Poles voice fears of 'Polexit' as govt defies EU over budget

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The flags of the European Union, Poland and the city of Warsaw hang in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday Dec. 9, 2020. Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said the city was displaying EU flags around the city as a way of putting pressure on the national government to compromise in a dispute with the EU over the next long-term budget. Trzaskowski said the city wants to show to the rest of the EU that the Polish government's tough position "is not the position of the whole of Poland". (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW – As the Polish government plays a game of chicken with the European Union over its next long-term budget, some Poles are voicing fears that a drawn-out conflict could put their country on a path toward an eventual departure from the bloc, or “Polexit.”

Poland's conservative government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party, denies that it has ever wanted to leave the 27-member bloc, and popular support for EU membership runs extremely high.

But critics fear the combative tone of Polish leaders — who have recently compared the EU to the Soviet Union and used terms like "political enslavement" to describe Poland's predicament in the standoff — could create momentum, which if unstopped, could accidently bring the nation to the exit door.

The fears are rooted in a threat by the Polish and Hungarian governments to block the EU’s 1.82 trillion-euro ($2.21 trillion) budget for the next seven years, including a coronavirus recovery package. The veto threat comes after other EU members voted to introduce a new rule that would allow the bloc to cut funding to EU nations that violate the rule of law.

Both countries, under their nationalist right-wing governments, have eroded judicial and media independence, creating concerns about democratic backsliding.

That issue will be debated at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday.

Similar concerns about a “Huxit” are mirrored to a lesser extent in Hungary, where the government has often portrayed the EU in Brussels as a foreign, despotic power that aims to bend Hungary to its will — especially on immigration.

In November, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban echoed Polish parallels between the EU and Soviet Union, saying the EU budget’s rule of law conditions resembled the “ideological blackmail” practiced by the USSR.