Tuesday

29th Sep 2020

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

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe 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.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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.

Now's the time to give QMV a chance in EU foreign policy

The loudest applause from MEPs during Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union speech came for her call to move to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in foreign policy - at least on human rights and sanctions implementation.

News in Brief

  1. Spanish court defenestrates Catalan leader
  2. Report: EU helped Taiwan on name dispute
  3. Belarusian writer goes to Germany for treatment
  4. Rapid Covid-19 tests for developing world imminent
  5. Dutch advised against 'non-essential' travel to Belgium
  6. Covid-19 hit Roma community hard, report finds
  7. Merkel visited Navalny in Berlin hospital
  8. EU's new raw materials strategy 'threatens' climate action

How EU can help end Uighur forced labour

A recent report noted apparel and footwear as the leading exports from the Uighur region - with a combined value of $6.3bn [€5.3bn] representing over 35 percent of total exports.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector
  3. UNESDAReducing packaging waste – a huge opportunity for circularity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID-19 halts the 72nd Session of the Nordic Council in Iceland
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCivil society a key player in integration
  6. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular

Latest News

  1. EU tries to avoid lockdowns as global death toll reaches 1m
  2. Reports: Turkey sent Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan
  3. German presidency tries to end EU's rule-of-law battle
  4. 'Sponsored returns' may shuffle failed asylum seekers around EU
  5. German wins election to be mayor of Romania's third city
  6. Minsk on the edge means whole Eastern Partnership is at risk
  7. Caucasus warfare prompts EU alarm
  8. Summit reloaded and last Brexit round This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  2. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  4. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis
  6. UNESDACircularity works, let’s all give it a chance

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us