Continuing its campaign against the newly-elected centre-right Polish government, the European Commission has launched an unprecedented formal investigation into the rule of law in Poland.
In a move representing the first time European Union (EU) authorities have instituted such an intrusive study of a member state, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans explained that Brussels is obliged to ensure the rule of law was upheld across the EU, and they are concerned about the function of Poland’s highest court.
This comes after Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) overhauled the Constitutional Tribunal last month with reforms which critics say remove checks on government power.
Vice-President Timmermans said: “Making sure the rule of law is preserved throughout the Union is a key part of the Commission’s responsibilities, alongside the other EU institutions. The rule of law is one of the Union’s fundamental values. There have been concerns expressed over recent developments in Poland. As you know we requested information from the Polish authorities, through two letters I sent at the end of last year…
“…Today we have decided that the Commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the Rule of Law Framework. We are taking this step in light of the information currently available to us, in particular the fact that binding rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal are currently not respected – which I believe is a serious matter in any rule of law-dominated state.”
Vice-President Timmermans, who claims the investigation will “clarify the facts in an objective way”, says he aims to “start a dialogue with Polish authorities, without prejudging any possible next steps.”
Another area which the EU will look at is Poland’s recent media law reforms, with claims that they raise issues relating to freedom and pluralism. The government fired managers and board members at Poland’s public broadcasters last week after having passed a law enabling the executive to appoint heads of state television and radio.
The initial assessment is likely to be concluded in March, and could in theory lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the EU, however both the European Commission and the Polish government are playing down that possibility. The EUObserver reports Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (pictured above) telling Polish television that EU monitoring will not result in sanctions:
“There’s no risk of sanctions against Poland. The European Commission cannot impose punishments. There’s no extraordinary procedure, just normal proceedings.
“The Polish case was just one of 12 [at Wednesday’s EU meeting]. Other issues included immigrants – that’s what we should be talking about.”
Although the European Commission cannot impose sanctions such as the suspension of Poland’s voting rights, it can nevertheless recommend that member states do via the EU Council.
Mrs Szydlo said the EU would receive all the information it requested, but still queried the credentials of Vice-President Timmermans to conduct the investigation on the grounds that his home country, The Netherlands, has no constitutional court equivalent to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. Another minister accused him of left-wing bias, an accusation the Prime Minister stoked:
“The Commission Vice-President was recently awarded a prize by [Poland’s previous] President Komorowski, maybe that’s why he doesn’t sympathise with us.”
A former Polish PiS Prime Minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, told Polish television the current party leader will not change because of EU disapproval:
“I’m convinced that Jaroslaw Kaczynski won’t care about it. It’s not something that will influence him.
“Kaczynski wants a revolution in Poland. He wants to reform all the Polish institutions. He wants to change all the people in these institutions whose work is important for Polish governance and he knows that, on several points, he’ll violate the constitution.”
A Polish sociologist and political scientist, Jadwiga Staniszkis, warns that PiS doesn’t get the EU, saying:
“I don’t think PiS wanted a conflict with Europe. It didn’t understand how its behaviour in the area of rule of law or on concentration of power would be seen as something from another civilisational sphere.
“PiS doesn’t understand the West and the West doesn’t understand central Europe. This conflict… harms the very fragile trust which we had in the West.”