Ever since 2015, when the right-wing Law & Justice party won government in Poland, it and Hungary (ruled by Viktor Orbán since 2010) have been the rogue members of the European Union. They have progressively undermined the liberal and democratic values on which the EU is supposed to be based, and have regularly feuded with the union’s leaders and its bureaucracy in Brussels.
All the same, the two governments have not quite been on the same page. Orbán is a long-time ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin; he distanced himself a little following last year’s invasion of Ukraine, but he remains clearly the least committed to Ukraine among EU leaders. History, however, makes a pro-Russian policy unthinkable for a Polish government. Law & Justice’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński has been a consistent opponent of Putin and a supporter of Ukrainian independence.
So as the Ukraine issue has come to dominate the European landscape, it makes sense that there would be some rapprochement between Poland and the EU. From the EU’s point of view, Poland has become indispensable: its frontline position and sympathetic population makes it a major conduit for aid of all sorts to Ukraine. And from Kaczyński’s point of view, some of the issues in dispute have come to seem less important. Facing an election later this year, EU money and acceptance would be valuable assets.
Sure enough, last week the Polish parliament agreed to proceed with legislation to undo some of the “reforms” to the judicial system that Law & Justice had made to undermine the independence of the judiciary. If it goes through – and not all of Kaczyński’s allies are on board with the idea – the EU has promised in return to release some €36 billion in aid that has been frozen due to the dispute.
For a range of reasons (some political, some structural), Brussels has always been reluctant to enforce its own rules about respect for the rule of law against recalcitrant members. It took prolonged defiance and numerous provocations from Poland for things to get to this point. Both sides were probably looking for an excuse to back down; this compromise seems to be as good a chance as any. It doesn’t address all the sources of disagreement, but further progress will have to wait until after the Polish election.
As it happens, though, just as one country is pulling back from throttling the independence of the judiciary, another is moving forward. Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government in Israel, sworn in less than three weeks ago, has lost no time in proceeding with one of its key policies: it proposes to give parliament the power to overturn supreme court rulings by a simple majority vote, as well as increasing the government’s say in the appointment of judges.
The new government, of course, was already controversial due to its inclusion of ministers from the openly fascist party Otzma Yehudit. But the attack on the judiciary has been a wake-up call to at least some sections of the Israeli population, with large protests at the weekend against the proposals.
International reaction has so far been more muted. American aid to Israel is not as great as the sums the EU has promised Poland, but it’s still very large – easily enough to be an incentive for good behavior if only the United States were ever minded to use it that way. But no president since George Bush senior, more than thirty years ago, has put Israel under any real pressure, and there is no sign that Joe Biden is about to start.
While no-one by now should be surprised at the hypocrisy, it’s still striking the way in which Israel’s strongest supporters in the west point smugly to its status as an outpost of democracy, while giving aid and encouragement to those forces within it that are working hard to subvert that status.