Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
© Ronald Wittek / Pool via REUTERS
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
'I will not have you politicians blackmail Poland... we say no to European centralism', warned a defiant Mateusz Morawiecki, as he faced down hostile MEPs in Strasbourg and fuelled the prospect of Polexit.

This morning, Poland's prime minister walked into the lion's den in the European Parliament (EP) to face down some of his most vociferous critics.

Poland has been at loggerheads with the European Union for some time over a range of issues. However, today's session was focused on the rule of law. The EU claims Poland's Supreme Court is unconstitutional because of the manner in which its judges are appointed.

The dispute escalated a fortnight ago when that same Supreme Court found that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) was making rulings in areas that were not an EU concern. In doing so, the Polish judges asserted the primacy of Polish law in these areas, which proved anathema to the Brussels bureaucrats.

Over the past few days, tensions between Warsaw and Brussels have reached boiling point. Indeed, Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro yesterday threatened to sue Germany. He pointed to what he saw as the double standards applied by the EU, whereby the German government is free to appoint its own judges, yet the Polish government is not.

Ziobro said: "If the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg states that the participation of politicians in the procedure to elect [judicial] authorities raises doubts as to the independence of its future judges, then we want to know how this participation has an influence on the independence of future judges in Germany."

Indeed, while Brussels seems intent on punishing the government in Warsaw for appointing its own judges, it refuses to sanction a similar practice in Berlin. But should we really be surprised? After all, Germany is the EU's largest financial contributor and, as the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Moreover, yesterday, Morawiecki wrote to the European Commission stating that, although his country remained loyal to the EU, his government was increasingly concerned by the "centralisation" of the project. And this is not the first time the Polish PM has rejected the notion of a European superstate.

Thus, with tension in the air, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, rose in the EP chamber this morning to slap down Poland and ensure it complies with the wishes of the EU. She said she was "deeply concerned" about the Polish Supreme Court's judgement, as it "call[ed] into question the foundations of the EU." Indeed, she claimed, it was the "first time ever a court of a member state [had found] the treaties of the EU [were] incompatible with the national constitution."

Unsurprisingly, the stick von der Luyen used to beat Morawiecki was financial. She said "the rule of law [was] the glue that binds our union together" and, as the EU will be investing billions in Poland in the near future, she questioned the oversight of how the money would be spent, as the Polish court, in her view, was "not legitimate."

Following von der Leyen, it was Morawiecki's turn. At this point, I was concerned he would be berated and bullied by the hostile MEPs, as was the then Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, when he visited the EP in July 2015. However, Morawiecki stood his ground.

In a speech that lasted around 45 minutes, he listed the problems the EU was facing, including inflation, public debt, the energy crisis, and the migrant problem. He attempted to allay fears of Polexit, saying, "Europe is our place and we do not want to go anywhere else," although he warned that "Poland did not join the EU empty-handed."

The Polish PM warned MEPs that he would not "remain silent when our country is being attacked" and said he rejected "the language of threats", stating, "I will not have you politicians blackmail Poland". He also asserted that the EU was not a state and that "the highest law in the EU is the constitution of a country."

Morawiecki said that "it is the member states who decide what the competences delegated to the EU are" and that "the primacy of the EU does not extend to our constitutional system." Moreover, to the chagrin of MEPs, he said there had been similar rulings in France, Germany, Italy and Denmark, among others.

The PM warned that "what we are seeing now is a creeping revolution taking place through verdicts of the ECJ" and urged federalist MEPs to be open with the public if they wanted an EU superstate. He cautioned that, if the EU continued on the road to centralisation, it would cease "to be an association of sovereign states," which "is not what we agreed to in the treaties."

After 35 minutes, the EP's vice-president told Morawiecki to conclude - something that would never have happened to Merkel or Macron. Proof, if any were needed, that, in the EU, not everyone is equal. Morawiecki told the vice-president not to interrupt him and later stated, "We say no to European centralism", warning that "Poland will not be intimidated."

It was an impressive and defiant performance, which was met with a muted response from MEPs. The first to hit out at the Polish PM was Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party. He used his speech to encourage opposition politicians and protestors in Poland. We have seen this all before, especially with regards Ukraine in 2013-2014.

Iratxe Garcia Perez, the leader of the Socialist group, said that she did not want to see Polexit but "the law is the same for everyone because it is fair and complied with." And, she stated, those who do not comply "walk towards the door on their own ... no one is pushing you."

Renew Europe group's Malik Azmani called the actions of the Polish government "sinister" and said that "your (Morawiecki) actions are a sly way to lead Poland out of the EU." To prevent this, he requested that the European Commission immediately impose financial penalties.

The Polish PM, however, did have some support in the chamber. French MEP Nicholas Bay stated that the "Polish people have been taken hostage" through financial threats. He also told Morawiecki that "they (the MEPs) want to force on you public confession" and that "EU law is being used as the pretext for a Stalinist trial." Bay also congratulated the Polish court for putting "the EU in its place."

Ryszard Legutko, the speaker for the Conservatives and a member of Morawiecki's own party, highlighted the undemocratic structure of the European Parliament, which, he stated, has been ruled by the same duopoly since "time memoriam." He referred to this as the "tyranny of majority" and stated that "there is no room for dissent."

Legutko also called the European Commission "ideological and arrogant" and stated, "that EU law trumps national law in areas where it does not have any competence is absurd" and "a very dangerous concept." He concluded by saying that "we are not afraid of EU law, but instead EU lawlessness."

I have to say that my fear was that the Polish PM would be browbeaten and embarrassed by the bullying MEPs. Instead, he stood his ground and made his case in an assertive manner. He did not allow himself to be treated like a naughty schoolboy, and he gave as good as he got.

Tomorrow, the EP will debate Poland's stance on abortion and on Thursday will no doubt pass a resolution calling for financial penalties to be imposed. Nevertheless, what the MEPs say and do is irrelevant, as the parliament is merely a talking shop.

What really matters is the discussions that will be going on behind the scenes between the Polish government and the unelected European Commission. Before long, however, there will be a fork in the road, and at that point some difficult decisions will have to be taken. I suspect that it will be a case of who blinks first.
By Paul A. Nuttall, a historian, author and a former politician. He was a Member of the European Parliament between 2009 and 2019 and was a prominent campaigner for Brexit.