Wednesday

29th Mar 2017

Opinion

EU must tackle Poland's bad behaviour

  • The EU needs to send a clear signal to Poland’s president and prime minister that respect for human rights are not negotiable. (Photo: Grzegorz Zukowski)

Europe seems finally to be waking up to the serious external threats to its values. Developments in Washington highlight the need for positive action in the face of an overtly nationalistic and anti-rights form of populism.

But the threats don’t only come from outside the EU’s borders. Poland is a case in point.

Over a year ago, the European Commission did the right thing by taking the Polish ruling Law and Justice party to task over its moves to curb the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal. For the first time, the commission activated its “rule of law mechanism”. The mechanism was created in 2014 to address member states’ policies that threaten basic human rights.

The Polish government contested the appointment by the previous administration of several judges to the court, defied the court’s order to follow through with the appointments considered lawful, and when pressed by the European Commission to follow through, defied the commission too.

Last July, the commission gave the Polish government a three-month window to swear in the judges. The commission also urged the government publish and carry out all the Constitutional Court’s rulings, a binding practice that President Andrzej Duda had routinely ignored since his party rose to power in November 2015. But Warsaw has continued to defy the commission and Poland’s own top court. Worse still it has taken further problematic steps including appointing a new chair of the Constitutional Tribunal, even while the basic question of its membership remained unresolved.

The rule of law mechanism is designed to prevent the need for the European Union to use the procedure under Article 7 of the EU treaty intended for a serious risk of a breach of the bloc’s values, which can ultimately lead to suspending a member state’s voting rights. Yet faced with a government persistently unwilling to comply with its rule of law recommendations, the commission should logically now be contemplating article 7 as the next step.

Defying that logic – not to mention principle – instead it has decided to kick the can down the road, giving more time to Warsaw and less credibility to its engagement.

So, why does a technical dispute over the appointment of judges deserve Brussels’ attention? Is it really that bad?

Yes, because the courts shouldn't be held hostage to political quarrels. And yes, because a contested membership of the country’s highest court deeply affects its credibility and therefore its legitimacy to rule on constitutional matters. And yes, because beyond the question of the tribunal’s composition, president Duda has regularly stalled implementation of court rulings that were not favourable to his policies. In what kind of a society based on rule of law can a head of state pick and choose whether to respect that law?

Through the rule of law mechanism, the commission is doing its duty to respond to the deliberate attempts by Poland’s government to interfere with the courts, undermine basic checks and balances, and dilute the functioning of a key democratic institution.

While the attacks on the constitutional court have garnered the most international attention since the Law and Justice Party won the parliamentary majority in October 2015, the government has not stopped there.

A January 2016 act on the police raises concerns about the protection of on-line privacy, and a June 2016 Anti-Terrorist Act extends broad investigative powers concerning “foreigners”. A plan to roll back women’s abortion rights was stopped only after mass public protests in December. A recent draft law that would diminish the rights of people from other countries living in Poland and a reform of the justice system have raised additional concerns.

And the government now seems determined to restrict freedom of association. It is seeking to pass a law criminalising non-sanctioned public protests. The authorities are also trying to prosecute several people who participated in the December protests, on very questionable grounds.

Add government officials’ anti-foreigner rhetoric, verbal attacks against Polish human rights groups, and the Office of the Ombudsman, and you have a cross-section of practices that contradict Europe’s values and require action from the European Union.

As the climbdown on the anti-abortion law shows, the authorities in Poland are not immune to pressure to live up to their European obligations.

But the commission needs to show courage, including a willingness to pursue the Article 7 procedure wherever it leads, and it needs the backing of EU leaders, to send a clear signal to Poland’s president and prime minister that respect for human rights is not negotiable.

Philippe Dam is the European advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Poland: A country without a constitution

Poland is entering a period of rule by PiS decree, with street protests, foreign pressure, and regime infighting left as the only hopes for rule of law writes Maciej Kisilowski.

Agenda

EU-27 to back integration This WEEK

EU leaders meet in Rome to recommit to European integration after Brexit, but Greece and Poland serve as reminders of economic and political divisions.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

News in Brief

  1. UK delivered its Article 50 letter to the EU
  2. Support for Germany's anti-EU party fading
  3. Turkish intelligence not welcome in Germany
  4. US senate approves Montenegro’s Nato bid
  5. Scottish MPs give go ahead to seek referendum
  6. Uber pulls out of Denmark over new taxi-regulation
  7. EU court validates sanctions on Russia's Rosneft
  8. Luxembourg to team up with Ireland in Apple tax appeal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. The Idealist QuarterlyCan Progressive Stories Survive Our Post-Truth Era? After-Work Discussion on 6 April
  2. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  3. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  4. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  5. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  6. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  7. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  8. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  9. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  10. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  12. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  2. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change
  4. European Free AllianceSupporting Artur Mas: Democracy and Freedom Cannot Be Convicted
  5. UNICEFSyria Conflict 6 Years On: Children's Suffering at Its Worst
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsDomestic Violence in Tajikistan: Time to Right the Wrongs
  7. European Trust SummitCorporate Strategy and Public Affairs in a Low-Trust World - Conference 31 May
  8. Malta EU 2017Agreement Reached to Involve Consumers in Financial Services Policymaking
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cities Gather Against Violent Extremism & Introduce Nordic Safe Cities
  10. World VisionFears and Dreams of Syria's Children and Their Peers Around the World
  11. Malta EU 2017Maltese Presidency and EP Agree on Visa Liberalisation for Ukraine
  12. Mission of China to the EUEU Window Chinese Government Academic Scholarship 2017/18 - Apply Now