Poland and the EU: a time of continuous confrontation?

23 September 2017 /

Poland is once again at the heart of a disagreement with the European Union, not long after the controversy over the judicial reforms and still being in conflict regarding the refugee relocation system. The new target of the conservative ruling party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) is now the forest of Białowieża, which triggers the anger of both environmentalists and EU institutions.

The Current Dispute over Białowieża: Protection or Economic Interests?

The Białowieża forest is located on the border between Poland and Belarus. It is considered as one of the last primeval forests on the European soil, that is to say without significant disturbance by human beings. The forest has a unique biodiversity and is home to a lot of species, including the iconic European bison. Hence, Białowieża requires specific protection and is both recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Natura 2000 area. Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas over the 28 EU member states, including both land and maritime territories; it has been set up by the European Union in 1992 in order to protect threatened species and habitats. Once a member state and the European Commission agree on the area to be protected by the Natura 2000 network, diverse directives such as SACs (Special Areas of Conservation) or SPAs (Special Protection Areas for birds) have to be respected.

Nonetheless, a heated debate started since the Polish government decided to triple the logging operations in the forest on the 25th March 2016. Indeed, more than allowing a significant increase, the government also authorised the logging in areas so far excluded from any intervention, regardless of the specific protections for parts of the forest that include a large number of century-old trees. So far 80,000 cubic metres of forest have yet being cleared during these operations (Neslen, 2017). According to the PiS government, and most notably the Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko, the logging operation is in fact a protective measure that aims at combating a bark-beetle infestation (Berendt, 2017). But the argument has clearly been refuted by environmentalists and scientists, who concluded that these operations were conducted in order to “cover for commercial cutting of protected old-growth forests” (Neslen, 2016).

Based on this, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion in April 2017 urging Poland to refrain from large scale logging and to comply with what the Habitats Directive requires. Yet, Poland has stuck to its plan in spite of this call from the EU institution. Therefore, on the 13th July 2017, the Commission requested interim measures against Poland in order to stop the large-scale logging operations in the Białowieża forest. Moreover, the Juncker administration also referred Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Once again, the government ignored the demands and is still continuing the logging. It can already be considered a major dispute in the EU as it is the first time that a member state ignored such injunction (Keating, 2017). The Court of Justice of the European Union is now expected to rule on the matter in the beginning of October, which could possibly lead to economic sanctions for Poland.

A Sense of Déjà Vu?

The current situation in Białowieża, as well as the fight between the Polish government and the EU are surprisingly close and reminiscent of what has previously been experienced in Rospuda a decade ago. Indeed, the PiS government of that time with Lech Kaczyński in office – former Polish president who died in the plane crash of Smolensk in 2010 – raised a controversy over the construction of a highway through a nature reserve in Poland. Rospuda, which is a pristine wetland valley in the North East of Poland, is protected by European nature legislation under the Natura 2000 label – as is the Białowieża forest. In 2006, the Polish government planned to build up a four-lane motorway passing through the quiet valley. The project, named Via Baltica, aimed at developing the region and the transportation service with the creation of road from the Baltic States to Slovakia (Jowit, 2007). However, under the EU nature law, the site has to be protected from deterioration, therefore it went against the construction of this road. Legal proceedings were opened by the European Commission against Poland, and after two warnings, the case were referred to the Court of Justice in March 2007. Following the autumn 2007 parliamentary elections – won by Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) – the new government decided to change the route, directing it outside the protected area of the Rospuda valley (Byron and Gόrska, 2015). Even if the case can be considered as ending on a good note, it is still one of the main examples when it comes to the non-compliance of a member state with EU nature law.

Towards an Ideological Gap between the EU and the PiS Government?

These political moves make us question the role, as well as the aim of the Polish government towards the European Union. Indeed, a couple of years back, and especially since the PiS party came back in power in 2015, Poland seems to enter in conflict with the EU more and more often. Even regarding the case of Białowieża, one could think that “the activities in the forest do not qualify as public safety measures, but rather as demonstrations of the reluctance of the current Polish government to observe the rule of law” (Douma, 2017); therefore it has come to a complete opposition with the core of the Union. If, on the discursive level, the Polish government keep on stressing the fact that Poland actually belongs to the EU, and is not thinking about leaving it (Orłowski, 2017), the recent maneuvers are clearly questioning the willingness of the PiS government to respect the Union’s values. Besides, Polish officials stressed in several cases the fact that some EU member states or the Union itself are trying to impose regulations or decisions contrary to Poland’s will (de Marcilly, 2017).

This imposition by an outside actor echoes historical events that Poland has been ruled by foreign countries, and therefore this might explain the reluctance of the Polish conservative government to implement EU decisions, as well as to comply with its duties, as Polish identity might be “under threat” (Buras, 2017; p. 3). Hence, Białowieża would stand as a symbolic case, relying more on an ideological issue rather than on economic interests. Thus, it shows the country’s unwillingness to be led by a foreign authority and testifies clearly Poland’s independence.

Elodie Thevenin is studying for a Double Degree Programme in European Studies at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland and the Institute of Political Studies in Strasbourg, France.


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