Friday

23rd Feb 2018

MEPs urge tougher action on Poland

  • A anti-government demonstration in Warsaw. (Photo: Grzegorz Zukowski)

Dismayed by the lack of progress in solving Poland's rule of law crisis, some MEPs are demanding that the EU begins formal breach proceedings that could end up with Poland being stripped of voting rights.

The "Polish question" was discussed in the European Parliament on Wednesday (14 December), for the fourth time this year already.

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This time the subject was a new law curtailing the freedom of assembly, as well as the rumours that Poland could withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on the eradication of violence against women.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, also highlighted that the Polish parliament was about to pass three more bills affecting the constitutional court.

The government's attacks on the constitutional court were the initial trigger for the commission's concerns that there was a "systemic threat against the rule of law" last July, said Timmermans.

One of the current bills would give Poland's president the right to nominate an "acting president of the court".

According to Timmermans, this would breach the Polish constitution and further undermine the independence of the constitutional court.

But MEPs from Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and their allies in the conservative ECR group accused the commission of setting up an "Orwellian spectacle".

ECR leader Syed Kamall suggested similarities between the commission and Poland's communist oppression.

On the other side of the debate, some MEPs now want the EU to trigger article 7 of the EU treaty - the formal mechanism to find a state in serious breach of the treaties, which could end with sanctions such as loss of voting rights.

On Tuesday, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal Alde group, told a news conference that the article could be triggered either by the commission, the parliament or member states.

Article 7

During Wednesday's debate, Dutch liberal Sophie in't Veldt asked the commissioner what he was waiting for.

She told EUobserver that in the end, it was likely to be the parliament's decision.

"There is a broad support in the parliament to do that," she said, and referred to an opinion piece published on this website arguing for tougher action on Poland. It was signed by members of five different groups, including a representative of Hungary's Fidesz.

Members of the Social Democrat and Green groups also urged Timmermans to go forward during Wednesday's debate.

But some are wary of such a step as the procedure would likely be blocked in the EU Council, representing member states, since it has to decide by unanimity to impose sanctions. That would only weaken the EU’s authority vis-a-vis Poland, critics fear.

“Then the responsibility for the failure will fall on the council, and not the commission,” in’t Veldt told this website.

Frans Timmermans didn't reply to their queries, saying only that the commission would discuss the situation "soon", concluding Wednesday's debate with a passionate speech in support of the rule of law and Europe.

"This is not the commission of others acting against Poland. I am also the Polish commissioner. I feel a responsibly for the Polish people, for the rule of law across the EU," he said.

"I may have not even been alive had my father not been liberated in 1945 for Polish soldiers who offered their lives for our collective freedom. I feel a huge debt of personal gratitude towards Polish people, which compels me to insist on these points."

"Those men who freed us never saw freedom themselves. But their children and grandchildren are living in a free, strong and independent Poland. Poland has never been so independent as it is today, as a full-fledged member of Nato and the EU. This is something I cherish, as one of the greatest achievements of European history."

Analysis

EU still shy of 'nuclear option' on values

The EU commission has moved forward with its rule-of-law probe on Poland, but critics say that a better framework is needed to uphold values.

Polish politicians try to defuse political crisis

The coming days will be crucial, liberal opposition leader Ryszard Petru told EUobserver, after a weekend of street protests and escalating confrontation over media freedom and the budget.

Poland faces 'nuclear option' of EU sanctions

The EU Commission could ask member states to impose sanctions against Poland for its breach of the rule of law in a crucial meeting, though experts say the country is unlikely to be punished.

UK seeks flexible transition length after Brexit

Britain wants to negotiate with Brussels the end date of the Brexit transition period - without saying what their preferred end date would be. The UK's position paper disagrees with the EU on other key points too.

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