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Is Poland likely to 'Polexit' out of the European Union? Explained

  • 20 Oct 2021

The Polish Constitutional Court's ruling on finding some EU treaties articles incompatible started a debate on Polexit, Poland's possible departure from the EU.

A view of different flags of the European Union members during a debate on the "rule of law" crisis in Poland and the primacy of EU law at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on October 19, 2021. ( RONALD WITTEK / POOL / AFP )

Poland is a focus of European attention at the moment, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki addressing the European Parliament and leaders at a European Union summit expected later this week to grapple with a legal conundrum created by a recent ruling by Poland's constitutional court.

Some opponents of Poland's nationalist government fear that the court's ruling has put the country on a path to a possible “Polexit,” or a departure from the 27-nation EU like Britain did with Brexit.

The government denounces those spreading the idea, which it calls “fake news.”

Here is a look at the differing views on the matter – and why Poland's departure from the bloc is unlikely.

The backstory

This month Poland's constitutional court challenged the notion that EU law supersedes the laws of its 27 member nations with a ruling, saying that some EU laws are incompatible with the nation's own constitution.

That decision – made by a court dominated by ruling party loyalists – gives the Polish government the justification it had sought to ignore directives from the European Union's Court of Justice, which it doesn't like – particularly on matters of judicial independence.

The ruling marks another major test for the EU after years of managing its messy divorce from the UK.

Poland's government, which is led by the conservative Law and Justice party, has been in conflict with EU officials in Brussels since it took power in 2015.

The dispute is largely over changes to the Polish judicial system which give the ruling party more power over the courts.

Polish authorities say they seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient justice system. The European Commission believes the changes erode the country's democratic system of checks and balances.

Anti-EU rhetoric from Poland

As the standoff over the judiciary has grown tenser, with the Commission threatening to withhold billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds to Poland over it, ruling party leaders have sometimes compared the EU to the Soviet Union, Poland's occupying power during the Cold War.

Ryszard Terlecki, the party’s deputy leader, said last month that if things don’t go the way Poland likes, “we will have to search for drastic solutions.”

Referring to Brexit, he also said: “The British showed that the dictatorship of the Brussels bureaucracy did not suit them and turned around and left."

What does the Polish government say?

Polish leaders say it's absurd to think they want to leave the EU and they accuse the opposition of playing with the idea of “Polexit” for political gain.

PM Morawiecki said last week that the opposition “is trying to insinuate that we want to weaken Poland and the European Union" by leaving the EU.

''This is obviously not only fake news, it is even worse. It is simply a lie that is made to weaken the EU.”

Morawiecki spoke soon after Poland's leading opposition leader, Donald Tusk, a former EU leader, organised mass nationwide protests voicing support for Poland remaining in the EU.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the Poland-European Union rift

Could EU expel Poland?

The EU has no legal mechanism to expel a member. That means for Polexit to happen, it would have to be triggered by Warsaw.

At the moment, the idea seems farfetched because EU membership in Poland is extremely popular, with surveys showing more than 80 percent of Poles favour being in the bloc.

Yet some still fear that could change. 

They worry that if new EU funds are withheld from Poland over rule of law disputes, Poles might eventually come to feel that it's no longer in their benefit to belong to the bloc.

Some simply fear a "political accident" along the lines of what happened with Britain's departure from the EU.

The former British prime minister who called for a referendum on EU membership, David Cameron, had sought to have the country remain in the bloc.

He called for the vote to settle the matter, believing Britons would vote to stay. A majority in 2016 did not, and Cameron quickly resigned.

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