Poland: a new leader into the breach

General fear that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are rupturing the EU’s liberal order

Poland's government is being reshuffled in a mid-term exercise designed to renew its energy and direct it more to the international difficulties encountered by its right-wing ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). Mateusz Morawiecki will be prime minister in a swap with the outgoing premier Beata Szydlo – and other changes are to come. Morawiecki has been an effective finance minister, presiding over a strong economy, and is expected to have a surer touch in dealing with EU objections to judicial changes and refugee policies pursued by his government.

The Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 on a programme of traditional and family values linked to a strong concern with unemployment and welfare of rural voters. They are a powerful constituency and believe they have been under-represented or disregarded by the country’s more liberal elites. Economic growth running at four per cent and reduced unemployment have given the government a 45 per cent approval rating. That record has been boosted by a new monthly allowance of €119 per child for families.

Such economic buoyancy has given the party more confidence to drive through a wider political agenda directed against judicial structures erected in the decades following the overthrow of communist rule. Poland’s international legitimacy and EU membership are underwritten by their separation of powers and the rule of law. That is disputed by the ruling party, which says the legal system is loaded against their values and supporters. The latest changes passed through parliament will force 40 per cent of the supreme court to retire early and presumably be replaced by more sympathetic judges. One reason for the government shuffle now may be to deflect attention from these changes.

Poland has also refused to take any Syrian or other refugees from the EU's quota programme. Along with Hungary and the Czech Republic it is being sued by the European Commission at the European Court of Justice. The issue raises a more general fear that these states are breaching the EU's liberal order and challenging what they see as a Brussels-imposed multicultural order that has supposedly failed in western Europe. This populist trope is indeed a challenge to the EU's values, paradoxically made more acute by Poland's own recent record of emigration. It raises the question of whether legal sanctions will be the only response, or whether Poland's relatively generous receipt of EU structural funds will be brought into play as well.

Morawiecki will have to confront these pressures in the next two years, which will see Poles voting in local, general and presidential elections. His background as an international banker, his multilingual skills and closeness to Law and Justice's real but behind-the-scenes leader, Jaroslav Kaczynski, will help him navigate them.