Brussels v Poland: How not to do diplomacy

There's a right old spat in progress between the EU and Poland, with the Polish Justice Minister flinging Nazi analogies at Brussels. The Eurocrats have gone ballistic, but their rantings against Poland's government were bound to provoke a reaction

Warsaw: the newest old city in Europe
Charles Crawford
On 13 January 2016 10:00

To those not working in it, diplomacy may seem arcane, mysterious, cunning. In fact its two core precepts are simple: (i) keep a sense of proportion; and (ii), less is more.

Take the latest bizarre public spatterings between Poland and EU HQ.

Poland’s voters last year gave the quixotic Right-Left-étatist Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński a (by any normal European standards) resounding victory and a mandate for change.

PiS have lost no time in bringing in controversial new laws: making it harder for the Constitutional Court to block government legislation; and setting in motion a major clean-out of people from state media outlets.

PiS’ broad aim here is to reverse what they see as illegitimate moves by their liberal-conservative Citizens Platform predecessors in government to rig Poland’s political and legal establishment permanently in their favour.

A typical Polish furore has ensued. The liberal-minded part of the media establishment and the now opposition are noisily denouncing PiS. And PiS are cheerfully taking the hullaballoo as a sign that their medicine is working.

Let’s assume that an impeccably fair-minded neutral Martian is asked to weigh the substantive merits of the case. Our Martian arbitrator carefully listens to all sorts of Polish experts from every possible side, and looks closely at wider European practice in these areas to get a sense of the context.

The Martian finally passes judgement:

· those opposing these PiS moves have the balance of the argument

· PiS had good reasons to have been unhappy with what they inherited,

· but some of the specific changes they’ve made to correct that situation do represent rather a retreat from best modern Earth practice

· PiS perhaps ought to have another think

Alas, these days Mars is staying well clear of Earth’s idiotic squabbles. So both Polish and non-Polish Earthlings themselves try to make sense of it all.

The job of the political/media opposition to PiS is simple: having been thrashed in the 2015 election they need to claw their way slowly back to credibility. In the short term as they fight among themselves and lick their wounds, they can offer nothing positive by way of better policies, so instead they lash out at the victors [Note: see also UK Labour Party – Ed]: PiS is a mad daemon from a primeval Catholic-nationalist swamp, wrecking at a stroke Poland’s democracy and its international reputation!

In turn, the job of PiS leaders is sternly to remind voters that the abuses committed by the former government were a good reason for voting for a complete change, and that change is what they’re getting. No surprise that all those Citizen Platform eggs are wailing against yummy new PiS omelettes!

What of senior EU officials? What is their job, if any, in pronouncing about all this? This is where diplomacy comes in. Or should come in.

First and foremost, the EU top brass need to recall that each EU member state is complicated. There are all sorts of tried and proven ways of achieving modern democratic constitutional ‘balance’. For example, after these changes the Polish Constitutional Court, as before, can strike down new Polish laws as unconstitutional.

In the UK the Supreme Court has no such power, as we craftily don’t have any constitution.

Is the rule of law in Poland under PiS ‘better’ than the UK in this important respect? Hmm. Let’s be careful about weighing in here -- best keep a sense of proportion!

Likewise, every EU member state has its own rules and traditions for public service broadcasting, and on foreign ownership of private media outlets. How political balance is maintained is highly contentious. Best not to rush to pronounce on what PiS are now doing without looking closely at the likely new balance of media freedoms in Poland and at how it looks against what’s happening elsewhere in the EU? Less is more!

In short, even if the Martian is correct and Poland has stepped ‘back’ a notch or two, how does the new situation in Poland substantively compare to what everyone else is doing? Are we talking about drastic, dangerous reversals, or mishandled ‘European’ fine-tuning, or something messy in the middle? And in any case how wisely to proceed?

We don’t know what, if anything, has been done by way of quiet private communication between EU top brass and the PiS government. We do know that well publicised letters expressing the EU Commission’s ‘concern’ have been sent to Polish Ministers, citing explicitly their authority under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union to act on “a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law” in an EU member state.

This has prompted a thoroughly undiplomatic and also public response from Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who pushes back against any suggestion of the EU ‘monitoring’ Poland’s rule of law performance by using a different word that does not mean quite the same:

You [Oettinger] demanded that Poland be placed under ‘supervision’. Such words, spoken by a German politician, have the worst possible connotations for Poles. For me, too. I am the grandson of a Polish officer who, during World War II, fought in [Poland’s] underground Home Army against ‘German supervision’.

See also the droll cover of Poland’s Wprost news magazine with Angela Merkel and top EU/German political personalities in Nazi uniforms: Once again they want to supervise Poland

Horror! Top European Parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt resorts to Facebook:

For me, it's the Polish people who represent the future of Poland and they are doing just that by taking to the streets to protest against the damaging measures of this PiS government. This cover is outrageous, just like the comments of the Polish Justice minister…

Er … (coughs) … Mr Verhofstadt, insofar as they have expressed a recent considered collective view, the ‘Polish people’ not long ago gave PiS two resounding elections victories.

Our wise Martian has given me some informal thoughts on this absurd public bickering:

· Unlike President Duda and the PiS leadership in the Polish Sejm, few if any top EU officials have a direct democratic mandate

· Polish taxpayers contribute to EU tax-free salaries and plump allowances

· Hence self-restraint and respect are appropriate when senior EU Earthlings make comments about Poland, or any other EU member state

· If the EU wants to test its TEU Article 7 powers for monitoring or ‘supervising’ an EU member state over a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’, it might consider the failure of the German authorities and media alike over horrible attacks on women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne by migrants whose commitment to European rule of law standards is at best ambiguous.


The job of EU leaders in Brussels in cases like this is to calibrate their responses with extra subtlety and sensitivity. Anyone who knows anything at all about Poland and PiS understands that open, clumsy, foreign pressure on Warsaw from anyone with a German-sounding name will play straight into their political hands.

So much better to have a quiet private and above all respectful word with key PiS Ministers, and take it cautiously from there.

The depressed Polish opposition of course will be hooting for Brussels to 'do something' that favours their side. Let them hoot for the time being: the key Brussels task now with these new prickly PiS people is to patiently build good personal relations, so that any eventual interventions from Brussels are made and received in good faith.

Instead of such patient diplomacy we have seen spectacular, patronising, public Brussels bungling that has made everything worse. To the point where European Council president Donald Tusk (previously Poland’s Prime Minister and opponent of PiS) is now warning that ‘exaggerated opinions’ about Poland in Brussels might be ‘counter-productive’.

Really? Say it’s not so!

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. His website is He tweets @charlescrawford

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