Monday

12th Nov 2018

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name

Sergei Magnitsky gave his life to fighting corruption. The least we can do is to honour his sacrifice in the name of the legislation that his heroism inspired.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front?

Russia is trying to foment a clash between Hungary and Ukraine over the territory of Zakarpattia in a potential crisis overlooked by EU leaders.

News in Brief

  1. UK seeks swift use of new EU chemical weapons blacklist
  2. Barnier briefs EU ministers: intense negotiations continue
  3. Romanian minister preparing EU presidency steps down
  4. Finland says Russia possibly behind GPS jamming
  5. German AfD leader under fire for Swiss campaign funding
  6. Seehofer announces he will step down as CSU party leader
  7. EU condemns elections in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine
  8. German Greens pick two top candidates for EU election

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. Romanian leaders trade jibes over upcoming EU presidency
  2. EU warns Romania not to abuse GDPR against press
  3. EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name
  4. Fear of nationalist surge marks European memorials
  5. Liberals ally with Macron for election, but no candidate yet
  6. Revealed: Link between MEPs CO2 votes and domestic car jobs
  7. All Quiet on the Eastern Front?
  8. Merkel and Brexit in spotlight This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us