Sunday

26th May 2019

Poland might weigh up EU membership in referendum

Should Poland's EU and Nato membership be "guaranteed" by its constitution?

Polish people might be asked that in a referendum in November if the president, Andrzej Duda, gets his way.

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  • Referendums not much used in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski admitted (Photo: ois.org.pl)

The new constitution was designed to "strengthen" Poland's presence in the Western bloc, the president said - even if it might look, at first glance, like a Brexit-type referendum on whether Poland should stay in the EU.

Announced last year, Duda's idea got legs on Tuesday (12 June) when he published 15 questions that might be asked in the vote, which is meant to fall on Polish national day on 11 November.

These will be cut to 10, pending public feedback, and the Polish senate will decide whether to go ahead with the whole exercise in late July.

Duda's project comes at a sensitive moment in Polish-EU relations, with the European Commission threatening sanctions and fines over Polish judicial meddling and migrant boycotts.

It also comes amid the throes of Brexit and the rise of anti-EU populists in Austria, Hungary, and Italy, posing questions for future EU cohesion.

Seventy five percent of Poles supported EU membership in a recent poll by Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily.

But Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party might not want to hear that reiterated at a time when it is trying to whip up eurosceptic and nationalist feeling in its clash with the EU.

The EU institutions might also want to avoid opening another hornets' nest in central Europe.

Several of Duda's draft questions referenced PiS hobbyhorses.

"Do you support enshrining in the Polish constitution a guarantee of Polish sovereignty in the European Union and the primacy of the [Polish] constitution over international and European law?" one question said.

Should the constitution's preamble mention "the more-than 1,000-year old Christian heritage of Poland and Europe?", another one said, in a nod to PiS Islamophobia.

Should the constitution protect "the family?", Duda added, in a veiled attack on same-sex unions.

The president, a former MP and law professor, was hoisted into office in 2015 by PiS party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, much like Kaczynski elevated Mateusz Morawiecki, also a former law professor, to become Poland's prime minister last December.

Morawiecki has executed orders humbly, but Duda has tried to pad his role, once by briefly vetoing a PiS law on judicial reform, and now with the referendum.

Should he, the Polish president, have "strengthened competences" on Polish "foreign and defence policy?" another draft question asked.

Kaczynski has been off sick with what PiS says is a bad knee for the past six weeks, but his last public remarks on the referendum, at the start of the year, were not encouraging.

"The Polish tradition of taking part in referendums is very, very weak," he said.

Whether he was too unwell to speak or whether his instructions had not yet filtered from his bed at the Military Medical Institute in Warsaw, PiS had little to say about Duda's questions on Tuesday.

"We're still at the level of discussions," Morawiecki said.

The party will speak out when the Polish senate, which PiS dominates, decides on the fate of Duda's idea next month, Beata Mazurek, the PiS spokeswoman, said.

The most damning silence came from PiS-controlled public TV, which ignored Duda's 15 questions, and broadcast a clip of him at a memorial event on Tuesday's news show instead.

"I was surprised when I saw that public TV was less than dynamic in telling people about this important event [the questions]," Pawel Mucha, a Duda aide, told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

Damp squib?

Whether or not the referendum goes ahead for political reasons, the substance of the questions also faced criticism.

"It might be an interesting proposal, but I don't really get it," Marek Suski, a PiS MP, said.

The question on primacy of Polish versus European law was already answered in the EU treaties, in which member states agreed to put EU law first.

Duda's idea to "guarantee" Poland's place in the EU and Nato overlooked the fact that the wider world would determine Poland's situation no matter what it wrote in its constitution, Leszek Miller, a former Polish PM, noted.

"Serious people shouldn't waste their time on these questions," Miller told Polish radio on Tuesday.

"One might as well ask: 'Should we keep summertime or move to wintertime?' Or, to be more apposite: 'Do we agree that Poland should play in every World Cup finals?'," Miller added, as the football championships get under way in Russia.

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