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25th Mar 2019

Polish PM defends judicial witch-hunt

  • Juncker declined to go head-to head with Morawicki in the EP (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Poland's judicial purge was designed to punish former communist stooges, its government has argued, as the EU debate with Warsaw gets angrier by the day.

The kind of people whose verdicts in the 1980s led to jail terms and deaths of personal friends of Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki were still sitting in the country's Supreme Court (SC) and had to go, he told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (4 July).

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"Some of the judges from the martial law period who handed down shameful verdicts … are in the Supreme Court and you're defending them - do you know that?", he said, referring to a period of military rule in Poland between 1981 and 1983.

"Post-communism has not been beaten down yet, and that's what we are doing with our reform of the judiciary," he said.

The debate took place amid raw nerves both in Warsaw and in EU institutions.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the Polish capital the same day in support of Maria Gersdorf, the SC president, who is being forced into retirement under the new law.

She went to work as normal, citing her mandate under the Polish constitution, but Morawiecki's government, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, said its measures trumped the national charter.

Billed as part of regular talks on "the future of Europe", the EU parliament debate went off script into nasty territory.

The European Commission is taking Poland to court to halt the forced SC retirements and has triggered a sanctions process, under Article 7 of EU treaty, that could see Poland's EU voting rights suspended.

Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker sent a deputy (Latvia's commissioner) in his place on Wednesday, ducking the confrontation.

Juncker's spokesman said he was back in Brussels after having gone to Strasbourg on Tuesday. Frans Timmermans, his top deputy, was also too busy to attend, but EP seats were full of MEPs hurling insults and EP head Antonio Tajani lost his temper at one point.

Morawiecki, a former investment banker, is the suave face of PiS, whose party ranks include more belligerent types.

He listened poker-faced to accusations that PiS was destroying the independence of the judiciary, oppressing free speech, fiddling electoral laws, and attacking Muslims, women, and gay rights.

None of that was true, he said, using the anodyne jargon that judicial reform was a "national competence" under the "acquis communautaire".

"We've been a little bit disappointed by the commission's stance so far," he added.

His remarks on "post-communist" judges was a rare and frank admission that PiS was acting on political motives.

It was also the closest he came to showing emotion, but other PiS and pro-PiS MEPs did not hold back.

PiS and friends

The EU parliament was full of "Poland-bashing" based on "idiotic stories" and "self-serving arrogance," Morawiecki's fellow PiS MEP, Ryszard Legutko, said with a clenched fist.

Those comments were taken by parliament chief, Italian politician Antonio Tajani, as an insinuation that he had previously disciplined a far-right Polish MEP because Tajani hated Poles.

"I will not accept statements that someone is inferior because they're a woman, or they come from a Jewish origin," Tajani said, getting hot under the collar, after he suspended Janusz Korwin-Mikke, over a sexist rant last year. The Polish deputy is also a Holocaust denier.

Morawiecki's noisy allies included British Brexiteers, the French far-right, and other fringe Poles, highlighting how far from the mainstream PiS had drifted.

The EU was a secret German plan to rule Europe after it "lost the shooting war [WWII]," Gerard Batten, a British eurosceptic MEP said.

PiS was fighting EU "nihilism opposed to the rule of God," French far-right MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, thundered.

The EU was "fighting Christianity" by forcing Poland to take in a "flood of Muslims" and by promoting "homosexual rights", Polish right-winger Stanislaw Zoltek said.

The leaders of the EP's senior groups - the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D, and the liberal Alde - spoke of Poland's noble place in the history of European democracy, not least its anti-Nazi and anti-communist resistance.

They made personal appeals to Morawiecki, but also voiced dismay at his polite obstinacy.

"You missed an opportunity today," EPP chief Manfred Weber said.

Weber said he was reluctant, as a German national, to speak out in case PiS "propaganda" turned into a story of German diktats, but he accused Warsaw of going down the path of "egoism and nationalism".

PiS judicial reforms bore "a striking resemblance to the institutions which existed in the Soviet Union," liberal leader, Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, said, quoting a report by the Venice Commission, a European democracy watchdog.

He tried to hit another Polish nerve by saying that division in Europe served Russian president Vladimir Putin at a time when Russia, China, and the US were craving out a new world order.

MEPs egg on protests

The EPP, the SPD, the Greens, and the far-left GUE group encouraged anti-PiS protesters in Warsaw.

"I applaud [SC judge] professor Gersdorf - a strong, proud, patriotic Polish woman," the S&D's Ana Gomes, from Portugal, said.

"Listen to these women's cries. Maybe you can't hear them because of the tolling of church bells," Tania Gonzalez Penas, an Irish MEP from GUE said, zeroing in on other protests against a PiS anti-abortion law.

Poland was being led "by a traumatised, angry old man … from the 21st back to the 19th century," German EPP member Michael Galler added, referring to PiS party chief, and Poland's de facto ruler, 68-year old Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

"It was lively," Tajani, the parliament chief, said of the debate, as the scene shifts back to the EU commission's legal action.

PM pinned down

But liberal MEP and Dutch politician, Sophie in 't Veld, did pin down Morawiecki on one thing before he jiggled his files and left the room.

"If you lose the case in the European Court of Justice [on halting the judicial purge] when it rules, will you acknowledge the authority of the court?", she said.

"Yes or no?", Verhofstadt yelled.

"To answer: Of course Poland respects the judgements of the European court," Morawiecki said.

Poland urged to halt 'purge' of top court

Next month Supreme Court judges could be removed in Poland - due to a controversial reform seen as a judicial purge by a government that wants to control the courts. The European Commission wants Warsaw to act now.

Opinion

While Poles defend courts, Kaczynski hijacks EU elections

While Twitter and EU bubble publications are flooded with photos of protesting crowds and "chains of light" in front of the presidential palace, the Law and Justice-controlled senate has adopted a law restructuring the electoral code for 2019's European elections.

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