Staying on an official visit in Hungary new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, listens to his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban during their joint news conference following their talks in the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Tibor Illyes/MTI via AP)
'A year of great battles': Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban in Budapest © AP

When Poland and Hungary joined the EU together in 2004, they rode a wave of optimism about the eastward spread of Europe’s liberal values. But the two countries’ leaders now argue it is western Europe that has lost its way.

Meeting this week, the two respective heads of government made clear they would fight their corner this year in bruising disputes with Brussels over migration and money.

Mateusz Morawiecki arrived in Budapest on Wednesday for his first bilateral visit since his appointment as Poland’s prime minister in December. His meeting with his counterpart Viktor Orban underlined his government’s close links with conservative-nationalist allies in Hungary.

“I believe that like-minded nations like ourselves together can influence Europe’s future in a very positive way,” Mr Morawiecki said. A combative Mr Orban predicted 2018 would be a “year of great battles” against western Europe’s multicultural values.

“We don’t want to live in an empire but rather in an alliance of free nations,” he said, calling the EU’s migration policy a “spectacular failure” and saying Europe could only be strong by “preserving its Christian culture”.

The two countries’ multiple disagreements with EU policies add up to one of the largest challenges for a bloc that, in spite of a growing economic revival, is still shaking off the lingering effects of severe financial shocks over the past decade. EU leaders are also dealing with the UK’s impending exit and confronting populist pressures in other countries.

Poland was once seen as the EU’s most promising pupil in central and eastern Europe, enjoying transformative economic growth. But the country’s conservative-nationalist government led by the Law and Justice party has since 2016 unsettled EU allies by reshaping the country’s court system and public service media, mimicking Mr Orban’s transformation of Hungary’s political system.

At the same time, Mr Orban has galvanised opposition to the way the EU has dealt with an influx of refugees, further driving a wedge between the EU’s eastern and western members.

Both countries have joined forces to resist EU sanctions against Poland over judicial reforms, which Brussels has described as a “serious risk to the rule of law”. Poland’s government has adopted more than a dozen judicial reform laws and installed appointees in top court positions, arguing the previous system was vulnerable to “nepotism and corruption”.

The relationship between Poland and Hungary was an “unprecedented test” for the EU because of its potential to thwart other member states’ agendas in areas ranging from migration to the rule of law, said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

“They are seeking an alliance to fend off the EU,” she said. “That is something the EU has not seen before. EU members have always formed alliances and subgroups. But in the past those subgroups have usually been aiming for deeper integration. This is the first time that the EU has had . . . a subgroup that is rejecting solidarity on migration and burden-sharing.”

Poland and Hungary have formed a hardline axis within the Visegrad group — an informal caucus of four central and eastern European countries — against what they see as Brussels’ interference in immigration policy and constitutional issues.

But they differ on other issues — most notably relations with Russia — and their anti-Brussels rhetoric has unsettled the other two members, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, which is a eurozone member, has said his country’s “vital interest” in the EU outweighs its regional ties.

Brussels has referred Budapest to the EU’s highest court over its refusal to accept refugee quotas, and over laws targeting civil society groups and universities with foreign links. And last month Brussels issued an unprecedented public rebuke over Poland’s alleged breaches of EU law and values. The European Commission for the first time invoked Article 7.1 of EU treaties, declaring “a serious risk to the rule of law” in Poland, after more than a year of fruitless dialogue with Warsaw over its judicial changes.

But following these steps with punishments — which under the Article 7 process would ultimately lead to suspending Warsaw’s voting rights — will be harder. Any attempt to impose sanctions on Poland would require unanimity among the union’s other 27 member states, including Hungary.

“It’s not even worth starting the process against Poland as there’s no chance of implementing it,” Mr Orban told a radio audience last month. “Hungary will be there and we will form a roadblock they cannot get around.”

No date has yet been set for EU member states to vote to approve the commission’s Article 7 declaration last month, and EU diplomats stress that they want to leave an opportunity to stop the crisis escalating, partly through a desire to avoid a destabilising internal rupture in the union but also reflecting a pragmatic acknowledgment of Hungary’s veto on political sanctions.

At the same time, the two countries face protracted negotiations with other member states this year over the EU’s next multi-annual budget, which could put in question their access to billions of euros in EU funds.

“There are a growing number of western countries suggesting tying EU funds to political conditions. Hungary and Poland are natural allies on this and they are preparing for a fight,” said Daniel Bartha, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, a Budapest-based think-tank.

The recent tilt towards rightwing nationalism in Warsaw and Budapest has sparked particular concern in Germany. Berlin pushed hard for quick integration of eastern European states into the EU out of a sense of historic responsibility and a desire for stable and prosperous neighbours.

“Germany has some really tough disagreements with these countries but there are also many connections, both in economic terms and socially,” says Kai-Olaf Lang, a senior fellow at the SWP German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “That is why Germany does not want to see the creation of new division lines within Europe, for example by way of an excessively strong deepening of the eurozone. Berlin has a more inclusive approach.”

Wojciech Przybylski, editor of Visegrad Insight, said despite stark policy differences — most notably over relations with Russia, which Budapest favours — Mr Morawiecki’s visit had underlined Poland’s growing reliance on Hungary.

“Hungary has succeeded in dominating the regional perspective, due to the migration crisis. Now it benefits from Poland’s weakness; they need Hungary to protect them.”

On Wednesday, both countries were making common cause and stressing their unity. Mr Morawiecki said: “The dial is turning in our direction.”

Central Europe “stands on its own feet”, Mr Orban said. “It plays a stabilising role in Europe and we want to weigh in on the debate about the EU.”

Letter in response to this article:

Orban and Morawiecki may have a point / From Will Thompson, London, UK

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