Irrespective of whether someone voted in favor of or against Brexit, there is growing discontent with how Brussels is running the European Union’s current affairs and this public sentiment is increasingly spreading beyond the British electorate. Could Poland throw in the next wild card to become "EU exit" country No. 2 sooner than expected?
There are many questions for today’s opinion page contribution. In a nutshell: Can the EU as we know it survive the next decade as a club of 27 or asked alternatively: Would Turkey be accepted as a full member state in the coming years? Could today’s EU perhaps be saved?
Of course, it does. One of the drawbacks of joining the European Union or its predecessor, the European Communities, was to swallow the bitter pill of accepting that the body of European law is now your guiding principle and if ever a conflict arises, EU law would supersede national law. National laws would not discontinue; they are simply aligned with what is commonly referred to as the Acquis Communautaire.
Let me give you a few examples to illustrate the linked ease as well as the inherent complications. Think mandatory school leaving age. While it is assumed that 16 is standard for when a young person can legally end education and start an apprenticeship or learn a profession (in some countries paired with a further two years of biweekly vocational school education) if an EU member state decides that this age should be 15 or 17, no European institution would take that EU government to court. Reason: technically speaking Brussels has no final jurisdiction over educational matters.
Now consider access to the job market. By definition, EU nationals are free to go job-hunting in another EU country and even stay there legally without a job or enrollment at a university. Should an EU member state announce that the country’s jobs are exclusively reserved for the nationals of that very country it is violating the EU law. Exception: public (government) service positions and a rather limited list of other professions that necessitate expert knowledge of the host nation's operations and language.
The latter issue became a focal point for Brexiteers who argued that EU citizens "steal" the employment opportunities of British job-seekers.
In the current case of Poland, we are approaching a different level altogether. There is no particular topic that angers the Polish government and apparently many Polish voters. At the heart of the matter is a vote by Poland’s Constitutional Court dated Oct. 7, 2021, saying parts of EU law are nonconstitutional when evaluated by Polish national law standards.
No small legal fry so to speak – what Warsaw is claiming is that Polish national law supersedes EU law, at least to a certain extent. This is contradictory to the Polish membership in the EU and the accession document the government signed in the past.
Shrugging it all off would be the worst reaction Brussels could show. Actually, the alarm bells are ringing ever more loudly, including when compared with the fateful year of 2016 and former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s EU referendum.
Somehow Britain was always different from other EU members, was always somehow distant or shall we say, distanced from an ever-closer political union. Brexit was a matter of when, not if.
But the threat to the federalist’s dream of enlarging the EU eastward, and toward the southeast including the Balkans is taken extremely seriously. A country on the bloc's eastern flanks considering dropping out or at least making a lot of internal trouble that could lead other disgruntled member states to turn into "exit" copycats is what really worries Brussels’ elites and a fair number of European capitals.
Warsaw's move to reform its judiciary and judicial system was seen as an infringement of EU legal norms by Brussels. This is how the present heated exchange of opinions erupted between the two sides. But it would be short-sighted to argue that there are no other underlying issues.
Poland has a conservative, in part very nationalistic government. It seems as if its supporters in the population agree with the criticism expressed against Brussels. Hence, we must be careful not to confuse what are perhaps justified legal considerations and how to find a solution between Warsaw and Brussels, with sheer right-wing populist sentiments cashing in on that debate.
Because the real threat to the EU of (still) 27 are not discussions among legal teams, the danger zone starts when right-wing populists who in any case want to restore national sovereignty and lift the mental drawbridges recreating a one race, one nation scenario get the upper political hand.
Would the Polish government really prefer to go its own way? I am not so sure. Does it have to give in so easily to a far-right voter clientele? Certainly not if it shows character and explains the benefits of living in a community in which the rule of law is paramount to somewhat skeptical or perhaps ill-informed voters. What’s more, is the Polish economy strong enough to lead an independent Poland to success in all markets, including financial?
There are three possibilities. First, "Polexit" really happens. In this case, it is highly likely that even hard-core federalists would take a step back and reevaluate the enlargement situation. Instead of inviting new member states to somehow replace Poland, it is assumed no new member states would be allowed in at least the mid-term perspective. This unfortunately includes Turkey.
Second, Polexit is avoided. Somehow Warsaw accepts the fact that receiving vast amounts of EU funds is a sort of trade-off with regards to tolerating EU law superseding national law except in very rare and clearly defined exceptions. Would the EU automatically open the door to Ankara? Unfortunately, the answer is "no" once again. Brussels would continue and play the wait-and-see game to find out if there are any other internal troublemakers before it enlarges further.
Yet third, Turkey cleverly plays its own cards, so to speak, and tells Brussels, look, regardless of scenario A or B you need us. In this case, a strong, influential, geopolitically advantageous nation joins after another country just left. The void and so much more are filled in an instant. It would be highly likely that Poland will then reconsider its opt-out and join again if readmitted!
In the latter case, Turkey will be an equal game-changer. With such a successful diplomatic service at its hands and all other benefits that modern Turkey, soon celebrating its centenary in 2023, brings with it other countries would think twice before considering their "exits." Why leave when a success story like Turkey has just decided to join.
There is a new momentum in where the EU is headed. The previously unthinkable (Brexit et al.) became reality. It would thus be advisable and very welcome should Brussels finally take Turkey at face value and seal off a full membership. Turkey was and is ready – what about the EU?