Poland is pushing the EU into crisis

Poland is changing. Every year the country celebrates its national
Independence Day in the capital, Warsaw. There are parades and speeches
But in 2017, Poland’s Independence Day made worldwide news because of these signs: 60,000 people showed up for a march led by
Nationalist and white-supremacist groups. That’s because they have reason to celebrate,
too. Poland’s right-wing political party, PiS,
is in power. After winning the Presidency and a majority
in Parliament, they've ignored the constitution, Taken over the courts, purged the military,
and cracked down on the media. PiS is bringing authoritarianism back to Poland
and openly rebelling against the European Union. It’s a shocking turn for a country that,
just a few years ago was hailed as one of Europe’s most promising young democracies. So, how did this happen? And can it be stopped? It was an old story to the Polish population
– conquest, subjugation, enslavement. it had happened before in Poland’s troubled
history but never with such inhumanity Poland had a traumatic 20th century. It was invaded twice during World War Two. First by the Germans and then by the Soviets…
…who re-established the country after the war, but as a communist state under their
control. In fact, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin directly
contributed to a draft of Poland's constitution, which was formalized in 1952. These are his handwritten notes. For the next several decades, Poland developed
very little while it was cut off from the rest of the world. It became one of several Soviet-backed, communist
countries in Central and Eastern Europe that made up the Soviet bloc. That started to change in the 1980s. Polish unions started organizing huge strikes
against the communist government. The movement came to be called Solidarity
and it grabbed the attention of the world. In 1989, the communist government caved to
the pressure and agreed to let non-communist parties run in the elections. Solidarity and democratic candidates went
on to win the majority of parliament and the presidency. They established the Republic of Poland and
became the first country in Europe to topple communism. The rest of the Soviet bloc soon followed. This posed a challenge for Western Europe. We cannot aim at anything less than the union
of Europe as a whole and we look with confidence for the day that union is achieved Since the end of World War Two, the continent’s
democracies had been growing closer; signing free trade deals that became the precursor
to today’s European Union. At first, the trade deals just covered coal
and steel, but as they grew to include agriculture, energy, and other markets, more countries
joined– making Europe more economically and politically integrated than it had ever been
before. As the former Soviet bloc countries started
establishing democracies of their own; Western Europe needed to find a way to include them. So in 1993, the established EU countries came
up with a strict checklist for admitting new members. New member-states needed to have a free market
economy, respect human rights and the rule of law. Meaning courts had to be independent and impartial–
so everyone could get a fair trial. These EU rules helped bring former-communist
countries in while also keeping them from sliding back into authoritarianism. They were designed to keep the peace in Europe. Poland joined the EU in 2004 and because of
Solidarity's success it became one of the most promising new member. Poland was given more money than any other
EU country which it used to build highways, schools, hospitals, and modern infrastructure. The country’s economy grew more than any
other ex-communist country. Each year after it joined, Poland received
millions of Euros to help fund highways, schools, hospitals, and modern infrastructure. By 2014, Poland became one of the EU’s strongest
and most resilient members. It even avoided the recession in 2009 that
crippled economies worldwide. Polling showed 72% of Poles were satisfied
with EU membership. More than any other member state. Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski:
“Ladies & Gentleman, 10 years ago we joined the European Union. We did not become part of the EU on a whim. We became part of the union because we put
in tremendous efforts to build a democracy and a free market economy; two pillars of
a united Europe.” And Poland’s charismatic, pro-EU Prime minister,
Donald Tusk, was chosen to become president of the EU’s European Council. But in his absence, leaders with a very different
vision for Poland's future rose to power. In 2015 PiS, Poland’s right-wing party,
shocked the world and won an absolute majority in the parliament. Since 2001, PiS had been led by former-Solidarity
leaders Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who felt that Poland’s center-left parties had become
elitist and corrupt. It appealed to Poland’s conservative population
in rural areas. PiS only earned 38% of the vote in 2015, on
par with the previous election results, but after Tusk left for the EU, his coalition
of center-left parties fell apart, making room for the right-wing party to take over.h According to PiS, after decades of Soviet
control, Poland was now being controlled by the EU. So when it came into power, it pledged to
take back Poland’s independence … legally or illegally. The party already controlled BOTH HOUSE OF
Parliament and the Presidency, so it initiated a hostile takeover of the judicial branch. First it packed this Constitutional court
with loyal judges and then forced out more than a third of the judges in this other court. Both acts were illegal under the Polish constitution,
but the PiS-majority parliament and Presidency signed them into law anyway. The party also fired over 11,000 civil-service
workers and at least 280 military officers, calling them ex-communists. It cracked down on the media. It started leveling fines on news organizations
when it didn’t like their coverage. Meanwhile, it’s been using Polish nationalism
to justify these moves. Remember this 2017 controversial march? A PiS politician called it “a beautiful
site” While the party cracked down on protests against
their authoritarian moves. As PiS tightened its grip on Poland, the EU
issued several warnings to stop it from breaking its rules…. But PiS ignored them. “It is with a heavy heart that we have decided
to initiate Article 7.1”, “But the facts leave us with no choice.” In December 2017, the EU invoked Article 7–
its nuclear option– for the first time in its history. It allows the EU to strip a member of its
voting rights if it feels it is breaking the criteria it established in 1993. // a significant number of laws have been
adopted… which put at serious risk the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers,
in Poland//. According to the EU, the PiS purging of the
courts violates the country’s commitment to respecting the rule of law. The problem for the EU is that Article 7 is
not going to work. The punishment requires a unanimous vote by
all EU countries — and there is one country that has sworn to protect Poland… Hungary, another former Soviet bloc country,
has taken a turn towards authoritarianism under President Viktor Orban. And he vowed to veto any punishment against
Poland. So PiS continues to systematically strip…
on Poland while still receiving huge sums of money from the EU. It’s proving that a member country can stay
in the EU, reap its economic benefits, while ignoring its rules on rule of law. PiS is proving that it's possible to reap
the economic benefits of EU membership while flouting the rule of law. And that has sparked an existential crisis
for the EU… The rules that were written to prevent authoritarianism
from ever re-appearing in Europe, aren’t being followed, and there’s not much it
can do about it. The EU could try cutting off Poland’s funding
but it’s unclear how that would work. So for now, the EU remains in a crisis. For decades it’s tried to keep Europe democratic. But Poland, once the EU’s most promising
new addition, is Is now threatening to unravel the whole thing.

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