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4th Apr 2020

'We will continue' with changes, Polish PM tells EU

Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo rejected allegations that her government’s policies are eroding the rule of law during a European Parliament debate on Tuesday (19 January).

“Poland is a democratic country,” Szydlo, of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, told MEPs. She said she disagreed with the decision by the EU Commission to launch an investigation into whether the government breached EU rules on media freedom and the rule of law, but insisted she would cooperate.

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“Poland does not deserve to be monitored. The rule of law, human rights are not being breached in Poland. The changes carried out by our government are in accordance with EU treaties,” she said.

The Polish government sent their responses to the EU executive’s questions on Tuesday.

Commission vice president in charge of rule of law affairs Frans Timmermans promised an evidence-based dialogue, but said there was still a risk of a “systemic threat" to the rule of law.

Critical MEPs claimed Szydlo’s government has put the public broadcaster under its direct control, ignored rulings of the constitutional court and curbed judges' power to place checks on the government.

Political, not legal

Szydla emphasised how important Europe is for Poland, but also suggested that sovereignty on internal matters should be respected.

“We are part of the united Europe,” she said, adding: “We want to feel that Poland is a free and sovereign member state that can always count on the EU’s support, and that internal matters and its sovereignty are respected.”

“We have never wanted to dominate the tribunal. The dispute about the constitutional court is political, not legal. It is an internal matter and Poland should solve it on its own.”

She argued that the previous government of the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO) had attempted to stack the constitutional court with its supporters before the October elections, knowing they were going to lose, and her government was there to remedy the situation.

The European People's Party (EPP), a conservative parliamentary group of which PO is a member, issued mild criticism of the government's actions for undermining democratic principles. EPP group leader Manfred Weber was not in the speaking role, so as to avoid stoking anti-German sentiment in Poland.

“It’s not a question of laws, but values. You can change the laws, but you cannot change the values,” the EPP's Esteban Gonzalez Pons said.

'Bigger challenges' jibe

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, dominated by the UK Conservatives, stood by its Polish member, PiS.

Its MEPs accused the commission and the EP of double standards, emphasising that when the previous Polish government bent the rules and appointed constitutional court judges there was no EU inquiry into those measures.

During the debate, which lasted over three hours, Szydlo defied calls to say if she was ready to amend laws if the commission’s concerns were validated.

"We will continue our programme, because that is what the electorate expects from us," she said.

In a feisty comment, she reminded MEPs that the EU had bigger challenges to face than internal issues in Poland.

"I must say I do not see the need to devote so much time to Poland ... I think you have many important issues to address," Szydlo said.

Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders, representing the Dutch presidency of the EU, told Szydlo: “EU membership not only entails benefits but responsibilities for common values, notably rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.”

Koenders, also said that the Dutch presidency would hold a rule of law debate at the general affairs council in May.

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