31st Mar 2023


Thank Poles, not government, for Ukraine refugee welcome

  • Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jarosław Kaczyński. The current Polish leadership has expressed support for Ukraine's EU admission — even though Poland itself wouldn't be admitted now due to its rule of law crisis (Photo:
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The Polish government is being praised for its supposedly spectacular humanitarian response to thousands fleeing Ukraine.

The truth is that the global admiration should be aimed at Polish civil society, which has come together to provide help in this time of crisis.

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They are the same Polish independent organisations which have been hounded by the Law and Justice (PiS) government for the past six years for fighting for human rights and the rule of law, plus the Polish people themselves, who have spontaneously created a network to offer safe shelter to refugees arriving from Ukraine.

The Polish government has been happy to take credit for this display of civic responsibility. A civic responsibility it was set on destroying barely one month ago, at a different part of Poland's eastern border, by legalising pushbacks to Belarus of desperate people seeking international protection.

The government banned both nongovernmental groups and the media from the area.

This schizophrenic approach raises questions about the sincerity of the government's intentions.

Is its response to the Ukrainian refugees actually about women and children fleeing war in Ukraine, really?

With Poland currently waiting for the EU to approve its Covid recovery fund plan (an estimated €24bn in grants and €12bn in cheaper loans) the autocratic government may see its Ukraine response as a way to hide behind a fake humanitarian mask.

The EU and Nato need to be able to rely on their members to operate effectively. But can member states trust those partner countries which switch from questioning the very essence of such solidarity yesterday — to being champions of democracy today?

Not all enemies of our enemies are automatically our friends. When under pressure, all you need is a crisis bigger than the one you caused. A crisis during which you could act the hero, and ignore irritating questions.

Irritating questions such as: what Poland did to its legal and court system? to its independent public prosecutor's office? even how it attempted to attack foreign investment by passing unconstitutional laws? how it disregarded judgments of international tribunals and – finally – how it attempted to destroy the civil society that is now actually doing the government's job in terms of aiding refugees?

The Polish government is naturally a key partner in talks over the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, and ways of dealing with it.

However, this comes simultaneously with its refusal of cooperation on other issues, where it is under EU scrutiny for the degradation of the rule of law.

And this fact should not – under any circumstances — be overlooked. The sudden shift in the anti-EU narrative that was the focal point of most Polish government officials over the past couple of years is not convincing to those of us engaged in the fight to restore the rule of law and democracy in Poland.

The people who want us to believe they have changed their tune are the same ones who recently called the EU an "imaginary community, which Poland does not benefit from much" (as president Andrzej Duda said) or "a creation that is not governed by the rule of law and does not follow its own set laws" as education minister Przemysław Czarnek said.

Now they say they see the EU as the guarantor of Poland's safety, and underline the need for international cooperation.

The current Polish leadership has expressed support for Ukraine's quick admission into the EU — even though Poland itself wouldn't be admitted now due to its rule of law crisis.

Under the accession criteria established by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993, any country wishing to enter the EU community must conform with the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.

Today's Poland, on the other hand, is governed by authors of laws that, for example, highjacked the independence of the public prosecutor's office. Our Supreme Court is being sabotaged from within by new judges nominated by a politicised National Council of the Judiciary, which undermines their independence.

The Polish Constitutional Tribunal is now a rubber-stamping machine for the governing party's anti-constitutional ideas, enabling them to attempt to question judgements of international tribunals, such as the European Court of Justice.

Everyone loves a real hero, not a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Author bio

Eliza Rutynowska is a human rights and rule-of-law lawyer based in Warsaw, Poland.


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

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