22nd Mar 2018


End of the line for Warsaw Express?

  • A strong and independent judiciary is vital to ensure the corrupt are brought to justice (Photo: Scott*)

There’s an old rhyme in Poland and Hungary which roughly translates as: “Pole and Hungarian cousins, be good for fight and good for party.”

The friendship between the two countries stems from centuries of facing off against the same struggles and enemies.

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In recent years, the term “the Warsaw Express” has been used to refer to the similarities in their political developments: the transition from Communism and the expansion of Nato and the European Union eastwards.

Today the Warsaw Express is racing in a worrying direction.

The recently elected Polish government has started a series of reforms, similar to those introduced by Victor Orban’s “illiberal” Hungarian government, to limit press freedom and compromise judicial independence.

European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans has announced the commission will take unprecedented action in investigating the changes in Poland.

Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation, would say this doesn’t go far enough.

The commission, learning from its experience with Hungary, has moved much faster to put Poland on the spot, but it has not condemned its actions.

Press freedom

Press freedom and access to information are not only pillars of democratic societies but pre-requisites for tackling corruption.

The press acts as a public watchdog on the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery.

The new media law in Poland would bring the widely followed public media under direct government control. The treasury minister can appoint and dismiss the management and supervisory boards of the public TV and radio channels at will.

This is following the Hungarian playbook where the 2010 Media Law and subsequent moves against freedom of information have severely undermined scrutiny of the Orban government.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claims Hungary is now the “most egregious practitioner of controlled press.” That epithet may soon include Poland.

It’s not just a free press that is required to prevent the abuse of power for private gain.

Corruption flourishes wherever there is impunity for wrongdoing.

Independent judiciary

A strong and independent judiciary is vital to ensure the corrupt are brought to justice.

Which is why it is alarming that the Polish PiS party has rushed through legislation which brings into question the independence of the country’s highest court.

The 15-seat constitutional court now requires a two-thirds majority, rather than a simple majority to pass judgments.

The PiS-aligned president Andrzej Duda also blocked the appointment to the court of five judges selected by the previous government.

His replacements will give the PiS the ability to strike down legislation it deems unconstitutional, thereby limiting the court’s capacity to check legislative overreach.

The rule of law and freedom of expression are core tenants of the EU treaties.

Timmermans says: “Our aim [in starting an inquiry] is to solve this issue, not to enter into a polemic.”

The EU has now trigerred what it calls its “rule-of-law mechanism,” which, if followed through, could eventually see a member state stripped of EU Council voting rights. Hungary has already said it will veto such a move.

This posturing should not stop the European Union from following a robust inquiry into Poland’s drift towards autocracy.

The EU must ensure, from Warsaw to Budapest and beyond, that space for civil society, judicial independence, and freedom of expression is protected. All of these elements are vital in the fight against corruption.

The values of transparent and accountable public institutions and a democratic system of checks and balances should be central to all governments.

The EU, civil society and the media must ensure that “Pole and Hungarian cousins be” are also ready to fight corruption instead of judicial independence and freedom of speech.

Carl Dolan is director of the Transparency International's liaison office to the European Union

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