On Wednesday, December 20, the European Commission took a historic step to defend the rule of law in Poland. For the first time ever, the Commission triggered Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union, the EU’s sanctioning mechanism for member governments who violate the union’s fundamental norms, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This move comes after two years of failed dialogue, which saw Poland’s government, controlled by the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, ignore Commission warnings and push through a series of reforms designed to establish total political control over the country’s judiciary.
In the face of such blatant defiance of EU norms, the Commission concluded that there was a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland” and asked the national governments in the Council of the EU to vote on whether they agree. This could eventually lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the EU and to other sanctions, including the withdrawal of EU funding.
The Commission’s defense of rule of law in Poland is a welcome move. Politics, however, may yet prevent the EU from taking more decisive steps to prevent Poland from sliding down the path to autocracy. As Mitchell Orenstein and I wrote nearly two years ago in this magazine, in Poland’s crisis, the EU is reaping the consequences of its inaction against Hungary’s drift toward authoritarianism. That remains true today, and Hungary has vowed to veto any sanctions against Poland, which would require a unanimous vote from EU member states.
For the time being, EU politics is trapped in an authoritarian equilibrium. In this half-baked steady state, the union has become politicized enough that the EU-level allies of these semi-authoritarian governments have both the tools and the incentives to protect them from censure; but the EU has not become sufficiently politicized for the opponents of these governments to intervene in order to rein them in
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