Polish premier points finger at EU in budget fight

edited November 18 in Other Political Debate

After joining with Hungary to stall the EU’s €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery package, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sharply escalated tensions on Wednesday, accusing Brussels of spreading propaganda, likening the bloc to Poland’s former Communist regime, and railing against “arbitrary decisions” by “Eurocrats” and “the European oligarchy.”

Poland and Hungary blocked progress toward finalizing the budget package during a vote of EU ambassadors on Monday because of their opposition to a mechanism that would allow Brussels to cut off funding to countries found to violate rule of law principles in a way that impacts the EU’s financial interests. In addition to the EU’s €1.074 trillion budget, which is supposed to start on January 1, the deadlock is delaying a €750 billion coronavirus recovery plan even as the Continent is being slammed by a second wave of infections and many countries are in some form of lockdown, partially paralyzing their economies.

EU heads of state and government are due to discuss the matter at a virtual summit on Thursday but no resolution is expected, as the vast majority of EU countries support the rule of law mechanism. Leaders are also due to discuss the continuing pandemic, as well as the negotiations for a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K., which are now in a critical phase.

Only Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša has suggested the EU should bow to Poland and Hungary’s demands. Other leaders are refusing to surrender after years of complaining about backsliding by Warsaw and Budapest on the EU’s fundamental principles of rule of law and democracy. Experts on EU finances noted that Poland and Hungary, as major beneficiaries of the EU budget, were harming their own citizens.

But in a speech to the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, that largely amounted to a fit and a tantrum, Morawiecki insisted that Poland was a victim and, without irony, he complained about Brussels treating Poland like a child to be disciplined. He said it was the EU that is flouting the rule of law.

“The rule of law and breaking the rule of law have become a propaganda stick in the EU,” he said. “We reject this position, we reject this approach. We know well from the times of PZPR [Polish United Workers’ Party], from the Communist times, the use of these propaganda sticks.”

At another point, Morawiecki raged: “The EU must be built on a foundation of law and legal certainty. This is also the principle we are fighting for. Because without this principle of legal certainty, the EU is a mechanism for making arbitrary decisions by Eurocrats, and de facto by the European oligarchy, sometimes by a few stronger countries just to dominate the weaker ones. And we do not agree to this.”

Other EU leaders have said that Poland and Hungary have no reason to oppose the rule of law mechanism if they indeed uphold the rule of law as they claim. And they rejected the allegation that the rule of law provision could be used arbitrarily, when in fact the use of it is narrowly prescribed to protecting the EU budget. But both Poland and Hungary are now run by governments with authoritarian tendencies, particularly in Budapest where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government wields significant influence over the media and has sought to trample the opposition.

The standoff has become so tense that Hungary’s six major opposition parties issued a joint statement on Wednesday arguing that Orbán was not acting in the country’s national interest.  

“Viktor Orbán and his government does not equal the entirety of Hungary as a country,” the opposition wrote. “With the inhibition of the European, hence Hungarian, crisis management, the Orbán government acts against the interests and rightful expectations of European and Hungarian citizens.”

The six parties, which come from across the political spectrum, also emphasized that their country is in dire need of assistance. 

“Hungarian citizens and their enterprises are in desperate need of the EU’s recovery fund,” the opposition parties wrote. “We, therefore, call upon the institutions of the European Union and the governments of Member States to find a solution in order to stop the Orbán government’s selfishness from putting obstacles before the remedies for the European and Hungarian economic crisis and to help Hungarian citizens, who now fear to lose their existential stability, and their enterprises access the funding provided by EU to Hungary.”

One senior EU official said that Morawiecki and Orbán had agreed, at a leaders’ summit in July, to include a rule of law mechanism with the historic budget package. The rule of law provision is also strongly supported by the European Parliament, which agreed on the details of how the mechanism would function during negotiations with the Council and Commission.

“This is common sense,” the senior EU official said. “This is what we had agreed in July.”

In a sign that criticism from other capitals was touching a nerve, Poland and Hungary made a formal complaint against Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, accusing the presidency of misrepresenting the outcome of Monday’s ambassadors’ meeting and disclosing the outcome of the discussions prematurely in a tweet, according to a diplomat familiar with the communications. The complaint was rejected as baseless.

Some EU officials suggested that a short-term delay to the formal adoption of the long-term budget and an accompanying “own resources decision” would not be especially problematic, and they seemed inclined to let the complaints and anger build against Hungary and Poland. But there are also worries about the potential impact of a longer delay on EU spending and the broader recovery effort. 

In Warsaw, Morawiecki tried to portray Poland as a solitary hero fighting an evil empire, but he struggled to square his country’s professed support for the EU with his complaints about virtually every aspect of how the Union is actually run. He pledged to restate his gripes against Brussels during the videoconference summit on Thursday, though summit observers say that such rhetoric geared to a home audience is rarely repeated.

“We’re swimming against the current at this point,” Morawiecki proclaimed in the Sejm, “against the mainstream, this mainstream in Brussels, which has a specific vision of the European Union. One that, in my opinion, has no chance of surviving. That is why we have decided to fight, fight for Poland, but also fight for the future of the European Union.”

“We say a loud ‘yes’ to the EU, but we say a loud ‘no’ to various mechanisms that chasten us like children and treat Poland and other EU member states unequally,” Morawiecki declared.

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