Macron’s Travels in Lilliput
During a recent visit to Poland, French President Emmanuel Macron avoided the controversial topic of judicial independence and focused instead on economic and defense cooperation. By responding to this overture with open displays of contempt, Poland’s populist leaders have condemned their country to continued isolation and ridicule.
When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Poland on February 3-4, he touched only briefly on the topic of judicial independence, mentioning Poland’s dispute over that issue with the European Commission, but not with France. Macron, clearly, was attempting to thaw the Franco-Polish relationship and offer Poland a chance to end its isolation within the European Union.
Immediately following Macron’s visit, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a “muzzle” law that empowers the government to punish judges for acting independently. Duda then added insult to injury by hosting the president of North Macedonia, a country that has its own dispute with France following Macron’s decision to block its EU accession bid. Macron, who was still in the country delivering a lecture at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, must feel like he was taken for a ride.
This was merely the latest demonstration of the current Polish government’s contempt for Macron. Everyone knows that Macron is the European leader most committed to furthering EU integration. That is why he has been so critical of the main obstacles standing in the way of integration, not least Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. And yet his recent visit was meant to be a gesture of goodwill.
The PiS government has now made its own position abundantly clear. Of all the controversial legislation advanced by European populists in recent years, the new muzzle law is widely considered the most objectionable. Worse, it follows previous PiS attacks on the Polish supreme court, which has been expanded to include a new “Chamber of Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs,” a body packed with PiS cronies who are paid 40% more than other Supreme Court judges.
The European Court of Justice has questioned the legality and independence of bodies created by the PiS government, but has ruled that it is up to the Polish supreme court itself to determine the legality of both the new disciplinary chamber and the PiS-controlled National Council of the Judiciary. Similarly, the European Commission, the Venice Commission, and legal authorities within Poland and abroad have all disputed the claim that the PiS-controlled chambers can be considered independent. If these bodies and the judges within them are not legitimate, the 70,000 rulings they have handed down may be invalid. The Polish supreme court therefore has instructed the lower courts not to admit judges selected under the PiS’s new rules.
PiS has now responded by enacting the muzzle law, which allows the disciplinary chamber to overrule decisions by independent judges on the supreme court and in lower courts. Under the new law, the chamber can punish, arrest, or remove any judge whom it determines to be “undermining the functioning of the authorities of the Republic of Poland.” The law also allows the government to select the chairman of the supreme court, which effectively completes the PiS’s campaign to transform the judiciary into an instrument of its own rule. The courts will no longer be able to protect citizens, and citizens will no longer have recourse to the courts as an instrument of control over the government.
There are several possible reasons why Macron decided to visit Poland when the muzzle law was awaiting only the president’s signature and the PiS was on the war path with the EU. Chief among them is that, having limited his opportunities for cooperation with the United States and Germany, he has been looking for new diplomatic openings.
So far, Macron has found the warmest reception in Russia. But that does not rule out cooperation with Poland, a country with increasing potential to contribute to Europe’s defense and economy. France and Poland have a shared interest in fostering commerce, discussing nuclear-power technology, and renewing various defense contracts. Hence, on his trip, Macron was accompanied by roughly a hundred French politicians (including his minister of the economy, Bruno Le Maire) and business representatives.
In 2016, Franco-Polish relations cooled, following Poland’s withdrawal from a contract to purchase French Caracal helicopters (a decision that prompted Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, to cancel a visit to Poland). From a French foreign-policy perspective, an alliance with Poland was a rather exotic idea. One way or another, France will always come to some kind of understanding with Germany, and Poland – particularly under PiS – will continue to stick with the US and Great Britain.
Besides, the PiS government’s war with the European Commission precludes any real cooperation between Poland and other Europeans with respect to the EU budget. Nor can Macron count on Poland not to complicate his attempted rapprochement with Russia. Instead, he probably sees Poland as a bargaining chip in his broader diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Russia, Germany, and EU leaders.
Macron will not be harmed by the PiS government’s kick to his shins. French media outlets have already shifted their tone from considering possible cooperation with Poland to criticizing it openly. PiS’s displays of disrespect will only help Macron, especially now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has repaid him by (apparently) publicizing previous Russian loans to Macron’s chief domestic antagonist, Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party. The Russian firm that issued the loan, Aviazapchast, which has previously been linked to Russia’s intelligence services, has just filed a lawsuit demanding repayment.
These legal proceedings will now dominate the news cycle in France, just as US President Donald Trump’s strong-arming of Ukraine and subsequent impeachment dominated the news in the US. That will suit Macron just fine. The only player whose interests remain uncertain is Poland, and that is nothing new.
This article was first published by Project Syndicate on February 7, 2020.