Is Poland still a liberal democracy — or is it reneging on its E.U. commitments to the rule of law?
That’s the question that was implied this week when the European Parliament debated Poland’s recent legal changes. This debate started Jan. 13, when the European Union (E.U.) announced that it would launch an unprecedented “preliminary assessment” of Poland’s rule of law.
The E.U.’s startling action was prompted when Poland’s newly elected conservative Law and Justice Party passed laws that put both its constitutional court and the Polish news media under closer control of the government, which critics say undermines democracy and free speech. There’s been a broad outcry about the new laws, with protests in many Polish cities over the past two weekends, and international objections everywhere from the European Broadcasting Union to the International Federation of Journalists.
Suspending a country’s voting rights in the E.U. is a far more serious punishment than fines or withholding funds.
But will the E.U. actually suspend Poland’s membership rights?
Several E.U. member states (Denmark, Spain, Italy and others) have applauded the E.U. for talking with Poland about democratic principles. After all, the E.U. has been severely criticized for failing to act firmly enough when Hungary’s democracy deteriorated or when Austria took a sharp right turn.
But our research about suspensions from international organizations suggests three reasons the E.U. is unlikely to suspend Poland’s membership rights: high voting thresholds, no precedent, and high costs to remaining member states.
International organizations do suspend nations that violate their standards—albeit rarely.
International organizations rarely, and unevenly, suspend members that violate their organization’s charters. By “international organizations,” we mean formal bodies based on an international treaty, with at least three member states and a permanent secretariat. We found that in 54 of 308 such organizations, states have signed treaties promising to maintain international standards of human rights, rule of law, and democracy. These include the United Nations, the E.U., and many other regional organizations, such as the Organizations of American States and the African Union.
And yet since World War II, such organizations have suspended member states only 95 times—despite hundreds of violations of those organizations’ mandates.
That’s for the good. If these institutions increase cooperation among nations, suspension should be a last resort.
So when do such organizations suspend members? More than half the time – 51 percent – the reason is democratic backsliding, which includes coup d’états, undemocratic elections, severe human rights violations, and regressions in the rule of law. For example, the African Union suspended Egypt after a 2013 military coup ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The League of Arab States suspended Syria in 2011 because of President Bashar al-Assad’s government-sponsored violence. Mercosur forced Paraguay out in 2012 until the country held free and fair elections. Poland seems to fit this category, since it’s being investigated for clamping down on the rule of law and restricting democratic principles–and the E.U. is comprised of a high number of liberal democracies that are strongly committed to upholding and promoting democratic standards.
But while violations of democratic standards are frequent, suspensions are not. In virtually all international organizations that have clauses dedicated to democratic standards, violators can be kicked out. In 35 percent of those 54 international organizations with commitments to human rights, rule of law, and democracy, the group has also explicitly laid out procedures to suspend violators.
And in the remaining organizations, ad hoc procedures can be used to punish recalcitrant states, as when the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) suspended Yugoslavia in 1992 for violating the organization’s principles, including failing to uphold human rights.
But that is unlikely to happen to Poland
So why is the E.U. unlikely to suspend Poland now? Our research suggests several reasons.
1. Institutional rules matter.
First, we find that when international organizations have high voting thresholds for suspension, it’s less likely to happen. In the case of the E.U. and Poland, suspension would require unanimity among the heads of government in the Council in at least one stage of the voting procedures. Hungary alone could block this suspension vote.
Simple majority rules are much easier to satisfy than two-thirds or unanimity rules. After a 2004 coup toppled Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) suspended Haiti while the Organization of American States (OAS) did not. CARICOM’s simple majority rule was easier to meet than the two-thirds supermajority vote required by the OAS.
But it’s not just the final vote. When there’s a long process required to suspend a country – as there is in the E.U., which now has a three-step process that includes a Commission assessment, recommendation, and follow-up before the actual suspension vote — member states have to work hard to mobilize at each step in the process. Institutional rules matter.
2. Precedent is important.
Second, precedent is important. International organizations are more likely to suspend violators when they’ve already done it before. The E.U. has other member states that have been eroding democratic principles, including Hungary (since 2010) and Austria (in 2000). Since the E.U. hasn’t suspended these or other violator states for any reason, it probably won’t suspend Poland.
In fact, the Polish government is probably betting on E.U. inactivity, specifically because Hungary and Austria weren’t suspended after similar concentration of power in the executive.
In contrast to the E.U., other organizations (such as the Commonwealth and the African Union) have repeatedly suspended recalcitrant states in the last three decades. That creates a more regular practice and precedent.
3. Suspension is costly — not just for the suspended country but for the organization
Third, while suspension certainly hurts the violator state, it’s also costly for the institution and the member states that remain. That makes them less willing to suspend Poland.
The E.U. has branded itself as arguably the most democratically committed international organization. It invests heavily in screening applicants, requiring lengthy accession processes, conditionality clauses with standards for democracy and rule of law, and long catalogs of new regulations that must be in place before joining the club.
But once a country is in the E.U., it becomes closely intertwined with the other member states’ economies. And so suspending Poland – the sixth largest E.U. economy – would almost certainly have repercussions for other states. Poland is a necessary link in E.U. discussions about climate change because it’s the continent’s largest producer of coal. It’s a rough time for the E.U. just now, with the refugee crisis, volatility in the euro, and border threats from Russia. These current challenges make it even more important for the E.U. to ensure that all member states cooperate with each other. And so suspending Poland might generate high costs for E.U. member states.
Poland could still change its course.
Finally, of course, Poland might undo its recent legal changes, returning to more liberal democratic standards, thus nullifying the risk of suspension. The current threat – which stops short of actual suspension — might be the only push needed. That’s what the new three-step process is supposed to achieve.
And the combined pressure from the E.U. and individual member states has worked in the past. In 2000, the E.U. forced Jörg Haider of the far-right Freedom Party to step down from Austria’s leadership and resulted in new elections.
Suspending Poland is likely more trouble than the E.U.’s members think they need right now, especially given the difficulties with procedure, precedent, and disruption not just for Poland but for the rest of the E.U. But if it doesn’t rein Poland in – by whatever means – can the E.U. continue to call itself committed to liberal democracy?
Inken von Borzyskowski is an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University.
Felicity Vabulas is a postdoctoral lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.