From the 2009 Eurozone crisis to the 2015 migrant crisis, the European Union (EU) has faced repeated challenges to its stability. Alongside a new migrant dispute with Belarus and a looming energy crisis, an ongoing fight with Poland’s overrule of law has created the most existential threat yet to the EU. If the EU wishes to stay intact, policymakers must find a solution regarding Poland while also addressing the growing threat of right-wing populism and the erosion of liberal-democratic norms in its member states.
On Oct. 7, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that Polish law could take precedence over EU law, thereby undermining the primacy of European law and one of the foundational pillars of the body. The court found Articles 1, 2, and 19 of the founding Treaty on the European Union partially unconstitutional. This, along with ongoing disputes over the Polish Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber, lack of abortion access, and LGBT rights, has called into question Poland’s membership in the EU.
However, there appears to be no threat of Poland leaving the 27-member bloc anytime soon. Poland has one of the highest support ratings in favor of the EU, with 90 percent of Poles wishing to remain within the EU. Additionally, the country is also one of the biggest recipients of European funding and investment. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said, “We should not be spreading lies about Polish Polexit,” while speaking to the European Parliament.
In response to the degrading rule of law in Poland, the EU has undertaken several measures against the state. The European Court of Justice has begun to fine Poland one million Euros every day starting on October 27 if it does not comply with requests to suspend its Disciplinary Chamber. The European Commission has also so far denied Poland any chunk of the 57 million Euros in the body’s COVID relief fund.
Some European lawmakers have even suggested further retaliation against Poland, such as insisting that the country should not be allowed to collect EU subsidies. However, notable figures such as former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel have cautioned against such harsh measures, stating, “We have to find ways of coming back together.”
The problem facing the EU is much larger than Poland. Unless the EU addresses core issues such as migration, trade, and the union’s democratic deficit, the trend of authoritarianism and illiberalism will only grow larger.
The election of other far-right figures, such as French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, could pose an even greater challenge to European unity. Despite Le Pen’s defeat and managing to secure only 33.9 percent of the votes in the 2017 French presidential election, polls suggest that the gap between President Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen has begun to narrow. Additionally, out of the expected frontrunners in the next French election, all four candidates range from center-right to far-right, suggesting an overall shift rightwards among the electorate and a failure of the French left to present a more compelling alternative.
Countries like Poland and Hungary are enough to mount a significant challenge to European governance. European lawmakers would need to determine the consequences of far-right figures rising to power. On the agenda for Europe’s far-right are several critical changes to how the EU is structured and operates.
The 2019 party platform for Le Pen’s National Rally party is a mass tightening of the EU’s borders as well as the restoration of national border controls. This would entail the end of the Schengen area as it currently exists and make it more difficult for both residents and migrants in the EU to travel to different member states. There would also be an overhaul of the asylum system and mass deportation of illegal immigrants from France and other EU states.
Furthermore, National Rally wishes to see France and other EU member states adopt more protectionist trade policies. This contrasts with the globalized free-market structure of the EU, which has adopted more free trade measures with nations such as the United States and Japan. For France, Le Pen has emphasized protecting French agriculture and farmers, which she sees as threatened by European free trade policy.
Falling in line with far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, Le Pen’s platform also wishes to see the EU normalize relations with Russia, another illiberal state. The platform recommends easing sanctions and embargos on Russia and ending the ‘cold war waged by European institutions,’ saying it harms both Russian and European economies. This attitude could normalize the transgression of international law and set a dangerous precedent.
Le Pen’s 2019 platform further emphasizes the idea of a “Europe of Nations,” attacking the EU for being undemocratic and too technocratic — it also calls for the abolishment of the European Commission and granting the legislative powers to the European Council. Additionally, it argues for a restructuring of the EU Parliament to give the power of cooperation to individual member states. Instead of a federal Europe, the European far-right wishes to restructure the body to resemble other decentralized intergovernmental organizations such as the African Union.
The example set by Le Pen’s growing acceptance of undemocratic practices hints at a growing threat of illiberalism in Europe — in response, the EU must begin exploring more overarching solutions. While punishing one of its member states financially may show minor results in the short term, it does not address or contain the spread of far-right populism in the Union.
One solution for the EU is strengthening its institutions and promoting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to preserving democracy and the rule of law. Far-right figures such as Victor Orban view NGOs as threats to consolidating power — Orban’s Fidesz party forces NGOs to declare their foreign-funded status and allows the interior minister to ban organizations deemed to pose a ‘national security risk.’ With funding restrictions, it will become increasingly difficult for NGOs, such as the Open Society Foundations, to hold the Hungarian government accountable.
Another solution is to address the core issues driving voters to support candidates like Le Pen and Orban. The migration crisis has been a rallying point for the European far-right for the past decade, and it seems that the EU has finally begun to cave to their demands. The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian borders shows that the EU has grown tired of its previous open-border policies.
However, closing borders is not a permanent solution. Instead, the EU must impose a legal obligation on each state to host refugees. This would alleviate the burden on each member state’s resources to house refugees and manage refugee flow. While unpopular in the short term, enacting this policy would release pressure on the whole EU over the long run.
Furthermore, restricting trade is not a viable solution—free trade has added enormous benefits to the EU economy, with up to 36 million jobs depending on exports outside the EU. Additionally, the EU’s free trade policy ensures that imported goods follow common quality regulations. It is true, however, that the current free trade policies have negatively impacted the energy and agriculture sectors. Instead of restricting trade, steps should be taken to support workers in vulnerable industries by introducing various policies, such as wage insurance, wage subsidies, and creating well-designed trade adjustment assistance programs to ease transitions for workers and make assistance more flexible, accessible, and supportive.
The EU, in its current state, does not evince democratic values. Out of fear of losing sovereignty, EU member states retain the primary decision-making organ in the European Commission. These unelected figures are responsible for proposing EU legislation and enforcing European laws. As such, steps should be taken to steadily reduce the power of the Commission and instead grant those executive responsibilities to the European Parliament.
The EU is at a critical junction in its current and future development. It must soon decide whether it will cement its institutions and take steps to federalize or decentralize and remain a monetary union rather than a political union. Currently, the European Union lacks the required united effort to adequately respond to the significant challenges of the decade.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sebastian Kopec is a recent graduate of Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations with concentrations in Russian, Eastern European Studies, and History. Sebastian was a research assistant with the Diplomacy Lab at the School of Diplomacy and previously interned with the U.S. State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions.