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WARSAW — EU institutions successfully forced Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party government to backtrack on some of the judicial reforms at the heart of a growing conflict between Brussels and Warsaw, according to Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk.
“They are retreating from some of the most controversial elements of their actions against Polish courts,” Tusk told POLITICO and the Polish Onet news portal in a wide-ranging conversation at the Warsaw headquarters of his Civic Platform party.
He spoke after last week’s fiery debate in the European Parliament with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and a summit of EU leaders where Morawiecki was pressed over his government’s efforts to put the judiciary under tighter political control. As a consequence, Morawiecki and his boss, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, promised to dissolve a new disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court — a body that the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has ruled should be suspended.
However, the chamber hasn’t yet been scrapped, and on Wednesday the CJEU imposed a fine of €1 million a day until that happens.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday said that the EU will withhold €24 billion in grants and €12 billion in low-interest loans from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund until Poland dismantles the chamber and reinstates unfairly dismissed judges.
Tusk, who spoke before this week’s moves by the EU, said that pressure from the EU can force Warsaw’s hand.
“Today we have a situation, although far from what I would call a success, but still one that is stopping Kaczyński,” he said.
Tusk, 64, had no illusions that the pressure on Poland will be enough in the long term: He knows the dynamics between Warsaw and Brussels well, having served previously as Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014, then president of the European Council until 2019, and now heads both the European People’s Party as well as Civic Platform.
He predicted that eventually the EU will announce reaching a deal with Poland and start to unlock recovery funds. He was also understanding of why EU leaders didn’t push for a blow-out confrontation with Morawiecki during last week’s summit, saying that “the individual interests of leaders play a role.”
“For [French President Emmanuel] Macron, on the eve of presidential elections, it’s not a comfortable thing to give fuel to the radical French right,” he said. After the leaders’ summit, Morawiecki met with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who’s anticipated to be Macron’s biggest rival for the presidency in next spring’s election.
Tusk also said that for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in her final days in office, “It’s important that when she says ‘goodbye,’ that there isn’t a feeling that everything is tearing apart, that Poland is in danger of leaving the Union.”
Despite his fellow leaders dodging a public scrap last week , Morawiecki unleashed a fierce attack in an interview with the Financial Times, warning that if the European Commission “starts the third world war” by withholding promised cash to Warsaw, he would “defend our rights with any weapons which are at our disposal.”
Working to win
The only way to keep Poland solidly in the EU — something Tusk said was in danger from PiS eventually pressing for a “Polexit” departure from the bloc — was to defeat the party in the next parliamentary election, currently set for 2023.
Tusk said that’s why he came out of retirement and returned to Warsaw to again take over the center-right party he founded in 2001. Since his return, Civic Platform has jumped in opinion polls, and now has the backing of about a quarter of voters while PiS is at 39 percent. Despite PiS’s edge in the polls, Tusk said it can be beaten if the fractured opposition works together.
“My role is, first of all, to help the opposition win the elections and help it sweep up the mess in the country, something that is growing dramatically in recent months. And there is a lot to repair — in many areas the situation is alarming,” Tusk said.
He added that he would not serve as prime minister if the opposition wins power. “I want to most of all breathe faith into my colleagues in other opposition parties that we can win the election if we all regain this faith.”
Law and Justice has won almost every election since returning to power in 2015. Despite the worsening conflict with Brussels, accusations of nepotism and corruption around top party figures, a souring of relations with the U.S. and a growing migration crisis on the border with Belarus, the party remains Poland’s leading political force. It has found a political sweet spot appealing to many Poles’ national pride and Roman Catholic faith while doling out generous social benefits that makes it very difficult to dislodge.
Tusk has two main angles of attack: warning that PiS aims to lead Poland out of the EU — the Union is backed by the vast majority of Poles — and that the party is deeply corrupt and needs to be held to account.
“The intention of this government is the destruction of the Union, or leaving the Union as it exists today,” Tusk said.
He also vowed that any new government would crack down on corruption.
“Under PiS governments, corruption is everywhere,” Tusk said, adding: “I will want to return independent prosecutors and independent courts, let them probe PiS.” He also said that top leaders like Kaczyński and President Andrzej Duda would face responsibility for “violating the constitution.”
But if he fails in his mission to defeat PiS, Tusk warned of an even worse crisis.
“If they win the next election, then we can expect that they will feel even more impunity and be even more determined,” Tusk said. “And every evil scenario will then be possible, especially as we don’t know what the situation will look like in several other European Union countries.”