European values under siege in Poland

Template Banner_Guest blog_European values_Marcin Święcicki

By Marcin Święcicki, President of the European Movement in Poland and Member of Parliament for Civic Platform.

After eight years of centre-liberal coalition in Poland, led by Donald Tusk and Bronisław Komorowski, the conservative, populist and anti-liberal Law and Justice Party won presidential (in May 2015) and parliamentary (in October) elections.

The paradox is that over the past eight years Poland was the only country without recession in the EU, with 24% GDP growth, in contrast to 0,6% in the EU. Yet, according to Law and Justice this growth benefited only a few interest groups and their message has evidently gained the most traction.

The unprecedented investment in infrastructure, especially thanks to European funds, was depicted as “Poland in ruins”. Some inaccuracies in disclosure of assets by officials, including an undeclared expensive watch by one minister, who was subsequently fired, was used to paint a picture of a corrupt government. More recently a scandal involving illegal recordings made of top officials by two waiters, in which unfavourable comments were made on lower wage earners, cemented a perception of politicians’ disdain for and distance from the working class.

Law and Justice has capitalised on this sentiment, and entered into power with a radical reform agenda. Since it lacks a constitutional majority, it aims to dismantle the power of the Constitutional Tribunal, which it believes to be an “obstacle for good reforms” and a source of “impossibility”. President Andrzej Duda avoided swearing in three judges elected by the previous parliament, because he claimed that parliament had lost the support of the people. Instead he swore in – in the middle of the night, so as to be ahead of the morning sitting of the Constitutional Tribunal on the legal applicability of the previously elected judges – five new judges elected by the new Parliament. A few weeks later the President signed a procedural rule that effectively forces the Constitutional Tribunal to postpone ruling on any new legislation for several years (additionally permitting it to rule only when at least 13 judges out of 15 are present, by a 2/3 majority, and only in order of incoming cases).

The President of the Tribunal refused to submit to these proposals and put new procedural legislation on the agenda of the Tribunal in January 2016. However, Law and Justice has signalled that it will not recognise these proposals as it does not comply with the new procedural law.

In addition to all of the above, the Civil Service has been decimated as a result of the direct firing of 1,550 directors and deputy directors from their positions in all ministries and the suspension of competitive procedures for hiring new staff.

The same massive firing is expected in public TV and radio, including all local broadcasting units. Public media will not be subordinated to an independent body but rather directly to the relevant minister. Another sleight of hand by the administration is that journalists are to be summarily fired and then ‘recruited’ following individual “verification”. This regulation might be even more radical than the verification of journalists undertaken by General Jaruzelski during a period of martial law in 1981/82, when only rebellious pro-Solidarity journalists were fired.

Large scale reforms
The systematic destruction of state apparatus is on a truly horrific scale. New national historical and cultural policy is also being prepared for public media, schools and the film industry. The Prosecutor General’s office is to be subordinated to ‘minister of justice’ as it used to be until 2010. On this occasion all functional prosecutors are to be fired and new nominations are to be made. Parliament is proceeding with a new law on police forces, enabling security organs to tap all internet activity without prior authorisation by any court for up to 18 months.

Opposition parties, intelligentsia, even some former supporters of Law and Justice are joining in with protests, Law and Justice seems unimpressed with these developments.

Yet, the level of reform is total and to win over public opinion the government is putting forward generous spending polices. A promised massive increase in child allowance (120 euro per month per child excluding the first one) is under way. A radical increase in the tax-free allowance and free medicines for over 75s is also under preparation. Following the example of Hungary, Law and Justice has introduced a tax on financial institutions and supermarkets, but revenue received from these sources is not enough to finance even a half of the 120 euro per child programme. Consequently, the Government claims that it will finance its spending policies by eliminating tax evasion and increasing the budget deficit.

Despite the brinkmanship displayed over the past few weeks and the very public spats with EU institutions and fellow EU Member States, there is little chance that Poland will leave the EU under Law and Justice’s reign, not least because it wishes to continue benefiting from EU funds and free movement in the Schengen area. But the rule of law and respect for European values in Poland are under severe threat and that is a fight that cannot be lost.

To read the background briefing the European Movement International prepared for MEPs ahead of the European Parliament debate on Poland, click here.