European tensions herald a fierce battle for the future of the Polish right

Zbigniew Ziobro didn’t mince words when he asked Poland’s highest court to rule on the compatibility of the EU’s new conditionality mechanism with the country’s constitution.

“I don’t have the slightest doubt about that. . . is in blatant contradiction,” the hawkish Polish justice minister said, arguing that EU rules – making access to funding from Brussels conditional on respect for the rule of law – could be used to “blackmail” Poland.

Besides Brussels’ punching bag, there was a second implied target of Ziobro’s criticism. Poland could have blocked the mechanism in December 2020 by vetoing the EU budget. But in the end, the Polish Prime Minister – and great rival of Ziobro – Mateusz Morawiecki did not.

Ziobro’s double-edged salvo was emblematic of the tough stance he took during Poland’s half-decade battle with Brussels for the rule of law. But it was also an example of how relations with the EU are part of a battle over the future of the Polish right between rival groups within the ruling conservative-nationalist coalition.

For now, the Polish right remains dominated by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who co-founded Law and Justice (PiS) – the largest party in the ruling coalition – and is widely considered the country’s most powerful politician. But a younger generation of politicians, with Ziobro and Morawiecki among them, are struggling to position themselves ahead of the two legislative elections, due no later than 2023, and the day Kaczynski’s hegemony eventually comes to an end.

“Kaczynski’s retirement will be the start of the right-wing split. . . and I can’t imagine Morawiecki and Ziobro in the same boat without him,” said Wojciech Szacki, political scientist at Polityka Insight. “They have different ideas, different visions, different backgrounds, different goals, so basically there will be no peace between them.”

Morawiecki is relatively moderate. The multilingual former banker entered frontline politics through the development and finance ministries before being appointed prime minister by Kaczynski in 2017, in part to improve relations with the EU after Beata Szydlo’s murderous tenure.

Zbigniew Ziobro, center, with members of his United Poland party © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Ziobro, on the other hand, is a hardliner. He served as justice minister in Kaczynski’s first government in the mid-2000s, before being expelled from the PiS for questioning his leadership. He went on to found his own party, United Poland, which has taken uncompromising positions on everything from LGBT rights to climate policy. After a period in the desert, the party became one of the two junior coalition partners of the PiS before it returned to power in 2015.

United Poland has only 19 MPs in Poland’s 460-seat lower house, and opinion polls rarely give it more than a few percent support. But since the PiS’s second junior coalition partner – Jaroslaw Gowin’s Accord – left government in August, stripping it of its formal majority and forcing it to cobble together ballot-by-vote majorities, Poland’s votes United have taken on disproportionate importance.

Ziobro and his allies took aim at other EU policies agreed to by Morawiecki, including the bloc’s ambitious climate goals. One of the most explicit attacks came in December, when United Poland MP Janusz Kowalski called on Konrad Szymanski, Minister for Europe and Morawiecki’s ally, to resign, criticizing several aspects of Poland’s relations with the EU.

Morawiecki’s allies say he has his own reservations about some of the EU’s actions toward Poland. But they say he still hopes to resolve the long-running rule of law row that has caused Brussels to delay approving billions of euros in funding, and claim that Ziobro’s maneuvers and attacks on the EU are undermining its efforts to do so.

“The prime minister is. . . very eager to find a compromise. But there are red lines that even he couldn’t accept,” a person close to the government said. “And of course there is enormous internal pressure, especially from the Ministry of Justice, not to help the negotiations.”

Ziobro supporters bristle at such suggestions and instead argue that Poland’s mistake did not take a tougher line with Brussels.

“More and more PiS politicians see that we were right in this dispute with Morawiecki. That we should have fought harder with the EU, that Ziobro won that argument,” Kowalski said.

“There must have been money, and there isn’t; everything was supposed to be great, and it’s not. And people ask why? Who was right, who wasn’t? In short, we were right. »

The simmering tensions have sparked new speculation about the durability of the coalition. However, analysts are skeptical that a divorce before the 2023 election would help either side. The PiS would be far from a parliamentary majority without its junior coalition partner. And if a united Poland stood alone, it is not clear that it would cross the threshold of 5% representation in parliament.

“What keeps United Poland on board is the idea that a scenario outside of an alliance with the PiS is not rosy,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at Britain’s University of Sussex. . “[Gowin’s departure] strengthens them. . . But on the other hand it’s a warning of what might happen [if they fall out with PiS].”

In the longer term, however, many observers believe that a united Poland has broader ambitions. “I think Ziobro never gave up on the idea of ​​creating a party capable of leading an independent life outside the PiS,” Szacki said. “He’s setting the stage for an even more anti-European movement once Kaczynski retires, and the right has to start again.”

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