Jan Zeber is a law graduate who is currently studying for a Masters in Public Law at the LSE.
The controversy over events in Poland shows no signs of abating. What began as a dispute over the country’s constitutional court has escalated into an all-out war between those who fear that the Government is using its overall majority to entrench their power, and those who consider these steps a legitimate embodiment of people’s will, necessary for “curing the country of pathologies.”
The fracas stepped up a notch when Günther Oettinger, the German EU commissioner for digital economy and society, has over the last weekend threatened to use the EU’s “rule of law mechanism to put Warsaw under monitoring.” This latest development has been sparked by an overhaul of the public media, which will inter alia give the Finance Minister a power to appoint and remove its executives. Krzysztof Czabanski, the main figure behind the package, is defending the changes as necessary to reclaim taxpayer-funded television and radio from those who “mistook the job of a journalist for that of a political agitator.”
Now, it is true that the Polish media landscape is notoriously polarised, with most journalists doing little to hide their allegiance. Worse, the biggest “stars” are often those most guilty of political bias. It is equally true that zero security of tenure for a station executive, dependent on the whim of a member of the executive, is completely unacceptable and does amount to state control.
Nothing happening in Poland right now is black and white – changes are overdue, but the lack of consultation, confrontational rhetoric as well as the speed of the reforms are legitimate reasons to worry. What is pretty clear, however, is that given current circumstances the EU is likely to only make things worse, whether one welcomes the changes or not.
To date, international reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. The Economist and the Financial Times in particular, both considered the essence of sobriety and level-headedness, on this particular issue have been somewhat one-sided. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, went as far as using the phrase ‘coup d’etat’.
The EU’s arrogance has wiped any credibility from any criticism it can make, however legitimate. All of it is being brushed off as the powers representing the said “pathologies” fighting for survival.
What are these “pathologies”, exactly? They are, in general terms, two things: firstly, prioritising the interest of foreign capital over “the nation”, and secondly, attempts through (among others) EU members to entrench “anti-Polish values.” The previous Civic Platform administration is considered by many to have done all of the above, selling the country for personal gain. Donald Tusk, previously Civic Platform leader, is perhaps the single starkest embodiment of that view.
It follows that Oettinger is possibly the least likely person to make Law and Justice pay more attention to the rule of law. Coming from him, it sounds like an unelected Eurocrat looking after the interests of German media holdings in Poland. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the Polish Foreign Minister left little to imagination – commenting on the Commission’s reaction so far, he merely stated that they are not “legitimate partners” to an elected politician.
It is unlikely, then, that the Government’s reaction would be any different to initiating the rule of law mechanism, which is a three-stage process driven entirely by the Commission engaging with the member state in question by issuing “rule of law opinions”, “recommendations” and “warnings” – precisely the sort of thing that is guaranteed to be interpreted as arrogant, bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo telling an elected government what to do.
Now, this is not a criticism of the rule of law mechanism per se – objectively, it is a dialogue-based process engaging the member state on the basis of advice rather than prescription, and the punitive measures set out in Article Seven of the Treaty on European Union have never thus far been used.
But the fact that it has been impossible to establish any sort of dialogue so far means that using the mechanism is likely to only infuriate the Polish Government even further, cementing their conviction that they are engaged in a fight to the death with anti-Polish forces seeking to overthrow a legitimately elected government. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the eminence grise leader of PiS, has recently labelled those who seek anti-Government support abroad “the worst sort of Poles”. An attempt to generate some positive PR has largely failed, as Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski’s comments about “cyclists and vegetarians” demonstrate.
The problem lies in the fact that the two sides are talking past each other. The “cyclists and vegetarians” moment is particularly illustrative. Waszczykowski’s utterance in an interview with Bild was meant to convey to the reader that Western Liberal values that are considered “common sense” to a certain type of “enlightened” reader are at best a controversial political opinion outside of the “Warsaw bubble.” Yet the public media, staffed mainly by representatives of that elite, has been promulgating them as if to think otherwise is to be backward – that is the main rationale behind the media reform, whether the means it employs are correct or not. Of course, that is not how it was interpreted, putting further distance into the chasm dividing the two sides.
To reiterate: events in Poland are not a battle between good and evil. Law and Justice has good intentions and has identified areas where reform is needed, but the way it is going about it betrays the fact that the party is blinded by resentment and in some cases pure hatred for the deposed elites, whom it considers traitors.
If any form of foreign intervention is to be used, let it be the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, rather than the EU. The former still retains some credibility as an apolitical body safeguarding peace in Europe, and specialises in precisely the sort of advice and guidance on the correct balance between the will of the electorate and the preservation of the rule of law that is needed right now. In fact, though it has not been little publicised to date, Waszczykowski has already requested their opinion with regards to the reform of the constitutional tribunal – the issue that sparked it all in the first place. It is a promising sign of willingness to engage, and it remains to be seen whether their recommendations will be taken on board. The EU could reciprocate, and adopt a more understanding tone in the upcoming debate on Poland.
A fate of a country depends on two bitter rivals willing to look past their personal grievances and look soberly at the situation. This is a chance to show they mean it when they say they’re fighting for the interests of the Polish people, not the interests of their ideologies.