Piotr Zagórski – 10/07/2019
After EU top jobs nominations: PiS left with nothing and Central and Eastern Europe without representation. This time also the European Union itself lost. Such is the success of Kaczyński’s hussars in Brussels.
Tomasz Sakiewicz, the head of the conservative/nationalist Polish newspaper “Gazeta Polska”, commented on the last week’s reshuffle of the most important jobs in the European Union: “it was a hussar attack, a small unit caused a defeat in the ranks of the opponent”. No doubt that Manfred Weber, the official candidate of the conservatives from the EPP (European People’s Party) for the head of the European Commission, certainly suffered a personal defeat. The decision to appoint Ursula von der Leyden -former German Defense Minister- for this position is also a setback for Angela Merkel, who came to the summit in Brussels convinced that it will be Frans Timmermans who would end up being the head of the EC. After all, this was the German-French-Spanish-Dutch deal reached at the G20 summit in Osaka.
More or less surprisingly: the Visegrád Group along with Italy, and therefore a select group of right-wing populists, blocked Timmermans’ candidacy. Timmermans is a threat to anyone who wants to bend the rule of law because he has been rigorously defending it so far. Orbán and Kaczyński are afraid of just that. There were no explicit arguments against Timmermans’ candidacy other that “he is not a candidate who unites Europe” (Polish prime minister Morawiecki) and that “someone had implanted Timmermans an anti-Polish virus” (wpolityce.pl). For Ryszard Czernecki, an MEP from Law and Justice (PiS – the populist and nationalist party in government in Poland), “Timmermans out!” was a sign of “Poland showing its power! Conclusion: no one who raises his hand on our homeland will do an international career!” In fact, the PiS’ victory is completely fruitless, as Timmermans will probably remain as vice-president in the new EC leadership and he will continue to monitor the rule of law in Europe.
Thus, PiS, Poland, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and the European Union itself were the real losers in this game. Here is why.
In the first place, PiS is at the periphery
Karol Karski, MEP from PiS, was re-elected as one of five Questors in the European Parliament This is the true harvest of the offensive of the Polish government in Brussels. Ewa Kopacz, former prime minister of Poland from EPP (and from the opposition in Poland) was elected vice-president of the European Parliament (one of 14). Even Fidesz’s candidate was re-elected for that position, which by the way raises serious questions over the party’s suspension from the EPP group. PiS’ candidate, Zdzisław Krasnodębski, was shy of the votes needed. This is not surprising. After all, although PiS won the European elections in Poland and sent as many as 27 representatives to Strasbourg, it has poor bargaining power in Europe. PiS’ MEPs sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a grouping of just 62 deputies out from 751. ECR is the sixth force in the European Parliament. It is not even the strongest group on the -recently quite crowded- populist Eurosceptic right. Matteo Salvini’s Lega joined forces with the National Union of Marine Le Pen and, among others, with parties from Germany and Austria, and united in the newly formed Identity and Democracy group (ID). Therefore, the influence of PiS, a party that won the elections in the sixth (fifth, after Brexit) largest country in the EU, on what will happen in the EP will remain negligible.
Secondly, Central and Eastern Europe loses its influence
The Visegrád Group (without Slovakia), together with Italy, Ireland, Estonia and Lithuania decided to block Timmermans’ candidacy. At least the Italians did not waste all of the political capital on this move. David Sassoli is the new president of the European Parliament. On the contrary, Central and Eastern Europe had to pay a high price for the obstructing Timmermans’ candidacy. Most probably, there will no representative of this region in the highest EU posts. Charles Michel, former Belgian Prime Minister, will be the head of the European Council, the EU diplomacy will be led by Josep Borell, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Christine Lagarde from France will take the wheel of the European Central Bank. Thus, the East of Europe is the biggest loser of this complex puzzle. On a more positive note, the greater presence of women at the top of EU power should be welcomed. Hopefully, a more gender-balanced EU top brass is here to stay.
Lastly, this time the EU itself has also been damaged
When Beata Szydło, a former Prime Minister, came back from losing the battle of Tusk’s re-election 27 to 1 a few years ago, Kaczyński himself was waiting with flowers at the airport. This time, there were no flowers. Nobody waited for Prime Minister Morawiecki at the airport.
By now, Poles have grown accustomed to how the governments’ propaganda machine works. A lie suddenly became truth. A defeat is now a victory. As Jacek Kurski, head of public Polish TV, once allegedly said: “The ignorant peasants will buy it.”
Nevertheless, there is a more profound difference between Szydło’s loss and the “attack of Polish hussars” from a few days ago. In the former case, the astonishment it provoked in Europe raised some eyebrows and was dealt mainly with a smile of pity. In the latter however, the struggle to block Timmermans also had the side effect of harming the Union itself.
As it was emphasized by the Polish public TV, “it was not only a fight for the most important positions in the Union but also about the future of the Community.” PiS sees this future in strengthening national states on the expenses of Brussels. The new EU leadership will rather try to convince Europeans to further strengthen the Community. We will see if it will work. Blocking Timmermans’ candidacy may, however, prove to be an obstacle to further European integration. Leaving aside the fact that the socialist presented a program (social and green), which could appeal to many Europeans tired of 15 years of right-wing rule in the Union, and that we know little about the possible manifesto of Ursula von der Leyden, more importantly, in the final deal the so-called ‘Spitzenkandidat process’ was buried.
The idea that the European political groups would present candidates for the President of the Commission before the EP elections aimed at strengthening the decision-making power of the European Parliament in filling the most important positions in the Union. In addition, the goal of this process was to improve transparency in making such an important decision. Moreover, the goal was to make a European vote more meaningful and less second-order compared to the national elections. It was supposed to strengthen the legitimacy of EU institutions, which have been struggling with democratic deficits for years. Although the new president of the EC announced her support for this initiative, the very way in which she was chosen puts the future of the Spitzenkandidat process in doubt.
The choice of Ursula von der Leyen is a victory for those who want to be free to appoint the head of the Commission behind closed doors. None of the presented Spitzenkandidaten will occupy the most important positions in the EU. Von der Leyen did not even compete in the EP elections. Thus, the Polish “victory” in Brussels has nipped the democratization process of the EU institutions in the bud. PiS certainly wanted to do just that, but it should not equate its own interest with the Polish national interest, with the one of the Eastern part of Europe, and with the one of European Union itself.<p>
Piotr Zagórski is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid. He holds an MA in Sociology from Universidad de Granada. His research interests include electoral behaviour with special focus on turnout and comparative politics with an emphasis on European populist parties.