EMI Background Briefing: Poland in the spotlight
The Polish parliamentary elections on 25 October 2015 have brought about a decisive shift in the course of national politics and in relations with Poland’s European partners. The Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / PiS), won an absolute majority and, directed by its controversial leader Jarosław Kaczyński from behind the scenes, has immediately undertaken actions that appear to be violating the rule of law, freedom of media and respect for basic European values in Poland. Developments in Poland also have a strong impact on the EU and they are seen as evidence of the emergence of a worrying trend which challenges pluralistic democracy in several EU member states.
After eight years of Civic Platform’s (Platforma Obywatelska / PO) rule, the new leadership, supported by the PiS-President Andrzej Duda, who won the presidential elections in May 2015, surprised its European partners, and its own citizens, by undertaking steps which have been described as a direct challenge to democracy. In brief, these included:
- A refusal to swear in three judges appointed to the Polish Constitutional Court by the previous Parliament, in order to replace them by PiS-affiliated judges, at the same time exceeding the number of constitutionally allowed vacancies at the Tribunal;
- Restructuring the Constitutional Court, changing the majority rules and abolishing hearings with a smaller number of judges, which will in practice slow down the work of the court and make it politically dependent;
- A new law for the civil service which effectively fires all high ranking officials and introduces a system of political appointments;
- Media reforms along the same line, with the governmental appointment of heads of public TV and radio and the dismissal of current managers and supervisors, impeding freedom of media;
- Officially announced plans for a new law on education, which would stand for abolishing the compulsory education for six year olds and liquidation of secondary school system, so called “gimnazja”, getting back to the old primary and high school scheme. Experts warn of a negative impact of such a solution on the Polish economy.
Furthermore, in a symbolic gesture EU flags were removed from the Prime Minister’s press room. PiS also set steps to intensify cooperation and work on a common EU-strategy with Hungary, which is also in the EU spotlights for breaking the rule of law. Jarosław Kaczyński met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to co-ordinate positions. The more critical stance towards the EU was also illustrated by the recent Polish government’s announcement to go to court over the European Stability Reserve reform.
The confrontational stance adopted by the new Polish governmental was manifested in a series of angry replies by Governments Ministers to letters by Commission Vice President Timmermans [Reply 7 January / Reply 11 January].
The Commission letters expressed concern about the constitutional changes as well as the media law. The College of Commissioners held a discussion on 13 January on the situation in Poland and decided to apply the rule-of-law mechanism of Poland, the first time the commission has used the instrument, which is designed to monitor a country which is at risk of breaching EU law and principles. The Council of Europe has, separately, also urged the Polish government to scrap the new media law.
On 19 January the European Parliament hosted the Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło for a plenary debate on the situation in Poland. The discussion evolved around the core EU values – independence of the judiciary, independence and pluralism of the media – and the need for maintaining the virtues of liberal democracy in a “constructive” and “cooperative” matter, as Commission’s Vice President Timmermans phrased it. PM Szydło for her part rejected criticism of her government, but apart from the support of ECR MEPs, she mostly attracted the reproval of MEPs representing ALDE, the Greens, S&D and EPP.
Parallel to EU actions, the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, visited Warsaw on 8-9 February to take a closer look at the amendments to the Act on the Constitutional Tribunal adopted in December 2015. The visit took place within the framework of the preparation of an opinion requested by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski. The delegation met with the Administration of the Polish President, the Ministry of Justice, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and Parliament, the National Council of the Judiciary and the Ombudsman. The draft opinion will be prepared and submitted for adoption by the next plenary session of the Venice Commission (11- 12 March 2016).
Last but not least, developments since the PiS government took office led to the formation of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji / KOD), a civic organisation sparking large street protests across Poland, standing in defence of endangered democracy.
The European Movement International argues that democracy and the rule of law form the core values of the European Union and all its individual member states. Undermining those values will not only curb the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, but also erode the founding rationale of the European Union, as well as its credibility vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The European Union and its Member States should enforce the rule of law in Europe, using all means at their disposal.
If there is no convincing response from the side of the Polish government after the European Commission proposed the invoking of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, the EU must seriously consider striping Poland of its voting rights in EU institutions.