While the European Union is struggling to recover from Brexit, trouble now seems to be coming from the East. Last October, the Polish government prompted an intense diplomatic controversy by legally questioning the primacy of European norms over national legislation. While this episode has stirred up much debate, it is only the most recent example of Polish defiance to Brussels’ power. A number of European officials have even started to seriously reconsider Poland’s future as a member of the Union.

On October 7th 2021, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal legally challenged one of the core pillars of the Union : the primacy of European norms over national constitutions. . The ruling notably objected to the European Court of Justice’s prerogative to overrule all national legal norms  and the statutory protection of minority rights. This decision mirrors the recent developments within the Polish judicial system under the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). The PiS has indeed engaged in what many consider an illegal scheme to gradually replace impartial judges with party sympathizers, in order to push their conservative agenda in courts.  After failing to take control of the Supreme Court by lowering justices’ retirement age, the PiS has taken over the National Council of the Judiciary,  the body in charge of appointing lower-level judges. By doing so, the PiS could eventually ensure the removal of political opponents or the extension of key political mandates. Although the Polish government has come under intense criticism in Brussels, Warsaw has shown no sign of backing down. The EU therefore faces an unprecedented deadlock which prompted its members to threaten Poland with serious financial, judicial and even diplomatic sanctions. This episode comes  however, as no surprise to the many observers that had warned against the rapid development  of eurosceptic sentiments, notably in Poland and Hungary. 

In these two member countries, eurosceptic populist leaders have gained popularity by campaigning on the preservation of national identity and the denunciation of European ruling ‘elites’. These arguments, which can be found in populist rhetoric across the world, have largely echoed among the historically poor and rural populations in the East. By successfully catalyzing their anxieties, the Law and Justice party has secured a majority in Parliament and subsequently advanced its deeply conservative agenda. Furthermore, their recent transformation of the judicial branch into a politicized entity has allowed the PiS to pursue a crusade to ban safe abortion and marginalize the LGTBQ community. Not only does this go against fundamental human rights, it questions the very alignment of Polish politics with the legal and democratic principles of the European Union. A similar scheme is unfolding in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s government has repeatedly attacked minority rights and democratic mechanisms. Despite repeated warnings from Brussels, Poland and Hungary have persisted in their disregard of  EU norms. European lawmakers are therefore confronted with the arduous  task of adopting appropriate sanctions to punish such blatant violations of the Union’s democratic and legal principles. 

After extensive discussions, European Union member states have agreed on the implementation of strict economic sanctions that withholds Poland and Hungary’s access to Covid recovery funds. The delayed distribution of this $41 billion EU subsidy, which represents nearly 7% of Polish annual governmental income, is hoped to constitute a powerful enough warning to curb Eastern Europe’s populist aspirations. Although this unexpected reduction of national budget could become an obstacle to the PiS’ reelection, the party has also seized this opportunity to further denounce Brussels’ ‘blackmailing’ and interference in Polish affairs. European Union members therefore found themselves confronted with a dilemma : should they leave Polish voters to determine their national agenda at the risk of endangering the Union or should they take further steps to ensure the respect of EU principles? Some political observers have recently brought up the possibility of stripping dissident countries, like Poland, of their parliamentary voting rights – a measure that seems both risky and unfeasible considering the unanimity requirement. By protecting one another, Poland and Hungary have indeed rendered this avenue impossible to pursue and hence limited the possibility for sanctions. Given the risk of aggravating eurosceptic sentiment and dividing the Union, European leaders have preferred to save it as a measure of last resort. 

With populist leaders endorsing more extreme positions at every election, European lawmakers are left with the difficult task of ensuring the preservation of the EU’s founding principles. Despite the political and bureaucratic limits to Brussels’ power, the recent adoption of economic sanctions against Poland and Hungary constitutes an unprecedented warning to Eastern European populist leaders. By justifying the condemnation of European institutions, this motion could however potentially encourage the spread of euroscepticism in Eastern Europe and beyond. Still, the rapid progression of anti-European sentiments across the Union should urge Brussels to establish efficient mechanisms to deal with attacks against the rule of law. As Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo explained “If you want to have the advantages of being in a club … then you need to respect the rules”. At the risk of creating further divide, Brussels perceives its duty to be the safeguard of the Union’s integrity against these attacks. Still, if the EU wants to avoid a potentially disastrous ‘Polexit’, it needs to recognize and address the causes behind the rise of euroscepticism in Poland and beyond.