Poland: What price ‘law and justice’?

A country that did much to break Stalinism’s stranglehold is first EU state accused formally of breaking its democratic norms

 

According to “Godwin’s law” the longer an online discussion continues, the more inevitably one party will eventually accuse the other of being Nazis. This measure of the incivility of online debate could, unfortunately, increasingly be applicable to European politics – Greeks accusing German “Nazis” of imposing austerity, Danes comparing new migrant rules to “Nazi” treatment of the Jews, and now Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro complaining that Brussels’ investigation of his new government smacks of German wartime occupation.

A pro-government magazine on its cover depicts Chancellor Merkel as Hitler. Godwin’s suggestion that the first to play the “Nazi card” should be deemed to have lost the debate would, however, prove legislatively difficult in an EU context. It was inevitable that the return to power of Jaroslaw Kaczynski – in the form of his proxy, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo – would see a resumption of his sparring with Brussels. Kaczynski, who now leads the ruling Law and Justice party, and, most believe, pulls strings in the government, was a Eurosceptic thorn in policy debates during his 2006-2007 term as prime minister.

But the new government has gone qualitatively further in antagonising partners, following the lead of Hungary’s right wing Prime Minister Victor Orban, by allegedly seriously undermining democratic institutions and the rule of law in Poland, rolling back judicial independence and freedom of speech – in breach, human rights groups say, of not only citizens’ rights but Poland’s treaty obligations to the EU.

The government has packed the constitutional court with a majority of its supporters; extended the powers of the intelligence services and put a supporter at their head; and signed into law a measure which puts broadcasting under direct state control. It is what European Parliament President Martin Shultz aptly calls the dangerous beginnings “of the Putinisation of Europe”. The moves have provoked serious protests at home.

The European Commission this week set in train for the first time a formal inquiry under its Rule of Law Framework. The process could ultimately trigger suspension of Poland’s voting rights under Article 7 of the EU Treaty if “serious breaches of (EU) values” are found. That is some way down the road, however, with Warsaw insisting all that had happened was the start of a dialogue with the Commission.

At the same time the government has warned against interference in its internal affairs and insisted it will not be bullied. But the Commission is quite right to stand up for fundamental political values, a test of the credibility of political union. It is, however, a sad irony that Poland which did so much to break the stranglehold of Stalinism should now be the first EU state accused formally of breaking its democratic norms.

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