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Poland’s Populist Catch-22

Summary:
The Polish government's efforts to prevent the European Union from enforcing "rule of law" conditionality on future funding is not just a reflection of its illiberal nature. Rather, the ruling coalition is in the throes of a subtle but all-consuming fight over who will emerge as the future face of Polish populism. WARSAW – A half-billion people across the European Union have effectively been held hostage by United Poland, a tiny Polish political party that is largely unknown even among the country’s voters. At issue was a principle that 66% of Poles support: EU funding should be made conditional on a recipient country’s respect for the rule of law – a key provision in the EU’s 2021-27 budget and COVID-19 recovery fund.

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The Polish government's efforts to prevent the European Union from enforcing "rule of law" conditionality on future funding is not just a reflection of its illiberal nature. Rather, the ruling coalition is in the throes of a subtle but all-consuming fight over who will emerge as the future face of Polish populism.

WARSAW – A half-billion people across the European Union have effectively been held hostage by United Poland, a tiny Polish political party that is largely unknown even among the country’s voters. At issue was a principle that 66% of Poles support: EU funding should be made conditional on a recipient country’s respect for the rule of law – a key provision in the EU’s 2021-27 budget and COVID-19 recovery fund.

Reports this week ahead of an EU summit to discuss the issue suggest that Poland and Hungary have accepted the EU presidency’s budget proposal. It still needs to be approved by the Netherlands and other member states, as well as critics within the Polish government.

With Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party waging war on the independence of the country’s judiciary for years, its opposition to the rule-of-law provision comes as no surprise. But it is important to understand the complicated politics behind Poland’s current position vis-à-vis the rest of the EU. Only then can the current impasse be broken, potentially creating a domino effect that topples Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, and ends the current era of populist rule in the country.

Poland’s threat to veto the EU budget as long as it includes a conditionality mechanism is a function of the rivalry between two politicians: Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of PiS and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro of United Poland. Both are angling to succeed Kaczyński, and both are prepared to sacrifice Poland’s welfare – and Europe’s – for their own ambitions.

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