24th Nov 2020

Tories risk fresh embarrassment over EU bedfellows

  • The EU parliament - if PiS splits, the Tories' ECR group stands to lose power (Photo: European Parliament)

A split in the Polish Law and Justice party, the British Conservative Party's main ally in the European Parliament, risks further diminishing London's influence in Brussels and causing fresh embarrassment over issues such as homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Three MEPs from Law and Justice (PiS in its Polish acronym) - Adam Bielan, Michal Kaminski and Pawel Kowal - announced on Polish TV on Tuesday (16 November) that they are to form a new "association" called "Poland is the Most Important" together with two ex-PiS MPs, Elzbieta Jakubiak and Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, who were recently expelled from the party over alleged disloyalty to its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

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The coup comes days before local elections in Poland on Sunday (21 November) and is widely expected to see the rebels leave to form a party of their own.

The group, dubbed the "Spin Doctors" by Polish media, masterminded Mr Kaczynski's recent presidential election campaign, which saw the party adopt a more moderate and centrist rhetoric and which fell just a few percentage points short of victory.

More hawkish members of the party, led by PiS MEP Zbigniew Ziobro, want to take PiS back to its heartland of hard-right supporters in Polish rural regions and amongst older voters however, a perspective that is causing serious tensions within the party.

Analysts warn that if PiS splits in two, the development could have consequences for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament, where the Tories sit with the Poles.

Piotr Kaczynski (no relation to Jaroslaw), an expert at the Centre for European Policy Studies (Ceps), a Brussels-based think-tank, told EUobserver that Mr Kaminski, who is currently the ECR group leader, would have to step down. He added that the PiS reformists might even leave the ECR in favour of more moderate allies, such as the liberal Alde group. Two more Polish ECR deputies - Marek Migalski and Konrad Szymanski - would likely go with them.

"If the ECR falls below 50 MEPs, they stand to lose power in the new allocation of posts that takes place in the mid-term of the legislature. They currently have just one important committee chair, on the internal market. They could lose this," Mr Kaczynski said.

The loss of the ex-PiS-ites would throw open the ECR leadership question, with the PiS rump under Mr Ziobro likely to press for him to become the new leader or co-leader with the Tories.

The Conservative Party in the UK, which rules in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, has already taken flak in left-leaning British media over its association with Mr Kaminski, who allegedly made homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks some years ago.

The PiS rump under Mr Ziobro and Mr Kaczynski would be a different kettle of fish again.

Mr Ziobro has not himself spoken out against gay people or Jews. But his circle of close supporters or so-called "Ziobro-ites" in PiS have between them broken just about every taboo in European politics.

PiS MP Stanislaw Pieta in November compared homosexuality to "necrophilia." Ziobro-ite MP Artur Gorski in 2008 said that Barack Obama is "the end of the white man's civilization," while another follower, senator Ryszard Bender, back in 2000 said Auschwitz was "not a death camp, but a labour camp."

Mr Ziobro also relies for political support on Tadeusz Rydzyk, an openly anti-Semitic and homophobic Roman Catholic TV and radio preacher.

"The split will radicalise PiS into a much more backward-looking form of conservatism. It doesn't mean they are a priori homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-European, but this is the kind of direction the new PiS would be heading in and Ziobro would be the leader of this process," Ceps' Mr Kaczynski said. "If this is not true, let them speak out and say it's not true."

A spokesman for Timothy Kirkhope, the deputy chairman of the ECR group, said: "Mr Kaminski continues to have Timothy's full support as chairman of the group." A spokesman for the ECR group said the PiS changes are a "purely internal matter."

This story was amended at 12.00 noon Brussels time on Wednesday 17 November, adding the quote on Mr Kirkhope

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