Poland's Democracy Is Not Failing

Flags of Poland and the EU. Wikimedia Commons/Michal Osmenda

Polish democracy is learning to play the kind of bare-knuckled, hard-ball politics that have always prevailed in the Anglosphere.

Sometimes it seems as if the European Union is not just a rolling circus, but a rolling circus on fire. Fresh from the Brexit fiasco and still facing an unresolved refugee crisis, the latest wounds to the European body politic are self-inflicted. The European Union is attacking its sixth-largest member state, Poland.

On September 14, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Polish government's controversial changes to the membership and procedures of Poland's Constitutional Court. The European Parliament vote follows a July European Commission decision ordering the Polish government to reverse its policies.

The legal dispute centers on the current Law and Justice (PiS) government's withdrawal of the nominations of five judges appointed by the outgoing Civic Platform (PO) government during its final days in office. The Polish impasse resembles the one going on in Washington, where Republican senators refuse to hold confirmation hearings for President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Poland's nationalist PiS party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński have long been highly controversial among Polish intellectuals. But calls for the suspension of Poland's EU voting rights and claims of the death of Polish democracy are far out of line.

Many Poles are worried about the future of their country and have organized into a (somewhat overblown) Committee for the Defence of Democracy. But many Poles are satisfied with the current government. The PiS has an absolute majority in the Sejm, Poland's parliament, and after a year in office is still by far the most popular political party in the country.

In short, Poland's democracy is not failing and is not lawless. It is a democracy coming of age, learning to play the kind of bare-knuckled, hard-ball politics that have always prevailed in the Anglosphere. It may not look pretty, but that doesn't make it undemocratic. Quite the contrary.

Export-quality democracy

Little known outside the region, Poland is a magnet for Ukrainian students and immigrants. While Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel have made a lot of noise about its (one-time) open-door policy for Syrian refugees, Poland has quietly assimilated hundreds of thousands of refugees from the turmoil in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis may be the biggest refugee crisis that no one has heard of, because it hasn't been a crisis. No drowned children, no capsized boats, just a half million people delivered from violence and societal breakdown, proportionally just as large a number as the 1 million received by Germany.

In stark contrast to the closed borders and squalid camps that litter the refugee routes across the Balkans, the integration of Ukrainian refugees into Polish society has been relatively smooth.

Most of these refugees never enter the official United Nations or European Union asylum systems at all. Instead they enter Poland as tourists, students, or temporary workers and apply for work permits on an annual renewal basis. They may lack the legal guarantees of documented asylum seekers, but, in practical terms, they live much better lives than most Syrians do in the temporary shelters of Germany and western Europe.