New-look Poland edges closer to hardline Hungary
(WARSAW) - Poland's conservatives have been cosying up to populist Hungary since returning to power in October, following Budapest's lead in tightening government control over the judiciary and media in moves that have riled the European Union.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been singing Hungary's praises since ousting the centrist Civic Platform (PO) at the polls after eight years in opposition.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's endorsement of the policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- whom critics accuse of trampling human rights and democratic processes -- has alarmed critics at home and abroad.
"It's not Budapest here, it's Warsaw," youth protestors shouted outside the presidential palace in Warsaw last month, during a rally against the government's controversial reforms of the constitutional court.
On Sunday, the European Commission announced it would debate the state of rule of law in Poland -- a move that could lead to a potentially punitive process aimed at buttressing democracy and human rights.
Orban, who sustained fierce criticism from his EU peers last year over his hardline stance on migrants, said Friday that Budapest would "never support" any EU sanctions on Poland.
"I call for more respect for the Poles because this is what they deserve," said Orban, who has also incurred the opprobrium of Brussels over his curbs on the press and judiciary.
Despite the controversy, Kaczynski, who is neither premier nor president but widely believed to call the shots in his party, has been steering Warsaw closer to Budapest.
On Wednesday, he met Orban in the Polish resort town of Niedzica for talks on "a host of international issues, notably European ones," according to Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo is also to visit Budapest "in the coming weeks", Polish and Hungarian officials said.
Hungarian news site Hungary Today linked Kaczynski's meeting with Orban to British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Budapest on Thursday, suggesting that the Hungarian-Polish talks were meant to harmonise Warsaw and Budapest's positions on EU reforms proposed by London.
But Polish media also speculated that Warsaw was looking for pointers from Orban on how to resist pressure from Brussels.
Waszczykowski said Thursday he did not know whether the topic had come up in Niedzica but that his ministry would "like to learn from Hungary's experience in its dealings with the EU".
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the two countries could look forward to "an exceptionally dynamic" relationship.
"A fundamental commonality between Budapest and Warsaw is the notion of a curtailed, reduced democracy," said Aleksander Smolar, president of the Stefan Batory Foundation that promotes civic issues in Poland.
In such a democracy, "all the elements that keep the executive power in check are weakened," Smolar told the leading Gazeta Wyborcza daily on Thursday.
- EU's 'constructive' approach -
Some of the measures already introduced by Poland's new government appear to draw on Hungary's example, including reforms of the constitutional court that the opposition claims threaten judicial independence.
PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda on Thursday also signed into law a controversial bill handing the government control of public broadcasters, despite the EU and rights watchdogs expressing concern over the impact of the legislation on free speech.
Asked about the similarities between those measures and Orban's Hungary, Waszczykowski said: "Hungary had emerged from a deep economic and political crisis and so it's interesting to adopt some of its solutions."
But Kaczynski is in a less comfortable position than Orban. His party's absolute majority in parliament will still not suffice to rewrite the constitution as Orban did, according to Attila Juhasz, an analyst with the Political Capital institute.
The Hungarian-Polish rapprochement could also be limited by clear differences on President Vladimir Putin's Russia, which is well regarded in Budapest but whose growing military assertiveness is a source of concern for former Eastern Bloc member Poland.
Kaczynski must also reckon with stauncher political opposition at home, as well as a strong reaction from the EU, which appears to regret having been too soft on Budapest.
But the European Commission, which will debate Poland on January 13, is also anxious to avoid ramping up tensions with the Central European heavyweight of 38 million people -- once seen as a star pupil.
"Let's not overdramatise. It's an important issue but we have to have friendly and good relations with Poland," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday.
"Our approach is very constructive -- we are not bashing Poland," he told a press conference in Amsterdam.