Auteur: Eszter Zalan
The stage is set for “carnage” in the European Parliament on Tuesday (19 January), when the Polish PM, Beata Szydlo, confronts her government’s most outspoken EU critics.
The debate comes after the European Commisson, this week, launched an unprecedented inquiry into Polish costitutional and media reforms.
The parliament speaker, Martin Schulz, a German, has called the reforms a “coup.” The leader of the Liberal group, Guy Verhofstadt, has said Szydlo is “driving Poland’s relationship with the European Union to a new low.”
For their part, Polish ministers have said German politicians should keep quiet because of Germany’s Nazi past.
Letters between commission vice-president Frans Timmermans and Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro also turned ugly, with Ziobro accusing him of “left-wing” bias and “astonishing” ignorance.
“The letters’ tone gives you an idea, verbally,” of what to expect in Strasbourg, an EU source told this website. “I expect carnage.”
There will be no EP resolution, and, with that, no vote. But Schulz, on Thursday, also said he expects “an extremely lively” discussion.
He spoke with Sszydlo the same day by phone. Konrad Szymanski, the Polish EU affairs minister, spent Wednesday and Thursday meeting EP groups to promote Poland’s ideas.
A second EU source, familiar with the EP preparations, predicted that Szydlo will play to her home audience.
The contact said she’ll also try “to show European colleagues that there is no breach of democracy in Poland.”
But Doru Frantescu, the director of VoteWatch Europe, a think tank in Brussels, said the Polish PM might be surprised how things turn out.
“Her [Szydlo's] mere presence in Strasbourg signals that she’ll try to convey a message of willingness to cooperate,” Frantescu told EUobsevrer.
“But she’ll soon notice that her definition of ‘cooperation’ is so far apart from that of the vast majority of the EP plenary, that the discussions may become more confrontational.”
Frantescu added that Szydlo’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is “surfing a wave of popularity at home, which … makes them feel very strong, invulnerable” and which is feeding their “defiance of the EU.”
The EPP factor
Hungary, which earlier implented PiS-type reforms, has also faced EP criticism.
It got cover from the centre-right EPP political group, the largest in parliament, because Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is a member.
PiS has less powerful allies, because it sits with the anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, the third biggest.
But internal EPP divisions and the Hungary precedent could muzzle its speakers.
The EPP wanted the Poland debate already in December. But its Polish deputies, from the opposition Civic Platform party, urged caution, saying it could stoke Polish euroscepticism.
An EPP spokesperson, Pedro Lopez de Pablo, told EUobserver its Polish MEPs won’t speak on Tuesday because “they consider that they need to debate about this in the national parliament” instead.
Pawel Swidlicki, an analyst at the London-based think tank Open Europe, said he expects “moderate” EPP criticism of PiS.
“It would certainly be hypocritical of the EPP to castigate PiS while shielding Fidesz, which has taken similar steps in the past,” he said.
The German factor
Lopez de Pablo also said that Manfred Weber, the German head of the EPP, will give his microphone to Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a Spanish vice-chair.
“We don’t want the Polish government or media to have any misunderstandings about the speaker being German,” de Pablo noted, amid the PiS remarks on Nazi-era crimes.
“We need to pull down the spirits, and try to follow the path set out by Timmermans.”
The ECR group’s Polish MEPs are unlikely to hold back in the plenary. But its British MEPs could be the most effective.
The ruling British Conservative Party, an ECR member, needs PiS to back its EU reform ideas, notably on freezing welfare for EU migrants.
At the same time, EU politicians are wary of picking fights with the Tories as the UK’s In/Out referendum approaches.
VoteWatch Europe's Frantescu said British PM David Cameron “needs” Szydlo.
“These two leaders are likely to have very close ties in the coming period,” she said.
“We’re unlikely to see any criticism of PiS by the British Conservatives, but rather the opposite - a defence of their claims that these are internal Polish matters and that the EU shouldn’t interfere.”
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