An adverse reaction the Kremlin did not see coming
Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 31 May 2022
The strategic implications of Putin’s war against Ukraine keep evolving as the conflict enters its fourth month. As yet another unintended consequence, it has broken the anti-EU axis between Warsaw and Budapest.
For years, the governments of Poland and Hungary were at loggerheads with the EU Commission, and both for similar reasons. With changes to their countries’ liberal-democratic institutions, their right-wing populist governments continuously challenged the European Union.
This challenge is now subsiding, at least for Poland. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government keeps drifting further away from the EU because of its pro-Putin stance.
Last week, the Polish government finally reversed a major plank of its so-called justice reform: Poland’s parliament, the Seym, voted to abolish the disciplinary chamber at the Supreme Court.
That disciplinary chamber, established in 2017, had the extraordinary power to suspend judges and prosecutors, reduce their salaries, waive their immunity, and dismiss them at any time. It opened the door to political manipulation of the judiciary.
It was such an outrageous violation of basic political and legal principles that the EU Commission withheld billions in aid to Warsaw because of the long-running dispute it caused. In late October 2021, the European Court of Justice, having previously ordered Warsaw to dissolve the chamber, issued an additional penalty of one million euros for each day the disciplinary chamber kept operating.
The conflict over Poland’s justice reforms had simmered for many years, and this column addressed it at the time of the last Polish elections in 2019. So why is it coming to an end now?
The answer lies in what is happening across Poland’s eastern border.
After years of clashes with the European Commission in Brussels, the Polish government has realised that it needs Europe and the Commission as an ally, not a foe.
Poland has accepted more Ukrainian refugees than any country. Of the 6.6 million people who have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the war, Poland has received more than 3.5 million – nearly 10 percent of Poland’s population.
More than other nations, the Poles have always been alert to security threats posed by Russia. Last year, the Kremlin’s provocative use of trafficked refugees to enter the Baltic states and Poland through Belarus, foreshadowed the current refugee crisis (Cynically exploiting EU’s divisions, 16 November 2021, and Dictator’s cynical game, 10 August 2021). But the attack on Ukraine made it brutally clear what an existential threat the Putin regime poses to its neighbours.
That Poland is finally giving in to Brussels over the controversial justice reforms makes sense against this background. Poland needs both the EU’s money to deal with Ukrainian refugees and the West’s backing for its security. It cannot afford to lose either over the politicisation of its judiciary.
While Poland is reconnecting with the EU, its erstwhile ally in its conflicts with the Commission is doubling down.
Having won recent elections, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán is continuing the transformation of his country into something one might call an illiberal semi-democracy. It is another long story which evolved over many years and which this column has also previously covered (Changing the character of the EU, 27 July 2020).
In the early stages of the Covid pandemic, Orbán had already granted himself emergency powers – which, he promised, would be temporary. He has just done the same again – this time claiming that the war in Ukraine required them.
In truth, Orbán hardly needs any more power: he controls a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, allowing him to govern at will. Seizing extra executive powers may be intended simply to demonstrate that he can.
Over the years, Orbán has developed a close relationship with Putin. Even in the face of the Ukraine war, that relationship still seems to hold, with as Hungary effectively sabotaging the EU’s response.
Hungary has not supplied any weapons to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, nor has it permitted the transit of lethal weapons through its territory.
Similarly, Hungary has showed itself unwilling to reduce its energy imports from Russia. Not only that, it is now also blocking the EU’s attempts to introduce an EU-wide ban on Russian oil imports.
The EU Commission has been trying to find a compromise with the Hungarian government on the oil ban ahead of an EU summit this week. That compromise could include allowing Hungary an extended transition period, or paying it compensation for moving towards other suppliers.
There will almost certainly be some sort of an agreement in the end – there always is. But more interestingly, this will be the first time Hungary will be virtually isolated in Europe.
Formerly, Poland and Slovenia would have sided with Hungary. Now, Poland is busy making up with Brussels, and Slovenia has recently ousted its anti-EU populist prime minister Janez Janša in favour of the pro-EU Robert Golob.
All of this should strengthen and unite the EU. With the EU currently evaluating its role in security alongside NATO, such unity is timely.
Like pushing Sweden and Finland towards NATO, the rearmament of the German military, and cuts to European imports of Russian energy, the breaking of the anti-EU axis between Warsaw and Budapest is another adverse reaction the Kremlin probably did not see coming.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is backfiring for Russia on every front. For now, it has given the EU an advantage. How Brussels will use it may be a different matter.