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24th Jun 2018

EU commission puts Poland on the hook

  • Pro-free media rally in Warsaw on 9 January (Photo: Grzegorz Zukowski)

The European Commission has triggered rule-of-law monitoring of Poland, in an unprecedented step, prompted by constitutional and media reforms.

“We have decided that the commission will carry out a preliminary assessment under the rule-of-law framework,” Frans Timmermans, the Dutch EU commissioner, who handles the dossier, said in Brussels on Wednesday (13 January), after internal talks.

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It’s the first time the commission has used the instrument, which is designed to prevent breaches of EU law and prinicples.

Behind closed doors, EU commissioners discussed controversial new measures by the Polish goverment, after the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party changed the rules of Poland’s constitutional tribunal and replaced heads of public media with loyalists.

“The rulings of the constitutional court are currently not respected, which is a serious matter,” Timmermans warned.

He said the commission doesn’t want to interfere in the internal politics of EU countries.

“The aim is to start a dialogue with Polish authorities, without prejudging next steps,” Timmermans said.

Protecting democracy

“The internal politics of Poland don’t concern me. I don’t know about it. I don’t want to know about it … I’m simply looking at the measures taken and how they relate to the rule of law in Poland,” he added.

“Our aim is to solve these issue, not to accuse, to go into a polemic.”

Wednesday’s monitoring decision comes amid an exchange of letters between Brussels and Warsaw.

In the latest, Timmermans, on Wednesday, wrote to Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro informing him of the decision and asking extra questions on the constitutional and media changes.

The text, seen by EUobserver, says the commission “does not wish to put into question the democratic choices made by the Polish people”.

It adds that: “Democracy is protected if the fundamental role of the judiciary, including constitutional courts, can ensure freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and respect of the rules governing the political and electoral processes.”

It also calls for an urgent meeting in Brussels or Warsaw.

It comes after Ziobro, earlier this week, in his letter accused Timmermans of “left-wing” bias, ignorance, and “unjustified accusations”.

A Polish junior minister, in an earlier letter on the media, was equally defiant.

Asked about Ziobro’s confrontational words, Timmermans told reporters on Wednesday: “I think the Polish government wants a dialogue regardless of the tone of the letter.”

According to several sources, the 28 commissioners agreed unanimously to go ahead with the rule-of-law framework.

One source said the decision came despite an appeal by Polish PM Beata Szydlo, made by phone on Tuesday to commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, to get Poland off the commission agenda, on grounds that such a move was unproductive.

The first stage of the framework is a dialogue with Polish authorities, which might lead to commission recommendations.

If Poland does not tweak its legislation or fulfil the commission recommendations some other way, the EU executive can trigger a subsequent procedure that could end in EU sanctions against Poland.

'Provocations must end'

The commission will come back to the issue in March, after the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, issues an opinion on Poland’s constitutional reforms.

Poland is also on the European Parliament agenda next week, with Szydlo expected to field questions in the Strasbourg plenary session.

For is part, Poland’s EU affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, said in Brussels on Wednesday that Poland was ready to answer all the commission’s questions. “We are convinced that this situation will quickly end well,” he said.

He added, however: “I have the feeling that the European Commission is risking taking sides in a political dispute inside Poland.”

He also declined to apologise for the tone of the political rhetoric, with Ziobro, at one point, also writing a letter to Berlin which compared EU monitoring to the Nazi occupation of Poland.

“In recent weeks, we’ve been provoked by various politicians … Who sows the wind, reaps the storm. The provocations must end by saying something stronger,” Szymanski said, Polish TV reports.

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