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Could Poland leave the EU? 'It wants to give two fingers to the EU, but also stay in'

We haven’t even finished Brexit yet, and now there’s talk of Poland drifting towards a similar EU exit.

Protesters take part in a pro-EU demonstration on10 October.
Protesters take part in a pro-EU demonstration on10 October.
Image: Burzykowski Damian/Newspix/ABACA

AFTER POLAND’S SUPREME Court ruled last week that some EU laws were “incompatible” with the Polish constitution, and warned EU institutions not to interfere with its judiciary by requesting that it be independent from politics, some suggested that this could be the start of a ‘Polexit’. 

If the ruling seems of little consequence, it goes right to the heart of the purpose of the EU: to set democratic, societal and trade standards across its member states. Now one of those member states has ruled that its courts and laws overrule EU law.

A practical example of how this could affect Polish citizens is on LGBT+ issues: earlier this year, protests were sparked after several regions in Poland, with government backing, declared themselves free from “LGBT ideology”.

If the EU wanted to introduce a directive preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, the Polish courts have effectively ruled that this won’t supersede the laws ruled on nationally – affecting the lives of Polish citizens and preventing social progress.

The latest escalation threatens to result in billions of EU funds being cut off to Poland, with one Irish MEP saying that if the EU doesn’t respond adequately, it could result in the EU “crumbling and shaking”.

Poland and Hungary are now trying to get the Court of Justice of the European Union to strike down a new measure that allows the EU to cut off funds to countries considered to be breaching the rule of law – something that both countries are running the risk of. 

This is the general consensus on the Poland EU membership question – that it wants to give “two fingers” to the EU courts, as one MEP put it, but ultimately to remain within the bloc.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, of the nationalist, conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), is to address the European Parliament next week on a controversial ruling from Poland’s Constitutional Court that questions the primacy of EU law.

On Tuesday, MEPs will discuss the contentious verdict of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which states that cornerstone provisions of the Treaty on the EU are unconstitutional under Polish law, and on Thursday it will vote on a resolution relating to the same. On Wednesday, a debate on the one-year anniversary of the near-total abortion ban in Poland will also take place.

What Irish MEPs think

Independents4Change MEP Clare Daly says simply that “Polexit won’t happen”.

“Poland is a country where around 80% of the population supports EU membership; if the Polish government tried to eject Poland out of the EU they’d find themselves out on their ear as quick as you can wink.

“The Polish government won’t go near that nuclear option. Instead, the Law and Justice Party wants to have its cake and eat it – to give two fingers to the ultimate arbiter of EU law and rule of law, the CJEU, and stay inside the Union.

“What the Polish government has been doing isn’t trivial – it has gutted judicial independence, which means that people in Poland can no longer rely on having access to the fundamental right to an effective remedy when they’ve been wronged, and it has said this is none of the CJEU’s business, when the reality is that the EU can’t function if there’s no proper legal protection for citizens (and businesses), with the CJEU as the final decision-maker on this.

“So the EU’s back is really against the wall here, and if it doesn’t do something we could see the whole EU order start to crumble and shake – France has already been playing politics with trying to get around the CJEU’s ruling on data retention, for example, and if this Polish example is let slide, things will only get worse.

The general call in Brussels is for the Commission to bargain using the €24 billion Poland is due to get from the Recovery and Resilience Fund – ie, to refuse to release the money until Poland implements the CJEU rulings – but there’s a real danger with such a move that it’s ordinary Polish citizens will suffer most. The Commission needs to tread extremely carefully here.

Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune said: “Nobody wants to see a Polexit and I do not believe it will happen.

“The EU certainly does not, nor does the Polish government, as they recognise that public opinion is not in favour. I think the hundreds of thousands that protested across the country made a significant statement that the Polish government will recognise.

“The Commission is currently examining the ruling and has said that it will use all it’s powers to bring Poland in line with EU law.

“One area the Commission could take action is to withhold funding, €57 billion post Covid recovery funding for Poland had yet to be approved. Another is the implosion of daily fines that could be demanded through the ECJ.”

Barry Andrews MEP agrees that the pro-EU protests in Poland “underlined how positive Polish citizens are about the EU and the role of the ECJ as final arbiter of all matters pertaining to EU law”.

“The Commission and the Council will have to act with strength. No member state can treat the EU as a cash machine while failing to implement the rules that are part of membership.”

The Conference on the Future of Europe, an EU forum to look at the medium- to long-term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to it, will address issues such as the rule of law and uniformity among member states.

Poland and the EU: Timeline of events

October 2015:  The Law and Justice (PiS) party wins the general election and begins pushing through a string of controversial reforms that triggered mass protests at home and an EU threat of sanctions over rule of law violations. Questions about Poland’s place in the EU began in editorials in Polish news outlets.

October 2017: The Polish government comes under fire for encouraging citizens to “breed like rabbits” as it faced a sharp population decline – while also cutting funds for IVF treatment.

February 2018: The Polish government signals that it will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill that absolves Polands part in the World War II genocide – threatening those who refers to Nazi German death camps as ‘Polish’ with fines or a jail term. 

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July 2018: Ireland’s judiciary offers its support to its counterparts in Poland, after a retirement “purge” came into effect after the retirement age was reduced and certain judges were asked by the Polish president to retire. 

January 2020: Poland passed legislation that allows the government to fire judges whose rulings it does not like. An academic noted that it marked the beginning of a “process of de facto exit from EU legal order.”

rally-in-support-of-polands-membership-in-eu-in-cracow-poland-10-oct-2021 A protester is seen with the European Union flag in his coat during the rally. 10 October. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

13 July 2020: Then-PiS conservative leader Andrzej Duda wins a narrow majority in the general election – one of the closest in the countries history, reflecting polarised views on European Union membership.

August 2020: Dozens of small towns have declared themselves free of “LGBT ideology”, with the support of the Polish government. Duda criticised the LGBT movement is “more destructive” than communism.

October 2020: Polish protesters demonstrate and go on strike for seven consecutive days after a ruling by the government-controlled constitutional court ruled out abortions in all cases except rape and when the life of the mother is at risk.

3 July 2021: 64-year-old Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, is elected the head of Poland’s strongest opposition party. “Today, evil rules in Poland and we are ready to fight against this evil,” he said.

October 2021: Poland’s top court ruled against the supremacy of EU law. Pro-EU rallies around the country are organised in response to the threat to EU membership. 

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