Since its conception, the European Union’s ability to have its laws take precedence over those of its member states has been questioned, but never overturned. There have been multiple altercations between countries and the Union, ranging from problems solved with large fines to Britain leaving the Union. However, recently there has been another country who has been testing just how far they can stretch outside of the legal boundaries set forth in the treaty they signed upon entering the European Union.
Poland entered the European Union as a member state in 2004, but as of late the relationship between the two has become questionable. Recently, Poland was hit with the largest fine ever given from the Union to a member state – €1 million daily until the country complies with the order of getting rid of independent judges who were elected controversially.
Many member states have clashed with the European Union, and even gone against parts of the treaty they each signed, yet this time it has been taken to another level. The fines imposed show that the Union is fed up with Poland and the Polish government’s blatant imposition against the laws that should take precedence over their national laws. This is not the beginning of the issues between the two, however. Poland has a troubled history of angering the Union.
“Worldwide, people are watching to see what truly can be done if a member country decides not to follow the rules of an EU treaty.”
In 2019, the European Commission was already clashing with Poland over controversial laws concerning their judicial appointments. Since coming into power in 2015, the government party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), or Law and Justice, has been passing laws and rulings concerning the Polish constitution’s supremacy over the laws of the European Union. All of these rulings and claims from the Polish government have gone against the treaty that was signed when Poland entered the Union as a member state. By claiming that the election of independent judges, ones whose rulings may not consider EU law over the Polish constitution, Poland has been put in a tough position as an opponent to the Union.
Poland has been on thin ice in its position with the European Commission even before this ruling. This past year has been a large one for fines imposed by the European Commission. Earlier this year, Poland was fined by the EU for refusing to close the Turów mine after the EU court ruled that it must be closed for environmental reasons. These fines were also very large, around €500,000 per day, and they followed Poland’s decision to defy the Union’s ruling. Both this fine and the more recent fine have not been paid yet by the Polish government.
“Cumulatively, all of Poland’s decisions to not follow the primacy of EU law has put the Union itself at risk.”
The fines that have been imposed are not the only issue currently facing Poland due to its decision to defy the Union. Due to the decision to ignore the fines on the grounds that Poland believes they should not have to pay them, the Union can withhold funds from Poland, as they have with other countries including Hungary for refusing to pay fines. The ability for the European Union to withhold funds from countries that break European laws came from a ruling in 2020, when the European Parliament decided that the refusal for member states to pay fines would compromise European Union finances. The European Commission has decided to withhold approximately €42 billion in funds that were meant for Covid relief. This substantial amount of money not being given, as well as the fines being placed daily on the Polish government, could have very serious consequences in the long run for Poland if they comply with the decision to pay.
Cumulatively, all of Poland’s decisions to not follow the primacy of EU law has put the Union itself at risk- worldwide, people are watching to see what truly can be done if a member country decides not to follow the rules of an EU treaty. Even when looking back at previous European countries’ transgressions, including the exit of Britain from the European Union, Poland’s is possibly the biggest one when looking at the way in which it tests the whole system of an international union and the unbreakable laws of a treaty without serious consequence.
“‘Polexit’ could mean major repercussions for all Polish citizens, both those in Poland and those making a living in other European countries.”
According to the treaty that was signed by Poland, the European Union technically cannot kick a member state out, but they can impose the penalties as they have been, and there is no telling what will happen in the future if these penalties fail to reign the Polish government in.. Poland’s decision to publish a ruling going directly against the treaty is a threat to the European Union’s power, and the decision for individual politicians to uphold this decision and go against the Union for the sake of nationalism has only worked to solidify the concerns of many.
Protests have filled the streets of major cities in Poland, as citizens fear the leaving, or even possibly the removal of Poland from the European Union. “Polexit” could mean major repercussions for all Polish citizens, both those in Poland and those making a living in other European countries. In Ireland alone, there are (according to a 2016 census) around 120,000 Polish citizens living with the ability to claim residence and work through the European Union.
All of these citizens are now fearful, seeing that one country has left the European Union, that their country may be next. If Poland refuses to leave the Union, but also refuses to follow the primacy of European Union law, this could possibly turn into a political crisis and the possibility of Poland being pushed out becomes even more real.
Very recently, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, came forward with a compromise for Poland that was reached in an effort to end the dispute. Poland would receive a small initial amount of the funding that has been withheld from them if they agree to comply with the original ruling of the EU’ top court and dismantle their current judicial system, redefining it in a way that would also reinstate certain judges that were wrongfully fired.
This has been in discussion, and it seems that Poland agrees with some of this proposal, yet there are still doubts and the process would require the ability for the judges in Poland’s courts to be held accountable, and this is something that many believe Poland’s ruling political party PiS would not allow.