October 26, 2015 / 2:07 PM / 2 years ago

Poland's lurch to the right stirs anxiety in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland’s lurch to the nationalist right in the first election to be influenced by Europe’s refugee crisis is sending shudders of anxiety through the European Union leadership in Brussels, where officials expect a prickly relationship.

A worker walks in front of an election poster depicting Law and Justice's (PiS) candidate Marek Krukowski and party's leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L) in Warsaw, Poland, October 26, 2015. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

EU officials have not forgotten the first time Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party ran the biggest member state in central Europe in 2005-2007.

Warsaw held up ratification of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, fought for more voting power in the bloc, and obstructed the launch of partnership talks with Russia.

“Things are going to get much more difficult,” said a senior EU official involved in trying to forge compromises among the 28 EU governments.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to PiS candidate for prime minister Beata Szydlo, congratulating her on victory and saying the EU executive expected Poland to play a central role in building a stronger Europe.

But leading EU powers Germany and France pointedly declined comment on Sunday’s vote outcome, which saw the economically liberal pro-EU center-right Civic Platform swept from office and left-wing parties decimated. A German government spokesman noted only that Berlin wanted to maintain good ties with Warsaw.

Even if discontent over the uneven distribution of Poland’s economic boom and scandals involving Civil Platform politicians played a bigger role in the swing to the right, Kaczynski made hostility to taking in mostly Muslim refugees from Syria a key campaign issue, saying they could bring disease to Europe.

Anti-migrant sentiment is fuelling a surge in support for hard-right populists in many EU countries that could help topple other governments if the influx of refugees endures.

Kaczynski is expected to call the shots and pick his battles in the EU, even though he has nominated the soft-spoken Szydlo as prime minister and may put conciliatory figures with European experience into the foreign and defense ministries.

Warsaw and Brussels could soon be at loggerheads on other issues ranging from the euro to fiscal policy and central bank independence, climate change targets, energy policy and civil rights, judging by the new ruling party’s manifesto.

The new Polish government may also mobilize and expand the Visegrad group of ex-communist central European countries, adding Romania and Bulgaria to the core of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, to fight European Commission plans for mandatory quotas of refugees, EU officials said.

ORBAN EMULATOR?

PiS has said Poland will not join the euro in the next four years and has promised to make largely foreign-owned banks and supermarket chains pay new taxes to fund more social spending, imitating steps taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

EU officials say they are worried that Kaczynski may seek to change the constitution to emulate Orban’s model of “illiberal democracy”, packing the central bank, media, judiciary and other state bodies with loyalists.

On a personal level, relations between Warsaw and European Council President Donald Tusk, the former center-right Polish prime minister who chairs EU summits, are bound to be tense.

There is deep personal animosity between Tusk and Kaczynski, who has suggested the former premier was responsible for the death of his late brother, Lech, killed when his presidential plane crashed in thick fog in Russia in 2010.

The new Polish government will have the power to re-nominate or withdraw support from Tusk when his 2-1/2 year term comes up for renewal in May 2017, giving Kaczynski a hold on his arch-rival’s political future.

EU officials fret that PiS, which has vowed to keep Poland’s subsidized coal mines open and defend its high-carbon energy mix, may undermine the bloc’s common negotiating position at the U.N. climate conference in Paris starting next month.

They also worry that the party’s plans to make banks bear the brunt of converting loans denominated in Swiss francs into local zloty to shield Polish home-owners from losses could trigger a banking crisis.

It remains to be seen how a PiS government will affect Britain’s bid to renegotiate its relationship with the EU ahead of a referendum promised by end-2017. Only Eurosceptic UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage was celebrating.

“This result demonstrates once again how euroscepticism is growing right across the whole of the EU,” he told Reuters.

While London will have an ally in Warsaw keen to curtail EU powers, the new Polish government is sure to defend the right of more than 700,000 Poles living in Britain to equal treatment with native workers. Prime Minister David Cameron aims to deny welfare and in-work benefits to EU migrants for four years.

An EU source questioned whether Szydlo would be able to accept any deal allowing Britain to curtail those rights at her first EU summit in December.

That could drag the British negotiations into 2016, making it harder for Cameron to hold the referendum before the summer, which some analysts see as the best timing for a positive vote.

There are also concerns in Brussels that Poland could seek to piggy-back any exemption granted to Britain from the goal of “ever closer union”, complicating the negotiation and raising the risk of a wider unraveling of European integration.

Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Mark John

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