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The Law and Justice Party (PiS) and its allies lost office in Poland in December 2023, after losing their majority in parliamentary elections in October.

The PiS-led government had been in office for eight years, winning parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2019. Mateusz Morawiecki led the government as Prime Minister from 2017. The PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda, won the presidential election in 2015 and was re-elected in 2020.  

PiS was the leading party again at the October 2023 election with 35.4% of the vote. However, three opposition blocs combined won a majority of seats. The largest of these was Civic Coalition, headed by Donald Tusk, with 30.7% of the vote. It signed a coalition agreement with the two smaller opposition blocs, the centrist/centre-right Third Way and the Left, in November 2023.   

President Duda appointed a PiS-led government following the parliamentary elections. However, it lost a vote of confidence in the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, on 11 December. Tusk was then elected Prime Minister later on the same day. Tusk was previously Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014, and President of the EU European Council from 2014 to 2019.

The PiS in government

In office from 2015 to 2023, PiS promoted traditional conservative positions on social and family issues. It implemented a near total ban on abortion and employed anti-LGBT+ rhetoric. It also implemented redistributive tax and spending policies, aimed particularly at families.

Controversial reforms to the judiciary and other policies pursued by the PiS-led government, including its anti-LGBT+ agenda, were a cause of conflict in Poland’s relations with the EU. Leading figures in PiS also engaged in anti-German rhetoric, portraying Donald Tusk as subservient to German interests. In October 2022, the Polish government made a formal request to the German government for discussions on war reparations for damage caused during World War II. The request has been rejected by Germany, which says compensation has already been paid.

PiS leaders also sought to portray Tusk as an agent of Russia. In May 2023, the Polish parliament approved the establishment of a commission to investigate Russian political influence in Poland between 2007 and 2022. The opposition expressed concern that the commission would be used to target its political opponents, notably Tusk who was Prime Minister when deals to supply Russian gas to Poland were agreed. The law was criticised by the USA and the Council of Europe, and the EU began legal action citing concerns about the right to a fair trial and interference in the democratic process in Poland. The Polish parliament subsequently amended the legislation to remove the power of the state commission to bar individuals found guilty of acting under Russian influence from public office.

Judicial reforms and EU response

The European Commission launched several infringement proceedings (legal actions) against Poland in relation to a judicial reform programme that began in 2015. The Commission cited concerns over the independence of the judiciary and the “rule of law” in the country.

In 2017, the European Commission launched an EU procedure to determine whether Poland was in breach of core EU values. Although the procedure could ultimately lead to the EU sanctioning Poland by removing its voting power in the Council of the EU, it has not progressed to this stage. This would first require a unanimous vote by other Member States.  

The European Commission has made several references to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) over the judicial reforms. In July 2021, the CJEU ordered Poland to suspend several provisions (PDF) of a law on the judiciary adopted in 2019. This related to the disciplinary process for judges. Following a request by the European Commission, the CJEU in October 2021 imposed a daily fine of €1 million per day on Poland (PDF), until it complies with the ruling. 

In 2020, despite attempts by Poland and Hungary to block it, EU leaders adopted a new mechanism to make the allocation of budget funds conditional on meeting rule of law standards. In June 2022, the Polish Government reached agreement with the EU on Poland’s share of the EU’s post-covid recovery fund. But this was made conditional on Poland implementing further judicial reforms to address EU concerns. 

The Polish parliament adopted new legislation on the judiciary in February 2023 aimed at address EU concerns and releasing the EU funding. However, the legislation has been held up following a request by the President for a review by the constitutional tribunal.

LGBT+ issues

Anti-LGBT+ rhetoric from PiS figures and its supporters intensified in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2019 and the presidential election in 2020. In June 2020, President Duda called the promotion of LGBT+ rights an “ideology” that was more destructive than communism. In 2019 and 2020, over 90 Polish municipalities, covering around a third of Poland’s territory, declared that they were “LGBT-free zones” or “free from LGBT ideology”. However, some local municipalities subsequently withdrew their anti-LGBT resolutions, partly because of the threat of EU cohesion funding being withheld. Some were also annulled by courts in Poland.

In July 2021, the European Commission launched legal action against Poland in relation to the LGBT-free zones. The action was closed in January 2023.

Opposition to EU migration deal

The PiS-led government opposed initiatives to develop solidarity mechanisms to assist EU Member States receiving large numbers of irregular migrants. This included the European Commission’s proposal for a new “solidarity mechanism” that was agreed by the Council of the EU in June 2023. The mechanism provides that where a Member States is under migratory pressure, the other Member States have the option of taking a share of asylum-seekers from them, making a financial contribution or offering alternative support. Poland and Hungary voted against the mechanism but were outvoted by other Member States.

Prime Minister Morawiecki criticised the decision, referring to “forced relocation” that “violates the sovereignty of the member states”. The European Commission has said there would not be “forced relocation” given that there are alternative options to accepting migrants. There is also a possible exemption from all the solidarity options for countries experiencing their own migratory pressure, and this could apply to Poland given it hosts a large number of refugees from Ukraine.

Poland and Hungary subsequently blocked EU leaders’ statements on migration. The Polish government also announced a referendum to be held on the same day as the October parliamentary election, asking voters whether they “support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants …  under the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy”. The referendum however failed to reach the 50% voter turnout threshold to be legally valid.

Response to Russian invasion of Ukraine

Poland has played a leading role in the EU and international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since February 2022. It has historic concerns about Russia and has been critical of neighbouring countries that had embedded their reliance on Russian energy imports and downplayed concerns about Russian activities.

Poland has also been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen EU sanctions against Russia and supply military equipment. By the end of July 2023, Polish commitments to Ukraine were worth €4.268 billion, including €3 billion in military aid. Polish support for Ukraine was equivalent to 0.695% of its GDP, the sixth highest of any country.  

Poland has also strengthened its own defence capacities. NATO forecasts in June 2023 showed that Poland was projected to spend 3.9% of its GDP on defence, more than any other NATO member state. Prime Minister Morawiecki has proposed a strategic partnership with the USA, and offered to host NATO nuclear weapons.

Poland has the EU’s largest border with Ukraine, with huge numbers of refugees from Ukraine passing through or staying in its territory. It currently hosts around a million refugees from Ukraine.  

In late 2023, Poland quarrelled with Ukraine over the issue of Ukraine grain imports. Poland initially offered to store Ukrainian grain after the Russian invasion, but this combined with the EU ending agricultural tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural imports has negatively impacted the Polish farming sector. After a request from Poland and other neighbouring countries in March 2023, the EU agreed to temporarily stop Ukrainian grain imports into their countries. However, it lifted the import ban in September, leading to Poland, Hungary and Slovakia announcing their own bans on Ukrainian grain imports.

This move was criticised in a speech to the United Nations by Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and Ukraine also made a complaint to the World Trade Organization. The PiS-led government said it would no longer be transferring military equipment to Ukraine, beyond existing commitments. The combative stance taken by the Polish government on the grain issue was interpreted by commentators as motivated by a need to retain the support of farmers in the run-up to the parliamentary election.

Tensions with Belarus

Poland’s relations with Belarus continue to be tense. In 2021, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, along with the EU, accused the Belarus Government of engaging in “hybrid warfare” by encouraging migrants to travel to Belarus and then sending them to attempt to cross the border into the EU countries. Poland has subsequently reinforced the border with Belarus, but attempted crossings have continued.

In the summer of 2023, Poland moved more troops to the border with Belarus, amidst concerns that fighters from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group that had moved to Belarus could attempt to destabilise the situation further.

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