Same Poland, new packaging.
A Tuesday dinner at the European Commission between new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker along with a deep reshuffle of the national government was supposed to help hit the reset button on long-strained relations between the EU and one of its largest member countries.
It worked, sort of.
The Tuesday meeting was positive, according to the Commission. “The dinner took place in a friendly atmosphere,” a joint statement released after the meeting said. “The best form of dialogue is conversation, not two monologues,” Morawiecki added after the dinner. The PM is expected to meet with Juncker again in Brussels in February.
But Poland’s position on controversial judicial reforms hasn’t changed. The dinner simply gave Morawiecki, a Law and Justice (PiS) loyalist, a chance to explain why Warsaw won’t back down.
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Morawiecki is seeking to smooth over the EU’s Article 7 procedure, which could eventually lead to sanctions against Poland over its changes to the rule of law, through more effective explanations, not dramatic changes in policy.
That’s not to say his government doesn’t want to establish new channels of communication on areas of common interest, according to Morawiecki.
A Tuesday morning reshuffle, which turfed out some of the government’s most controversial political figures including Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, was seen as Morawiecki’s first olive branch to the EU.
The changing of the guard may be too little too late — the EU and Poland’s drawn-out feuds over the rule of law as well as the environment and migration have sowed deep damage and could take months to reverse.
“There is no place in our Union for countries who take EU money, who want to participate in the single market but who reject our shared values #ValuesFirst,” tweeted the European Parliament’s Liberals leader and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt ahead of the meeting.
Morawiecki after the meeting insisted that on climate and energy policy, the digital single market and defense, Poland would make up lost ground.
Enter Tuesday’s government reshuffle, which affected defense, foreign affairs, digital and the environment.
The most contentious change involves Antoni Macierewicz, who lost his job at the defense ministry.
Macierewicz is a powerful figure within the ruling Law and Justice party. He is strongly backed by the ultra-Catholic and nationalist wing of the party, largely for his theory that the 2010 air crash that killed top officials including Poland’s then-President Lech Kaczyński (the brother of PiS leader Jarosław, considered Poland’s most powerful politician) was the result of a conspiracy. However, Macierewicz put relations with France in a deep freeze after scuppering a deal to buy helicopters from Airbus, and his purge of the Polish military’s top leadership sparked concern among NATO allies.
Mariusz Błaszczak, the former interior minister and one of Jarosław Kaczyński’s closest allies, replaces Macierewicz.
Witold Waszczykowski is out as foreign minister. He tried to defend the government’s judiciary reforms, which critics charge put judges under the control of the ruling party, but a series of gaffes soured relations with Germany and didn’t help in Brussels.
The new foreign minister is Jacek Czaputowicz, a much less controversial figure who had been a deputy foreign minister. Morawiecki said he hoped Czaputowicz will help more effectively explain Poland’s position on migration, highlighting the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians the government has accepted as migrant workers as well as the country’s fiscal aid in fighting the migration crisis.
Radosław Sikorski, foreign minister in the previous centrist government, tweeted that Czaputowicz is a “patriot” and a civil servant who understands how the ministry functions.
Jan Szyszko, the former environment minister, is also out. He green-lit a big increase in logging in the primeval and protected Białowieża forest, prompting Brussels to launch an infringement case against Poland before the European Court of Justice. Szyszko was also an ardent defender of the use of coal and expanded the rights of Polish hunters. Henryk Kowalczyk, a minister without a portfolio, replaces Szyszko.
Konstanty Radziwiłł lost his post as health minister. During his term in office the Polish health service was shaken by doctors’ strikes. Radziwiłł’s religious views on issues like abortion and contraception also made him a controversial figure for the government. The new minister is Łukasz Szumowski, formerly a deputy higher education minister.
Anna Streżyńska, widely seen as one of the most competent members of the government, was removed from her post as digital affairs minister.
The reshuffle left Law and Justice’s most radical partisans dismayed and the opposition pleased.
“It’s good that Macierewicz, Waszczykowski and Szyszko are leaving this government,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, parliamentary leader of the opposition Modern party. “However, we still don’t know much about the new ministers.”