Time for the EU to bang its fist on the table

Vera Jourova

"If we do not uphold the principle in the European Union that equal rules are equally respected throughout Europe, the whole of Europe will start to collapse.

Such is the serious warning from Vera Jourová, the Czech Commissioner for Securities and Transparency, to Reuters in the wake of Poland's Constitutional Court challenge and its ruling that national law prevails over EU law. It is clearly the biggest challenge to the edifice of the European Union, on whose response depends whether the peaceful construction of the greatest political-economic alliance in history will be consolidated or become a beautiful but frustrated dream. 

This is not the first time that nationalist temptation has fired a cannon shot of this magnitude at the cornerstone of the EU, as Germany's powerful Constitutional Court provoked a major earthquake just two years ago. But the decision of the Polish judges to declare articles 1 and 19 of the Treaty on European Union inapplicable in Poland cannot be dismissed as mere window-dressing. The very survival of the EU is at stake, for if it were to allow exceptions to the prevalence of EU law over national law, it might as well kiss any future major project goodbye, let alone aspire to play a part in the dizzying geopolitics being engineered by the United States and China, the two great superpowers on the scene. 

The Polish government itself seems to have taken fright at the clearly political decision of its Constitutional Court when, after massive pro-EU demonstrations across the country, its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has come out and called its alleged desire to be the second country to leave the EU after the UK a hoax.

Warsaw is currently one of the countries most dependent on EU funds, thanks to which it has experienced meteoric growth since joining the EU, as has Hungary, both of which are the two most fractious members of the EU and most ostensibly display exclusionary nationalism. 

Pressing the 'nuclear button’

The European Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, has a fundamental tool at its disposal to make the Warsaw and Budapest governments see reason: making the delivery of recovery funds conditional on compliance with the rule of law, a mechanism challenged last March by both before the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) in Luxembourg, and therefore pending its ruling. This is known in Brussels jargon as "the nuclear button". The European Commission had intended not to apply this mechanism until such a ruling by the ECJ, but the ruling now handed down by the Polish Constitutional Court puts it in the serious position of having to make a fist on the table. An action that would be backed in principle by at least three major countries, Germany, France and Spain. 

The volume of EU aid is large enough to dissuade the Law and Justice Party (PiS) from seeking a way to withdraw its challenge. But even if that were the case, this is an episode that cannot be dismissed with poultices. Europeanism may not be in the best of times, but if the governments co-ruling the European Union are not convinced that there is no better solution to today's global challenges than its strength, the EU edifice would still be threatened with cracking at the slightest nationalist push from any enlightened nostalgist. 

Of course, if there is one thing that characterises the EU's history, it is the pursuit of dialogue and final consensus after exhaustive and often relentless and interminable negotiations, but one should also consider the current geopolitical context, which leaves little room for hesitation and a lengthening of deadlines that could be lethal in the new era that humanity has just entered. It is therefore time to speed up the processes and take firm decisions. Poland, Hungary or any other member of the current EU-27 complied with the acquis communautaire in its entirety when they joined the Club. And fundamental to their statutes is the supremacy of EU law and European court rulings over national ones. 

That is why, because it did not want this architecture, the United Kingdom left, which is now even threatening to go back on what it signed with regard to Ireland, ruining its good image - perhaps too much overrated - as a great respecter of its commitments.