- Poland and Hungary are unlikely to make significant concessions in the negotiations with the EU, at least in the near term.
- The rule-of-law talks could destabilize the wobbly United Right coalition government in Poland.
- Few domestic pressures make Budapest’s position more flexible but not necessarily softer.
Yesterday, 30 December, the prime ministers of Hungary and Poland met in Warsaw to coordinate their positions in the ongoing negotiations with the European Union (EU) on the proposed link between the bloc’s budget and the rule of law. On Thursday, 26 November, both countries had signed a joint declaration calling for decoupling the adoption of the EU financial package from the rule of law issue and pledging to reject any compromise that is not satisfactory to both countries. Budapest and Warsaw also expressed their readiness to consider new proposals from the German presidency of the EU.
Domestic politics play an important role in shaping talks at the EU-level. In Poland, the rule-of-law issue has aggravated long-standing rivalries between the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, who leads Law and Justice’s (PiS) junior coalition partner United Poland (SP). Ziobro has hinted at withdrawing his party’s support for Morawiecki unless the PM vetoes the rule of law clause in its current form. Without the SP, the PiS-led government would lose its majority in the crucial lower house of parliament, thereby opening the door to a potential cabinet reshuffle or even snap general election down the road.
Ziobro’s pressure to maintain a hard stance in the talks with the EU could be seen as an attempt to emerge as a leader of Poland’s political right, while forcing Morawiecki to look for a compromise that would be acceptable not only to Brussels and Budapest, but also to the entire United Right coalition. One signpost to watch is whether PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski – whose recent entry into the cabinet was expected to manage tensions between Morawiecki and Ziobro – comes out to support one or the other side in the internal conflict.
On top of internal rivalries in the United Right, the ruling PiS has seen a notable drop in opinion polls in recent months, likely due to the difficult epidemiological situation and controversial proposals to tighten abortion and animal protection laws. A new fight with Brussels over the country’s sovereignty – as framed by PiS politicians and state-owned media – helps distract public attention from some of the pressing issues, at least in the short term. However, a protracted standoff with the EU extending into 2021 could become counterproductive at some point, as Poland may eventually start suffering from reduced EU funding (although the short-term effect from the missing recovery fund would be bigger for southern members). For now, Warsaw expects therefore that urgent economic pressures in southern Europe will force Brussels to mend its stance sooner, thereby brining a much-needed political victory for the PiS.
The situation is rather different in Hungary. The strong parliamentary majority held by the ruling Fidesz, a stable fiscal position and a clear mandate for Prime Minister Viktor Orban to negotiate makes Budapest more flexible, but not necessarily more willing to make concessions. As usual, Fidesz is exploiting the latest stand-off with Brussels to keep its voter base mobilized by linking the EU’s threats to withhold funding to the ruling party’s conservative stance on LGBT and immigration. Orban’s medium-term objective is to keep the two-thirds majority in parliament after the general election in spring 2022 and the protracted dispute with the EU on the rule-of-law could help achieve this. As a result, a postponement of the final resolution on the rule-of-law mechanism – or its practical application – might be acceptable to Budapest. As part of the wider deal, Orban would also welcome the closure of the ongoing Article 7 procedure, which could be presented as a victory at home.