Poland’s elections alter the balance of power in the EU

Poland will regain influence in EU affairs but the future government will not be an easy partner and face fierce opposition from PiS when reforming the rule of law.

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According to the latest results published on 17 October, Poland’s ruling PiS party achieved the most votes in Sunday’s election with 35.58 per cent – but is not in a position to form a majority coalition.

Opposition leader Donald Tusk is expected to become Poland’s next prime minister, heading a coalition with his centre-right party PO, the centrist coalition Third Way and the New Left, securing a total of 53.52 per cent of the vote. The extreme-right party, which could potentially have supported PiS, gained only around 6 per cent.

A win for democracy

The elections are most of all a win for representative democracy. The general elections to renew the lower (Sejm) and upper (Senate) chambers of the Polish Parliament enjoyed a near 74.25 per cent turnout of the 29 million registered voters, the highest since the first free elections in the country in 1989 (62.7 per cent turnout) and above the 61.7 per cent in 2019.

This record turnout confirms the democratic legitimacy of the future majority. It was due in large part to the significant participation of female and young voters, which mainly benefited opposition parties – whose call to boycott a simultaneous referendum has obviously been followed.

The referendum – criticized as a method by which the PiS could raise additional election campaign funds – did not reach the minimum 50 per cent participation threshold to validate the result, with only 40 per cent taking part.   

The opposition’s victory is also remarkable considering the conditions under which it took place. The joint observatory mission of OSCE and the Council of Europe stated that ‘The overlap between the ruling party’s campaign messages and government information campaigns as well as state-controlled companies and their foundations, including on the referendum, gave a further significant advantage to the ruling party’, describing ‘a highly polarised atmosphere’.

Not an easy ride

After eight years of PiS rule, It will be up to the new coalition to try and depolarize the country, which election results show has a pronounced East-West voting division.

It takes a three-fifths majority in Parliament to overcome a presidential veto, thus it is far from certain that a new coalition will have its way before the next presidential election.

The government will enjoy a steady majority of 18 seats to carry out its reforms over the next four years, but it will not have an easy ride. Its decisions could be challenged by Polish president, Andrzej Duda, a PiS supporter who will remain in power until 2025.

It takes a three-fifths majority in Parliament to overcome a presidential veto, thus it is far from certain that a new colaition will have its way before the next presidential election.

The future government could not take power for as much as two months. The coalition will face a politicized constitutional court, and the PiS promises to be a hawkish opponent. With the largest vote share by party and control of the central bank and television, it could yet use all possible means to delay attempts to begin the process of reform.

Reform and EU funds

Democratic reform is essential to Poland’s future in the EU. In 2017 under PiS rule, the European Commission triggered article 7 of the European treaty, which could end up suspending voting rights from Poland for its government’s assault on the judiciary. This was the first occasion that article 7 had been used.

Since last year Poland has been prevented from receiving over 30 billion euros from the EU as a consequence of a newly set conditionality mechanism regarding the rule of law.

Four infringement procedures related to judiciary reform have since been undertaken by Brussels, as well as other infringement procedures against other issues. Since last year Poland has been prevented from receiving over 30 billion euros from the EU as a consequence of a newly set conditionality mechanism regarding the rule of law.

The new government will pledge reform in an effort to unfreeze these funds and repair relations. The European Commission is hopeful it will do so but declared it will be waiting for democratic reforms to be effective, which could take time because of fierce PiS opposition.

An immediate change in balance of power

Yet, regardless of these long procedures, the Polish elections should immediately affect the political balance of power in the EU.

The war in Ukraine has already given Poland a new strategic role in the bloc. A new government that enjoys better relations with the EU can be expected to build on this position to play a much more constructive role in EU affairs.

Donald Tusk, Poland’s new prime minister, will offer a sharp contrast with outgoing Mateusz Morawiecki, a very harsh Brussels-critic.

Tusk has all the connections required to reset Poland’s influence in the EU

As a former President of the European Council and recent president of the most prominent European political party (EPP, centre-right), Tusk has all the connections required to reset Poland’s influence in the EU. He can rely on the backing of Poles, who remain among the most Europhile populations of the bloc, according to Eurobarometer polls.

One of Tusk’s first priorities will be to smooth the relationship with Germany, which has been much damaged by PiS. Meanwhile cooperation among the four Central European governments (V4), which had already weakened, shall not be privileged. Orban in Hungary and Fico in Slovakia are at odds with the new coalition in Warsaw. 

Inside the EU, a stalled Franco-German engine may seek a new push to European cooperation, working with Tusk’s government through the so-called Weimar Triangle format.

EU expansion

But a pro-EU Poland will not be an easy partner. The Atlanticist-minded new coalition remains sceptical of EU strategic autonomy and has clear positions on enlargement, where it will give priority to Ukraine over the Western Balkan states, which are considered too weak and, in the case of Serbia, too pro-Russian.

Article 2nd half

Poland will be open to EU institutional reforms needed for the Union to enlarge, but it will not easily back ending unanimity voting, fearing qualified majority voting would weaken its position until Ukraine weighs in.

Securing Poland’s influence in an enlarged EU could be part of a trade-off if Warsaw had to accept less EU funding in the future because of enlargement.

Poland’s new influence will be tested in the first democratic poll that the future Polish government will face: the European elections in June next year.

Poland has 53 seats allocated. The present results of the Polish elections may signal a stronger EPP in the European Parliament, with an influential Polish delegation of MEPs. The stake for PiS, which sides with Meloni’s Fratelli d’IItalia in the growing ECR group, will be to prove how much it still counts in Polish politics.