World News

Poland Reshuffles Government, Hoping to Ease Tensions with EU

Posted January 9, 2018 11:11 a.m. EST

WARSAW, Poland — Two months after coming into office, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland announced a sweeping reshuffle of the government Tuesday, a move seen as an effort to punish political rivals while improving the governing party’s image abroad as it engages in a bruising battle with other European nations.

Morawiecki announced the dismissal of a third of his Cabinet, including the foreign minister, the defense minister and several others with tense relationships with European leaders. He was then set to fly to Brussels, where he was scheduled to have a working dinner with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

In laying out the changes at a news conference Tuesday, Morawiecki also reiterated Poland’s stance against Muslim immigrants. The country, he said, needed to be “safe at its external borders as well as inside the country.”

“Poland is a beautiful yacht sailing across the increasingly unknown seas and oceans,” he said. “But whether it docks safely in the port depends not just on strong cloths, but also our crew.”

He added that the new government was seeking “to reconcile the European dimension with our Polish, local dimension.”

In December, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, used the most powerful threat in its arsenal to pressure Poland from continuing on a path it viewed as undermining the rule of law and democratic values, invoking Article 7 of the EU’s founding treaty, which could strip Poland of its voting rights.

Since coming to power two years ago, the right-wing Law and Justice Party has increased its control over the media, sought to curb public gatherings and curtailed the independence of the Civil Service and the prosecutor’s office.

In an act of clear defiance, President Andrzej Duda approved of an overhaul of the nation’s judicial system on the same day that European leaders issued their unprecedented warning.

Critics say the changes to the judicial system effectively give the party control over the courts. The Polish government says they are needed reforms meant to correct a sclerotic system plagued by corruption and links to the days when this country was still under the yoke of Moscow.

While Juncker and Morawiecki were expected to discuss the current crisis, it was considered unlikely that Poland would make any significant changes to the judicial laws.

In fact, any concrete action against the country seems unlikely, as it would require unanimity from all the EU’s other member states, and Hungary has vowed to stand behind Poland.

Last week, the two nations made a show of solidarity, with Morawiecki traveling to Budapest to stand with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban, in his typically combative style, predicted a “year of great battles” with Brussels to preserve “Christian culture” against waves of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

He said he believed that the immigration policies of Western Europe had been a failure and that the election of right-wing, populist parties in Central Europe was evidence that their ideas had the support of the people.

“I want to make it clear that Central Europe, now that it has stood on its own feet, is successful and plays a stabilizing role in Europe, and thus we want to have suitable weight in debates over the future of Europe,” Orban said.

Morawiecki echoed those comments, saying, “Similarly-minded nations like ourselves together can influence Europe’s future in a very positive way.”

It is a delicate moment for Juncker and other European leaders, who are not only dealing with challenges to the east but also trying to manage Britain’s exit from the bloc and the Catalan separatist movement in Spain.

European leaders have not set a date to approve the commission’s Article 7 declaration, and some diplomats are holding out hope that the rupture can be repaired.

Others have suggested that the best way to influence Poland’s behavior is through economic pressure. Negotiations over the bloc’s next multiyear budget are to begin soon, and billions of dollars are at stake for both Poland and Hungary.

The government reshuffle in Poland was a recognition of a public image problem, but the real power remained in the hands of the party’s undisputed leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

He signaled the leadership reshuffle in December and signed off on all the moves, including the ascension of Morawiecki, 49, the former finance minister. A former banker who has conducted extensive business abroad and is fluent in several languages, Morawiecki is known as a smooth operator and is thought to be someone whom other European leaders can deal with.

The most significant move was the dismissal of the foreign affairs minister, Witold Waszczykowski, who was known for his harsh criticism of the European Union. He was replaced by Jacek Czaputowicz, formerly his deputy in charge of legal and treaty affairs.

The appointment of Czaputowicz, a former professor at the University of Warsaw and the head of the Section of European Research Methodology, suggests that Poland might be planning to take a more conciliatory approach toward Brussels.

Also dismissed was the national defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, who built his reputation by insisting that the 2010 plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 96 others had been orchestrated and covered up by the Russians.

Two investigations — one by Polish authorities under the previous government and one by Russian authorities — found that the crash was an accident. But many in the governing Law and Justice Party, including its leader, who is the former president’s twin brother, have offered other theories.

The reshuffle is an attempt to reconcile with EU officials after months of tensions, said Kazimierz Kik, a political scientist at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The effort, he added, began in December with Morawiecki’s appointment as prime minister.

“He is a pragmatist and financier who is on a similar frequency as the European Commission and the European elites,” Kik said by telephone Tuesday. “The government reconstruction is a gesture of good will.”

Still, he added, the perceived flexibility of the new Polish officials toward the European Union does not mean that the government will back down on the widely criticized judicial overhauls. “Those reforms are done,” he said. “There is no going back.”