The EU is heading for a bruising showdown with eastern Europe

– Eurocrats don’t naturally do compromise, but Brussels may have to learn to compromise quite fast if it is to have any hope of avoiding a bruising showdown with eastern Europe. As often happens the backdrop is formed by events in Poland, where the ruling PiS party under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki faces a crucial election in October.

Apart from a rather esoteric ongoing argument about the rule of law which it is fair to say even most Europe-watchers don’t understand, Warsaw currently has two big gripes against the central EU bodies. One is their increasing insistence on centralising immigration control, and in particular the relocation of irregular arrivals; the other, what Poland sees as a lack of EU sympathy for its farmers facing being undercut by a flood of cheap Ukrainian grain. Both have come to a head in the last few days.

On immigration, the ruling PiS party has added to the election ballot-paper for October four referendum questions, including this explosive one: ‘Do you support accepting thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, according to the forced relocation mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy?’ This is a fairly skilful piece of blindsiding which, in inviting a mandate to act in flat breach of an unpopular EU law, puts Brussels in a bind. The referendum is binding in Polish law if over 50 per cent of eligible electors vote on it. Appending it to a general election increases the chances of an adequate turnout, and although a mass boycott by the opposition could scupper it, one suspects many voters secretly rather approve.
The EU will of course huff and puff about the difference between democracy and populism and the need for supremacy of EU law over even national constitutions. Unfortunately, however well this may go down well in Brussels, one suspects it will cut little ice in Białystok.

If the referendum passes, the stage is set for a some legal and political fireworks. True, the European Court of Justice could, and probably would if requested, order the government in Warsaw to disregard the will of its own people and ignore any consequent legislation passed by its parliament (the Sejm). But is this really what Brussels wants? Such an order would probably not be obeyed, leaving Brussels rather like the Holy Roman Emperor, armed with the trappings but not the practicalities of power. And in any case Berlaymont may not want the supposedly democratic EU to be seen yet again to be calling for a popular vote to be trashed. We will have to wait and see.

The Ukrainian grain problem is a re-run of the difficulty in April this year when large amounts of cut-price Ukrainian wheat, unable to be exported via the Black Sea, suddenly hit the European market. Poland, and other eastern European countries with large cereal and agricultural sectors, threatened unilateral action to protect their farmers. The EU, having first forbidden it, promptly U-turned, rubber-stamped the measures and agreed (slightly doubtfully under EU free trade laws, but let’s leave that aside) to close these markets temporarily to Ukrainian grain.

These stopgap measures expire in three weeks. The Polish government says it will extend them unilaterally if necessary. It needs the farming vote, and is already smarting from the decision of Michał Kołodziejczak, a farmers’ party leader, to join the opposition. The attitude of the EU is unclear. According to some reports it is resolutely opposed to any extension, and with the backing states like Germany will if necessary sanction Poland. According to others, however, it might maintain the ban and subsidise the transport of the grain through Europe for shipment abroad through Mediterranean or Atlantic ports.

Again, this puts the EU on an uncomfortable spot. Its instinct is to lift the ban, an instinct supported by pressure from Kyiv, which needs – and, to be fair, deserves – all the foreign earnings it can get. Unfortunately the politics is such that if Poland, which may be joined by Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary, does act unilaterally, there is not very much that it can do. The Brussels bureaucracy faces an unpalatable choice between being seen to be mean to Ukraine and appearing impotent in its own backyard.
There is of course one ray of hope for Brussels’s supporters here: a change of government in Warsaw would make many of their worries vanish. Unsurprisingly, they are working to this end. The EU nomenklatura – which has always detested the PiS party and whose ex-president of the Council, Donald Tusk, now leads the opposition Civic Platform – makes little secret that it wants Morawiecki out.

On the other hand, if things do not work out the EU’s way – and for the moment PiS maintains a narrow lead – Brussels’s problems are just beginning. It will need all the diplomatic skills it can lay its hands on to get its way in eastern Europe, to persuade Poland not to kick over the traces. And it will also need to recognise that, for all the theory of the supremacy of EU law, in many cases, including hot-button issues like immigration and Ukrainian grain, it will have little choice but to grit its teeth and let EU members have their own way.


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