer to Poland’s NATO membership as key to its security concerns given its proximity to Russia.

Mr. Morawiecki has made no serious attempts at reconciliation, describing the international outcry as part of a rising tide of anti-Polish sentiment.

“Anti-Polonism around the world has been gaining in power because of a lack of reaction from Poland and the weakness of this reaction for the last 10 years,” the Prime Minister said in an interview with Bloomberg this week.

Nonetheless, experts caution against reading any cavalier impulses into the government’s actions.

"The scale of the outcry was probably unexpected, at least by Morawiecki and his team," argues Stanley Bill, a lecturer in Polish studies at the University of Cambridge. "I don't think there was a full understanding of what the sensitivities would be abroad."

True to the Law and Justice party's nationalistic instincts, he told The World Weekly, the government still has "domestic uses" for such controversies, given the law's relative popularity at home. "But this was not planned."

It is still too early to say whether Mr. Morawiecki's leadership will improve or worsen Poland's international ties in the long run, Dr Bill argues, adding that "a solid start has been seriously disrupted by the PR disaster surrounding the Holocaust law."

Ultimately, however, Mr. Morawiecki’s commitments and the circumstances of his reshuffle mean there is only so much scope for him to truly repair his government’s standing with the EU and other key allies. 

PiS is still entirely under the thumb of its party leader: Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the 68-year-old veteran of Polish democracy’s post-1989 formative years. 

Unlike Donald Tusk, the “pragmatic technocrat” who steered Poland from 2007-2014, Mr. Kaczynski is “an ideologist, a revolutionary who has for decades consistently operated against the liberal mainstream, and who has triggered a real shift to the right in Poland," Pawel Spiewak, a liberal sociologist at the University of Warsaw, told Deutsche Welle.

The reshuffle was Mr. Kaczynski’s doing, and the new prime minister is no less his ally.

Mr. Morawiecki has succeeded in putting his own stamp on the party, even if he depends on the man many see as his puppet-master. Yet he has not backtracked on any of the major changes overseen by Ms. Szydło which have landed Poland in the EU’s hot waters.

"PiS have effectively already achieved most of the more constitutionally adventurous changes they wanted to make," Dr Bill concludes. "It is unlikely that much more of that will come over the next year or so."

Poland’s fate in the EU arguably depends on whether the government’s fresh faces truly represents a more conciliatory approach towards its international allies. “While the tone has changed, the substance of the policy has remained the same,” Mr. Buras told TWW.

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