Freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These were the three most important principles upon which the European Union was founded, as stated by Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. In May 2004, when Poland and nine other countries accessed the EU, these were the beliefs they sought to comply with, to their people. However, never have these values suffered from such blatant and dangerous violations, as of today. Sixteen years after the largest expansion of the Union, the Polish state constitutes a major threat to the ideals that cement and define Europe. But how have we come to this point? And most importantly, how will this mayhem be turned around?
Context and History
The Polish “European Project” dates back to its notable economic performance in the 1990’s and its desire of convergence and dissociation with the eastern bloc. Years of negotiation led to a national referendum, in which 77% of voters were in favour of Polish accession to the EU. In 2007, charismatic pro-EU politician Donald Tusk became prime-minister, ensuring a somewhat successful ruling alongside his party, Civic Platform. The following years marked a significant period of growth in Poland, with the reinforcement of its infrastructures, schools, industries and highways, the financial support of the EU and remarkable economic development.
Although the approval rates of the EU were indeed favourable in Poland, the rise of the nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic party, PiS (Law and Order) was imminent. Founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, two enticing politicians, this party claimed that the Polish government had become representatives of a corrupt and elite institution, submissive to the European Union. This narrative was appealing to a conservative mass of Polish citizens. It is important to highlight Poland’s issues with its independence, as the country has faced numerous attacks and invasions in the past centuries, often having its own sovereignty withdrawn. The impact of all these devastating decades was a collective trauma and insecurity of losing independence and identity. PiS were very successful in portraying this image to the Polish people, promising to retrieve Poland to its fellows citizens. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the moderate coalition was unable to secure a victory, after Tusk, its main figure, left to preside over the European Council. As a result, PiS formed a majority government, following its crushing victory.
After PiS gained control of both houses of parliament, they also took over the presidency, with Andrzej Duda’s victory in 2015, who stands in office as of today. His voter-friendly appearance and posture allows the party to appeal to the more moderate voters, while Kaczyński operates behind the curtains. The next step for the party was to take over the judicial system.
Democratic Threats and the European Response
Firstly, Law and Order neutered the constitutional court. What was supposed to be an unbiased judicial body to assess the legislation according to the fundamental laws of the country, was now a servant of the main party, packed with loyalist judges and lacking any sort of independence.
Following this, the government set a number of laws that threatened the whole independence of the judicial branch. For instance, in 2017, a law was passed that set different retiring ages for male and female Supreme Court judges and giving the minister of justice discretionary power to prolong the mandate of some judges. Furthermore, a Disciplinary Chamber was created to review the decisions of the Supreme Court. Many questioned the independence of this body, whose members were appointed by the government. The Rule of Law was under imminent threat. Political rule reigned amidst Polish Courts, a pattern that followed through the next years, illustrated by various new laws. One of which was a recently appointed act which determined that judges may be punished for implementing a judgement of a supranational court. This represented a flagrant attack on the prevalence of European Law over domestic mandate. A further infringement occurred over a 2018 law that lowered the retiring age of all Supreme Court Judges. It resulted in the dismissal of 27 of the 72 justices, one of which was the President of the institution. The tension between the Supreme Court and the government had risen tremendously as an attempt of judicial takeover was on sight and European action was urgent.
These were the words of Frans Timmerman, the then European Commission First VP, in late 2017. The article in question is a punitive clause seeking to discipline countries that breach the core principles of the EU, and if needed to sanction them or even suspend their EU voting rights. The Union viewed the recent laws passed by the Polish government to disrupt the necessary independence of the judicial structure of the nation and an evident violation of the Rule of Law. It was not only a threat to the Polish people, but to the whole foundation of the European Union.
However, the case of Article 7 is still ongoing. Europe seems to be incapable of resolving the rule of law issues in Poland and the main cause of such irresolution is the need of unanimity from the remaining member-states for the European Commission to apply punishments. Poland is being backed by Hungary, another nation dangerously sliding onto autocracy and illiberalism. These two have formed an unofficial partnership which empowers their continuous breaches on democratic values through the need of unanimity vote to implement the punishments the EU seeks to apply. The constant mutual support of the two governments endangers all the values that shape the EU, since every time one ruptures the rule of law, it has the pat-on-the-back-like comfort of the other, which perpetuates the cycle to this day.
Freedom in Peril
The attack on judiciary independence doesn’t stand alone in the repertoire of the government’s attacks on democracy. Despite the democratically legitimacy of both parliamentary elections and a rule marked by intensifying nationalism and strong economic growth, Poland is holding a questionable position on humanitarian and progressive causes. During the refugee migration crisis, Poland was one of the nations who bluntly refused to receive migrants and blocked a deal on the redistribution of refugees within Europe. Kaczyński and PiS have adopted an Islamophobic, anti-immigration stance in their phenotype, despite the ECJ declaring their refusal to be against European Law.
Images 3 and 4 – Throughout the last decade, Poland has been marked by a number of protests from conservative to progressive ones. The most notable ones were the manifestations on Poland’s National Day in 2017, carried out by nationalists and white-supremacist groups.
Moreover, last year Poland declared the creation LGBT free zones, where almost 100 municipalities adopted an unwelcoming stance on the ideology. Whilst the declarations were local and unenforceable, the ruling party has often supported homophobic stances, further enhancing the Christian rhetoric of PiS. Poland is still a considerably homophobic country, as same-sex marriage and civil union are still not permitted. Freedom of press is equally in danger, as a growing tendency to criminalize defamation has pushed the expression of media and news outlets to an increasingly restricted ethos. Poland is the third worst-positioned EU country in the World Press Freedom Index, only behind Greece and Hungary.
The future is rather unsettling for Poland. If on the one hand, Poles are aware and willing to protest against the undemocratic decisions of the government, on the other, the residing feeling of Polish identity, the Polish family and Polish patriotism is boiling up through the masses, fevered by Kaczyński and his party. The certainty is the following: one must not overlook Poland’s situation. To say this is just a regular right-wing ruling would be an understatement, for we are witnessing the endangerment of European democracy right before our eyes.
Europe must stand its ground and fight the rise of illiberalism, or continue to dig an endless hole of bureaucracy and futile irresolution.
Sources: Financial Times, POLITICO Europe, World Bank, EuroActiv, Deutsche Welle
Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs