A few weeks ago, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal announced that the Polish Constitution is superior to EU law in judicial system questions. This served to further increase tensions in the already difficult relationship between the Polish ruling bloc and EU institutions. While the likelihood of Poland exiting the EU remains small for now, the mounting conflict presents threats to Lithuanian interests, Ramūnas Vilpišauskas writes.
The Constitutional Tribunal of Poland, part of whose judges are former members of the ruling party, announced on October 7 that in terms of the functioning of its court system, the Polish Constitution stands above the EU agreement. While the practical consequences of this ruling aren’t yet clear, it has already led to strong reactions among EU institutions and member states.
That said, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal isn’t the first and only to question the primacy of EU law – this has already occurred in Germany and some other EU member states. However, analysts emphasise that this is the first time that an EU member state’s court has ruled that the EU agreement’s articles are incompatible with the country’s constitution.
The situation is heated up even further by how the Polish ruling bloc’s decisions in terms of reforming the courts and regulating the operation of news media have already faced severe criticism from EU institutions. The European Commission has launched procedures against Poland due to failing to adhere to the principle of the rule of law and limiting the independence of the courts.
Due to these disagreements, the economic revitalisation plan drafted by Poland back in spring has since been stuck in EU institutions, with the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility due to allocating up to 23 billion euro in grants and 34 billion euro in preferential loans. While Poland’s ruling bloc did review its most controversial decisions after previous criticism from Brussels, the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling has proven to be a new culmination of a protracted growth in tensions.
Why should the growing tensions between the Polish ruling bloc and EU institutions be a cause for concern in Lithuania? There are at least three reasons.
Firstly, the policies of Poland and certain other EU member states, which question the EU agreement’s provisions, serve to weaken the EU itself. What greater threat can there be to the strength of an agreement than the unwillingness of some of its parties to comply with it? This is why some European Commission officials have spoken of how this Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruling could lead to a chain reaction that could result in the EU’s collapse.
The EU is an organisation based on agreements between sovereign states. The EU agreement has outlined core principles, which serve as a basis for member states to organise their political, economic and civil life, as well as rules for cooperation, decision making and compliance. The objectives set out in the agreement are pursued through ongoing consultation and negotiation on the legal rules that implement them.
It is precisely through negotiations that every country – be it Poland, Germany or Lithuania – can defend its position by way of arguments. National interests are achieved by acting through EU institutions this way because it is more effective to react to external challenges like this than if acting separately.
That is exactly why the vitality and unity of NATO and the EU are at the top of the list of the country’s national security interests in the Lithuanian National Security Strategy. Furthermore, it is stated that Lithuania bases its national security policy on the values that unite NATO and the EU. The clash between the Polish ruling bloc and EU institutions, as well as some of the other EU member states, over fundamental values, enshrined in the EU agreement weaken the EU both internally and externally.
By the way, the Lithuanian government drafted a new National Security Strategy this year and it is due to be presented to Seimas soon. However, the newest challenges to Lithuanian security (both the strengthening of authoritarian China and the events in Belarus, as well as the strengthening of Russian influence in it) only further reinforce the importance of the vitality of NATO and the EU for our country’s safety.
The stronger the conflicts between Poland and EU institutions, the less reliable Poland’s voice sounds in terms of political and institutional reforms in the EU’s neighbours, in terms of reducing corruption in Ukraine, for example. This is a second reason why it should be a concern for Lithuania – after all, yet another strategic interest of Lithuania is “the spread of democracy and European values” across the Eastern Partnership countries (National Security Strategy).
It was namely with Poland that Lithuania would often provide support for the reforms implemented by the Eastern Partnership countries, as well as their rapprochement with the EU and NATO. Due to the policies of the current Polish ruling bloc, Poland is becoming less effective as a partner. Furthermore, the situation in Poland (or Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria) might be employed as an extra argument by EU countries such as France against rushing to integrate the Western Balkan countries or granting membership prospects for Ukraine.
The third reason is that Lithuania needs a Poland, which is a cooperating and influential member of the EU and NATO. This is important not only due to our geopolitical position, given how Polish military support would be crucial for Lithuania if faced with aggression and also due to the various mutual links that tie us to the neighbouring country (and through it – often to other EU countries) in terms of trade, movement of people and in other spheres.
The success of synchronising Lithuania’s electricity system and the modernisation of its transport networks depend on cooperation with Poland. The Polish ruling bloc’s conflicts with EU institutions serve to weaken Poland’s influence, it becomes increasingly isolated and is sometimes left in a minority with only Hungary when discussing various matters on the EU agenda.
That said, it is in part due to Poland’s (self)isolation in the EU that the Polish ruling conservatives’ tone is more well-intentioned when interacting with Lithuania as compared to the opposition Civic Platform’s former government of Donald Tusk, especially its former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
He positioned Poland as one of the EU’s three great countries, focusing on closer relations with Germany and France while perceiving Lithuania as a lower league player unable to uphold promises given to Poland. Thus, in this sense, the previous liberal government in Poland was a more difficult partner for Lithuania than the current one.
However, the intensified conflict between the Polish ruling bloc and the EU should be a significant cause of concern in Lithuania. Not because Poland might follow the example of the UK and depart the EU. Such a prospect is unlikely at least for now because a much larger part of society in Poland supports the country’s EU membership and even the country’s ruling bloc states it is not aiming for a Polexit.
However, due to the aforementioned reasons, the policies pursued by Poland present extra challenges for Lithuania. Perhaps it might be possible to continue ignoring them in the bilateral relations agenda in the hopes that the situation might change in Poland after a couple of elections.
However, how would Lithuania vote in the European Council if EU institutions take to financial or other sanctions against the Polish government, for example, proposing to suspend EU Recovery and Resilience Facility allocations for Poland? After all, this decision would only require a qualified majority vote and Hungarian support for Poland could no longer block it.
Up to now, Lithuanian foreign policymakers have continued repeating that the language of sanctions should not be turned against any EU country, hoping that dialogue between Warsaw and Brussels will happen and it won’t be taken to a formal vote on applying sanctions. After the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, this dialogue becomes even more difficult.