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It's the Economy, Stupid!

More and more, only slumping financial figures seem powerful enough to turn back creeping authoritarianism in Central Europe.

by Martin Ehl 30 April 2018

The conflict between the conservative Polish government and the European Commission over Warsaw’s moves to test the union’s definition of the rule of law is likely to end with Brussels losing. As EU procedures drag on, the opinion that the government should not backtrack too much in the face of the EU’s demands to modify the judicial reforms approved last year is gaining traction in Poland.


Polish media have reported that the European Commission’s demands would imply, according to an analysis done by the Polityka Insight think tank, only cosmetic changes to three laws. According to critics, these laws are undermining the independence of the courts, and giving too much power to the minister of justice, who is at the same time acting as prosecutor general.


The leader of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, will not have to retreat because the European Commission does not have a strong stick against Poland. The EU’s budget proposal for 2021-2027, as reported by The Financial Times, puts in place new conditions for member states to get financial aid for their poorest regions. Among other things, the issue of the rule of law and assistance to migrants will factor into the acquisition of further funding. The conservatives’ development plans, however, are already counting on a lower amount of EU funds after 2020.


The European Commission needs to close the long-running case against Poland, which could, at worst, lead to stripping the country of its voting rights in the European Council. But there is a need for a unanimous vote to do so, and Warsaw has already secured the support of Hungary and the Baltic states, so this stick is also too short.


The Polish case and the third consecutive victory of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in April (and the tolerance for Orban's practices among the center-right European Parliamentary group) lead to an inevitable conclusion. There is a new model of governance spreading among EU member states, which is turning into a new norm. It is a soft kind of illiberalism that tolerates a divided (and thus weak) opposition, and gradually restricts the freedom of the media. At the same time people tend to vote for leaders with authoritarian tendencies because the economy is doing well, and public money is very generously redistributed.


Supporters and critics of the Polish conservative government with whom I spoke recently in Warsaw agree: the only danger for the Polish regime (and the Hungarian one as well) would only come from very serious economic troubles. “The average Pole does not care about the independence of the courts. He counts the money in his pocket and thinks about job security,” said one of them. This is a man who frequently commutes between the political and media bubble of the capital, where he works, and his hometown in eastern Poland, a PiS stronghold.


PiS recently witnessed deep dips in the high support that it has enjoyed since its electoral victory in 2015, and which nowadays runs at around 40 percent. The most serious decline came after the media made public that the government had paid high bonuses to ministers and their deputies. Kaczynski immediately ordered the money to be donated to charity, and proposed salary cuts of 20 percent for members of local and national parliaments, as well as mayors.  


Another developing crisis revolves around the demands from families of handicapped children for an increase in their state-funded financial support. Some of them have been camping out in front of parliament, while the government claims it has no funds for such an increase.


So these (minor) scandals led to support for PiS wobbling again – ahead of local elections in the autumn, and European Parliament and parliamentary ones next year.


But all that will happen with the Polish economy (and those in the rest of the Visegrad countries) likely booming: there is a shortage of labor, salaries go up, and most people do not have to worry about job insecurity. No game changer – a major economic crisis – seems on the horizon.


Illiberal tendencies are visible, alive, and kicking in Central Europe, and it won’t be the fractured opposition, the European Commission, or a dedication to EU values that will decide their fate in this troubled part of the European Union.


That is a sad story almost three decades after the fall of communism.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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