Large protests are being held across Poland in a show of support for the European Union after a court this week challenged the supremacy of EU legislation, widening the rift with Brussels.
Thousands of people on Sunday filled Castle Square, in Warsaw’s historic centre, in a show of opposition to the right-wing nationalist government, with people chanting “We are staying!” and holding signs with slogans like “We are Europeans”. Large protests also took place in other cities across the country.
The leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has been in conflict with EU officials for the past six years as PiS has sought greater control over the courts. The EU has cast the changes as an erosion of democratic checks and balances.
The protests have been called for by Donald Tusk, the top opposition leader in Poland and former EU leader, in an effort to defend Poland’s continued membership in the 27-nation bloc.
Addressing the crowds, Tusk warned that a “pseudo court” had decided to take Poland out of the EU by order of the governing party’s leader, in violation of the constitution.
“We want an independent, law-abiding, democratic and fair Poland,” Tusk said before the crowd sang the national anthem.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Warsaw, said protesters “believe they are Europeans and will always be Europeans”, but that recent tensions between Warsaw and Brussels had stoked fears of a Polish exit from the EU, dubbed “Polexit”.
“Nobody is saying that’s a likelihood yet, but it’s certainly raising the political temperature here and in Brussels,” Challands said.
EU membership is popular in Poland, having brought new freedom to travel and a dramatic economic transformation to the central European nation after communist rule came to an end in 1989.
Kaczynski has denied that he wants Poland to leave the bloc, though top members of the governing party have recently used language suggesting that might be their aim.
In a legal decision requested by Poland’s prime minister earlier this week, a Constitutional Tribunal declared some articles in EU treaties “incompatible” with its national legislation and unconstitutional.
Politicians across Europe have voiced dismay at the ruling, which undermined the legal pillar of European integration on which the 27-nation EU stands.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said she was “deeply concerned” and that the EU executive she leads would do all in its power to ensure the primacy of EU law.
Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of analysis and media platform Visegrad Insight, told Al Jazeera that “while on one hand nobody wants to leave the EU, even supporters of the government, on the other hand nobody seems to be able to say ‘stop’ to the conflict that prevents Poland from accessing EU funds”.
The EU is holding off on approving the 23 billion euros ($26bn) in EU grants and 34 billion euros ($39bn) in cheap loans to help the country past the economic blowback of COVID-19.
Warsaw has accused the EU of “blackmail” following a warning by EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni that the court case could have repercussions on the disbursement of Poland’s pandemic recovery funds.
EU officials have said the money could be disbursed next month but with strict rule of law conditions attached.
Przybylski said political bickering and a ruling coalition made up of heterogeneous parties – some of whom are in favour of holding a referendum on “Polexit” – are to blame for the widening rift between Warsaw and Brussels.