Poland and the EU CommissionJune 3, 2016 in Poland
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.