On Thursday 9 March, European Union (EU) leaders re-elected President of European Council Donald Tusk despite a bid to oust him by his home country Poland. The re-election came after earlier in the day Poland had threatened to derail Thursday’s EU summit as it attempted to bloc Tusk’s re-election.
Sources have indicated that the leaders voted 27 to one to give him another two-and-a-half-year term.
Arriving at the summit on Thursday, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo stated that nothing should be decided without Poland’s agreement. Ms Szydlo had also written a letter to EU leaders, stating that Mr Tusk has “violated multiple times his European mandate” by getting involved in Polish political disputes and supporting the opposition to the government. The EU has angered Poland’s nationalist government by criticizing changes to the country’s top court, new restrictions on journalists and it opposition to resettling refugees by quota. Meanwhile in an interview earlier with Polish television, Foreign Minister Waszczykowski stated that his country could even veto the summit’s conclusions to scupper Mr Tusk’s re-election. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, however suggested that Mr Tusk’s re-election could not be blocked, stating “one country, or a number of countries might be against that decision, but one country cannot block a decision…There are very clear rules of engagement and rules of procedure which we will follow.”
Speaking after EU leaders re-elected Mr Tusk to a second term, Poland’s Prime Minister stated that Mr Tusk’s re-appointment would damage EU efforts to recover after the UK’s departure and that it was a “question of principles” that any candidate for the post should be backed by his home country.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) implacably opposes Mr Tusk, who is a former minister from a rival party. While on the ground sources have indicated that such hostility among patriots is highly unusual in EU politics, Mr Tusk was expected to get enough support to keep his post. He had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that his re-election to a new 30-month term would be a “sign of stability. As European Council president, Mr Tusk would be a major role in the UK’s Brexit negotiations.
Prior to Thursday’s vote, Poland’s government was desperate in trying to prevent Mr Tusk from being re-elected to a second term as president of the European Council. They went as far as to propose its own candidate – a little-known Polish MEP called Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.
There has also been some suggestion that the UK may abstain from the vote in a bid to win Polish support over Brexit negotiations. However ultimately all but Poland voted for Mr Tusk, with the Press Association news agency quoting UK government sources as saying that Prime Minister Theresa May was “pleased” that he had been re-elected.
Late on Monday 14 November, the remains of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were exhumed as part of a new investigation into the fatal plane crash in Smolensk six years ago. The crash killed the couple and all 94 others on board.
The remains were removed from a marble sarcophagus in the crypt of Krakow’s historic Wawel Cathedral. Prosecutors have disclosed that new examinations are necessary in order to ensure that the victims were correctly identified, noting that the original autopsies carried out in Russia contained irregularities. Indeed, several exhumations carried out four years ago found that some of the victims were buried in the wrong graves, however more than that, prosecutors say that the forensic tests may also provide new evidence about the cause of the disaster. Further exhumations are due to be carried out in stages over the next 12 months.
The decision is highly controversial as it is opposed by some of the families of the victims. Furthermore, it is being carried out without their consent. While some families agree with the procedure, 17 families appealed to church and political leaders to prevent what they called a “ruthless” and “cruel” decision. In an opinion poll last month, just 10% of respondents supported the exhumations.
President Kaczynski’s plane crashed in dense fog just shot of the runway of a former military airbase in the Russian city of Smolensk on 10 April 2010. Senior state and military officials had been on their way to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by the Soviet secret police. Russian and Polish investigations have concluded that the crash was mainly caused by pilot error. Both reports have indicated that the pilots warned officials that the weather conditions were not sufficient to attempt a landing, however a decision was taken to descent to see if the runway could be sighted. The pilots flew too fast and too low and ignored repeated electronic warnings to pull up before smashing into the ground. While the tragedy initially united the country in grief, it has since caused much division. The investigations’ findings have never satisfied President Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, who now leads the governing Law and Justice party, which took office a year ago. Mr Kaczynski’s close ally, defense minister Antoni Macierewicz, has launched a fresh investigation. He has previously spoken about two explosions moments before the plane crashed and the examinations will check for traces of explosives. Indeed, about one quarter of Poles believe that President Kaczynski was assassinated, while more than two thirds of Poles do not believe the crash has been fully explained, with a majority believing that it was an accident. Previous probes have explicitly ruled out an explosion.
Since the elections in the autumn of last year Poland has certainly seen a hectic couple of months. Soon after forming government the Law and Justice Party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, passed a law that would weaken the court, requiring, for example, a two-thirds majority for a decision to be binding. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal has later fought this, calling it unconstitutional. However, this ruling has been dismissed by the government. Towards the end of last year the government also introduced a bill to reform the country’s public broadcasters, which would empower the government to appoint or dismiss the country’s media executives. The national media council is closely tied to the Law and Justice party, and giving this council more power would, in essence, mean that the government would have a much greater influence over the country’s broadcasting of TV and Radio. These changes of the constitution and violations of democratic values in Poland has caused the EU to react. During the spring of this year opposition protests have flared up over the legislation that gives the government more influence over the justice system. This legislation has been rejected by the top court of the country, claiming that it limits the judiciary’s ability to dispense justice. The Law and Justice Party, in response, has contested the court’s right to rule at all in the matter. The government has been pressured internationally to recognise the court’s decision, not just from the EU and from human rights organisations, but from the US as well. Jaroslaw Kaczynski has seemed fearless regarding the risk of open conflict with the EU as he has officially rejected foreign advice and pleas to reverse the changes his party has made, saying that Poland will solve these matters on its own, without foreign intervention. In January the EU Commission activated its rule of law ‘framework’ in relation to Poland. This framework is an instrument aimed at protecting EU values like the rule of law, democracy, equality and the respect of human rights. It does not give the Commission power to fine the Polish government, cut any union funds, or suspend the right to vote in union matters, but it allows the commission to talk to, and negotiate with, Poland for a solution. In May Poland was given what seemed like an ultimatum by Brussels, which stated that the country’s leaders would have to show that progress is being made to remedy the situation. Failure to respond adequately to this would lead to new actions from the EU commission under the “rule of law framework. Vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmerman, has expressed recently that the changes to the Polish judiciary pose a risk to the principle of rule of law. Poland on the other hand is directing sharp criticism toward the commission over this matter, and claims that the EU has other reasons for interfering with what is in essence Poland’s domestic concerns. Polish Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, has accused Brussels of blackmailing Poland to force the country to take more than the 7,600 Syrian migrants agreed. Since Poland did not respond adequately to the warnings from Brussels the commission has activated a second stage under the framework, marking the first time ever this had been implemented. This can ultimately lead to the revocation of voting rights, however such penalties can only be implemented by the EU council and it would take a decision with a four-fifths majority that “the clear danger of a grave infringement” of common values exists in Poland. This would mean that Poland would officially be given recommendations on how to fix the underlying problems. Failure to do so would lead to EU Council conclusion that these “grave infringements” is in fact occurring. But this must be established unanimously, and if so, it would lead to the suspension of Poland’s right to vote. It is highly unlikely however, that all remaining 27 EU members would agree on this. The Polish government has a close ally in Viktor Orbán of Hungary, for example, and he has reportedly said that he would never let such a thing happen. Poland has reportedly considered going to the top European Union court to challenge the EU commission’s procedure against it, if Brussels doesn’t lowers its pressure. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has said “The procedure that is currently being used against us is a non-treaty procedure, a made-up one, and it can be challenged in the Court of Justice of the European Union at any moment.” Some say perhaps the best chance to influence the Polish government to reverse these changes now lies with the Americans. Poland has historically considered the US a close ally and is heavily dependent on NATO military support in the face of aggressions from Russia. Since Poland will be the host of the next big NATO summit, scheduled to take place in July, and is also hoping to secure larger contingents of allied troops on its territory, a clear message from Washington officials could perhaps have the desired effect. It is a dynamic situation and many thing might come to change over the course of the summer.