Anniversaries often fall at awkward times, highlighting problems, not accomplishments.
Take the European Union. Last weekend, it celebrated — although that’s not quite the word — 60 years since the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating the European Economic Community with six members.
Now it calls itself a union, and there are, officially, 28 countries in the club. But this is a club that’s getting smaller, and snarkier.
On the weekend in Rome, the 28th member, Britain, stayed away. It’s about to trigger Brexit and pull out for good.
And Poland sulked.
The president of the European council, a position of some power, is Donald Tusk, a Pole and a former prime minister. But the present Polish government loathes him, saying he may be guilty of something close to treason. In March, it tried to stop his reappointment.
It failed miserably. Only one country voted against Tusk — his own.
Then Poland’s current leader, Prime Minister Beata Syzdlo, went on national television March 23 threatening that her country of 38.5 million people would not sign the 60th anniversary declaration.
“If the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland, we will not accept the declaration,” she said. Brussels, she said, should be restoring powers to member countries.
In the end, the document was watered-down enough for Poland to sign — and for it to sulk through the ceremony.
All of this is due to a little man with white hair.
He is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the 67-year-old leader of the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland. He is unmarried, monkish and lived with his mother until she died in 2013. He didn’t have a bank account until a few years ago. He used to give 20 per cent of his salary to a cat charity.
Once there were two Kaczynskis, and they were identical twins. Jaroslaw and his brother Lech sprang to fame at the age of 12 in the Polish film The Two Who Stole the Moon.
Lech remained president
Forty-five years later they were running their country, with Jaroslaw as prime minister and Lech as president. In 2007, Jaroslaw’s Law and Justice party lost the parliamentary elections, and he was replaced as prime minister.
Lech continued as president until he, and much of Poland’s military high command, were killed in a plane crash in 2010.
His brother’s death has become Jaroslaw’s obsession, recast as the central event in a vast conspiracy involving Russia and his political opponents in Poland.
And since his Law and Justice party returned to power in 2015, that obsession has become an integral part of Polish government policy.
Kaczynski now holds no government position. But all agree that, as party leader, he makes the key decisions.
One of them has been to pursue Donald Tusk for complicity in the unproved conspiracy. Tusk was prime minister at the time of the fatal crash that killed Lech Kaczynski.
Just days after Tusk was reconfirmed as European Council president, he was summoned to testify by Polish prosecutors about links between Russian and Polish secret services seven years ago.
He refused the summons, saying it conflicted with his European duties.
The deadly crash in 2010 took place in heavy fog as the plane was trying to land in Smokensk, Russia. Polish officials were to attend an official commemoration of the murder by Soviet secret police of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940.
Kaczynski believes, without proof, that the Russians, brought the plane down to destroy an enemy of Russia. And then Polish agents helped in the coverup.
‘Whoever attacks us will not win.’
– Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Tusk is only the highest-profile target. Kaczynski’s core conviction is that the entire Polish elite after the fall of communism in 1990 betrayed the country.
The last 25 years have been “a failure” characterized by “post-communist pathologies.” The men and women who led the country, including Lech Walesa, Poland’s first post-communist leader, were “Poles of the worst sort” with “treason in their genes.”
All these are Kaczynski’s words.
His alternative is a strong state, Catholic and conservative, with few checks and balances. His new government quickly set about hobbling Poland’s supreme court and bringing to heel state television with party loyalists at its head. And it has just pushed through a law limiting anti-government protests.
With the backing of the church, it even introduced a bill to outlaw almost all abortions. Poland’s abortion law was already one of the most restrictive in Europe. Massive demonstrations by women around the country blocked that initiative.
But a new bill outlawing abortion sits before the Polish parliament and many believe the government is waiting for the right time to push it through.
Kaczynski is also a canny populist. His government pleases its voters with increased family allowances and pensions and more social housing. That, a strong economy (in part because Poland is the biggest recipient of EU transfer money) and a split opposition, keep his party solidly ahead in the polls.
Now to this successful stew add several dozen North Korean workers at plants around Poland for a little spice.
North Korea sells workers — up to 50,000 of them, according to a UN report — to other countries, principally Russia and China, for hard currency. A government agency takes 70 per cent of their earnings.
Poland is on the buyers’ list, despite concerns raised by European MPs that this contravenes European regulations on workers’ rights.
At one Polish factory, Fructofresh, the 50 North Koreans are virtual prisoners, their passports and visas held by the company, according to an investigation in the French newspaper Le Monde.
Their low wages allow the company to sell its fruit salad around Europe, including to the cafeteria of the French National Assembly — this despite the fact that it uses conservation agents banned by the EU.
Kaczynski doesn’t worry about the EU. He and his government have already seen off one EU challenge to its efforts to emasculate the Polish Supreme Court. He regards Brussels as a wounded beast in the wake of Brexit, a beast to be tamed.
“Whoever attacks us will not win,” he said recently.
“The question is, if the EU in its current form with its horrible bureaucracy and institutionalized undermining of the nation-state, can survive. To my mind, no.”
And so Poland, with Hungary — its ally in what has been called “illiberal democracy” — demand that EU powers be handed back to national governments.
And the wounded beast, faced with more arrows, may yet comply.