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6th Jun 2020

Polish 'coup' dispute threatens German relations

  • Schulz: 'What is happening in Poland has the characteristics of a coup' (Photo: European Parliament)

Poland’s new government is trading insults with the head of the EU parliament, in a dispute which threatens to harm Polish-German relations.

Martin Schulz, a German Socialist who has led the EU assembly since 2012, told a German radio station, Deutschlandfunk, on Monday (14 December) the Polish government’s attempt to stuff Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal with political allies violates EU norms.

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“What is happening in Poland has the characteristics of a coup and is dramatic. I am going on the principle that we are going to discuss this in detail this week at the European Parliament, or at the latest, during the session in January,” he said.

Giacomo Fassina, his spokesman, later told the Bloomberg news agency that Schulz has “concern on one of the founding principles of the rule of law in the EU, namely the division of powers within a democracy.”

The Polish PM, Beata Szydlo, from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the same day demanded an “apology.”

“Something is wrong when the European Parliament president expresses his opinion in this way about a member state,” she told press in Warsaw.

The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said in written remarks: “Such a high-ranking politician should be far better informed before making public statements.”

He told press in Brussels he’s happy that Polish MEPs from the opposition Civic Platform (PO) party urged Schulz to delay the EU parliament debate because it would be “harmful for Poland.”

“This debate, about the disposition of our institutions, is taking place in Poland. There’s no need for it in the EU,” he noted.

Echoing Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, who once said he wants to build an “illiberal democracy,” Waszczykowski added: “There are different forms of democracy in the European Union … so there’s no basis to stigmatise Poland.”

In a sign the dispute risks harming German relations, he also told German daily Berliner Zeitung that Germany should not expect Polish solidarity on refugee relocation because it kept restrictions on Polish workers after enlargement in 2004.

The new Polish interior minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, has gone further.

He said on Polish TV in November that Schulz, who’d also criticised PiS on refugees, is guilty of “German arrogance.”

“We're talking here in Warsaw, which was destroyed by Germans. In [Warsaw’s] Wola [district] 50,000 men, women, and children were murdered by officers of the German state,” he added.

The ugly rhetoric echoes previous Polish-German clashes when Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is still the PiS party leader and the power behind Szydlo’s throne, was Polish PM in 2006.

Some Polish diplomats say Kaczynski’s abbrasive style helps Warsaw to win battles in the EU Council, where member states decide on EU legislation.

But others are worried that it undermines Poland’s international image.

For its part, the New York Times, the US paper of record, on Tuesday published a story with a laundry list of PiS sins.

It noted that, the constitutional crisis aside, PiS has: quashed a court case into abuse of power by its former security chief; threatened to crack down on independent media; tried to stop the production of a play, Death and the Maiden, by Elfriede Jelinek, on grounds it’s “pornographic”; and refused to display the EU flag at high-level events.

It quoted Robert Kropiwnicki, a PO MP, as saying Kaczynski is “developing Putinist standards,” by reference to Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin.

The US daily said PiS is fuelling “nationalist fervour,” which saw a right-wing youth group, in the Polish city of Wroclaw last month, burn the effigy of an Orthodox Jew.

Polish academics have also spoken out against PiS’ constitutional shenanigans.

Staff at the law faculty of Wroclaw University on Monday published a statement voicing “deep concern” about the government’s “lack of respect of … democratic standards.”

Mikolaj Czesniki, a scholar of politics at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, told Gazeta Wyborcza, a PiS-critical daily: “I’m quite sure that many people, who have no ties to the current parliamentary majority [PiS], but who do have friends in it, are phoning their PiS buddies to ask: ‘What the hell are you doing?’.”

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Centre-right, centre-left, and liberal MEPs want a debate, next week, on democratic backsliding in Poland. But Polish politicians say it's too soon.

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