Another front opened up last week in the battle being waged by the majority of EU states to safeguard the rule of law and democratic norms in Poland. In a further attack on the independence of the media that has brought a furious response from fellow member states and the US, Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and allies voted through legislation that would block companies outside the European Economic Area from owning controlling stakes in Polish media groups.
Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has taken repeated steps to muzzle the media
But Law and Justice was not, for once, having it all its own way. The legislation, which would force US-owned Discovery media group to sell its stake in TVN, the country's main remaining independent broadcaster, was fiercely contested in the lower house, Sejm, resulting in the resignation of a government party and the loss of its overall governing majority. The bill now goes to the opposition-controlled Senate whose decision can only be reversed by a two-thirds majority in the Sejm.
Discovery also now proposes to invoke dispute procedures in the US-Poland bilateral investment treaty that prohibits selective discrimination against businesses – provisions akin to clauses in other EU international trade agreements that are currently causing controversy in the ratification process in Ireland.
Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has taken repeated steps to muzzle the media and notably last year used a state-controlled oil refiner to buy up a media group that publishes 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers and more than 120 local magazines. It has also reduced the public broadcaster to a government propaganda machine.
The clash comes as the deadline ran out on Monday on a European Commission requirement on Warsaw to comply with a Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruling against a key part of Poland’s overhaul of its judicial system. Brussels has threatened fines if Warsaw does not comply. Warsaw said on Monday it would dispatch a reply to Brussels, but this is most unlikely to end the matter.
Although prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has hinted at willingness to reform a key part of the contested new structures, the judicial disciplinary tribunal, and suggested he will bring forward new proposals in the autumn, few expect full compliance.Warsaw is also fighting new budget rules that apply good governance conditions to aid from Brussels.
Meanwhile justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro has aggressively insisted that Poland should not back down, accusing the CJEU of having a "colonial mentality". If Warsaw made concessions in the battle over its judicial changes, it would eventually be forced into concessions in other areas such as gay rights, he argued in an interview last week in which he maintained that Poland should not remain an EU member at any price. Polls show, however, that the country remains strongly committed to membership.
The EU must not be deterred by such bluster from robustly defending its values, the rule of law and democratic standards. Poland and Hungary must not be allowed to undermine the essence of our political union.