Since taking office in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has exerted greater control over the country's media, judiciary and institutional life. The party has justified proposed reforms that would increase its powers by citing the enduring influence of Communist party holdovers, as in its bid to lower the retirement age for all Supreme Court justices from 70 years to 65 years. From 3 July, the new law affected some 40% of the country’s top judges, although Supreme Court justices defied the order to leave their offices. The government had planned to replace them via parliamentary appointments following changes to the processes governing the judiciary in December 2017, raising the prospect of a Supreme Court staffed by government loyalists.
This development is in keeping with a regional trend towards populist executive control, as seen in countries as diverse as Hungary and Turkey. In the case of Poland, it risks undermining the credibility of the European Union as a community of democracies capable of upholding its values in the face of a real-time stress test imposed by a maverick member. The EU has threatened to suspend Poland’s voting rights within the EU under Article 7 of its constitution. This last resort move would likely be vetoed by Hungary, which could fear a similar measure targeting its own domestic policies. EU officials are more likely to register their displeasure by reducing funding for Poland in their 2021-2028 budget.
Poland was given until 26 June to amend its pending laws or face punitive measures; instead, its president proposed that the country’s EU membership be voted on via referendum in November 2018. If Polexit passes, the EU’s post-Brexit future will become more complicated. While a failure to safeguard the rule of a law in a remaining member state could be damaging to its authority in the long term, there is another factor to consider. Poland’s exit would remove the union’s strongest Russoskeptic member following the EU divorce from the UK. In a rare display of solidarity with Polish independence, Polexit is being hyped in Russian state media, with TASS and RT trumpeting their nationalist fellow travellers.