EU urged to adopt Marshall Plan to uphold rule of law in some Member States

A leading judge said the EU must show the same level of determination in upholding the rule of law in countries like Poland and Hungary as it is in tackling the Coronavirus pandemic.
Photo credit: Clara Molden/Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

26 May 2020

José Igreja Matos, President of the European Association of Judges, was speaking during a debate on a Parliament report, drafted by Socialist MEP Juan López Aguilar, on the European Commission’s December 2017 proposal to act in view of the perceived threats to the independence of the judiciary in Poland.

The 20-page report on the situation in Poland was debated on Monday by members of Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Members called for “decisive action” by the other EU institutions against Poland

During the debate Igreja Matos told MEPs, “What is needed is a Marshall Plan for the rule of law to ensure such freedoms are respected.”


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He told of his “emotion” in speaking at a recent march and demonstration in Warsaw by over 1,000 judges against changes to the Polish judiciary.

Via a video link, he hailed the draft report as “positive” adding, “we must protect the rule of law and judges must be independent. That means not being subject to political constraints, not taking orders from any outside source and being protected.”

He said his association has “relentlessly denounced attacks” on judicial independence in Poland and described the January 11 march in which he participated and spoke as “historic.”

“We must protect the rule of law and judges must be independent. That means not being subject to political constraints, not taking orders from any outside source and being protected” José Igreja Matos, President of the European Association of Judges

He warned that unless the EU shows “resilience” to such attacks “it will cease to exist.”

“Despite all the protests, systematic breaches of the rule of law in Poland are worse than ever. It has dropped even the pretence of upholding the rule of law.”

“The government ignores ECJ rulings so concrete measures must be taken.”

The EU, he told the committee, must consider the “immediate withdrawal” of EU funding for Poland and launch infringement proceedings against the EU Member State.

Another keynote speaker in the debate was Joanna Hetnarowicz-Sikora, a representative of the Polish judges’ association IUSTITIA.

Hetnarowicz-Sikora told MEPs that Polish public radio has been accused of censoring an anti-government song that topped the charts and was then removed from the station's website.

The song, “Your Pain is Better than Mine”, is widely seen as criticising the head of Poland's ruling nationalist party, she told the committee.

The song's theme is grieving about the lockdown of the nation's cemeteries during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Kazik Staszewski's song doesn't mention Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Law and Justice, by name, but his target is clear, she said.

“The march in January was a desperate protest against various judicial changes in Poland. But despite all such efforts, both before after the march, the public have still not been able to prevent the destruction of the judiciary in Poland” Joanna Hetnarowicz-Sikora, Polish judges’ association IUSTITIA

When cemeteries were closed, Kaczyński still visited the Warsaw grave of his mother even though Poles faced stiff fines if they visited cemeteries, said Hetnarowicz-Sikora.

“This is a good example of how the rule of law is being flouted in Poland,” said Hetnarowicz-Sikora, whose association represents 3,700 members of the Polish judiciary.

She described the parliamentary report as “impressive and very detailed” and said she “totally shares” the comments by Matos.

“The march in January was a desperate protest against various judicial changes in Poland. But despite all such efforts, both before after the march, the public have still not been able to prevent the destruction of the judiciary in Poland. Freedom of expression is effectively banned - it is a grave situation,” she said.

López Aguilar, the committee chair, said, “Judicial reforms in Poland constitute a serious, lasting and systemic violation of the rule of law. The Council must respond.”

EPP deputy Roberta Metsola told the committee she and her group were also “deeply concerned” about “Poland’s drift away from democratic independence.”

This, she said, has had “a chilling effect on the judiciary” in the country, adding, “this should not happen in a Member State.”

“The draft report is a start, but we must zero in on the root causes for what is happening in Poland.”

“We all have to remember that being a Member State of the EU means respecting the rule of law. This is the very basis of the European project.”

“This is not an abstract concept but to ensure that we do no relive the mistakes of history.”

“Judicial reforms in Poland constitute a serious, lasting and systemic violation of the rule of law. The Council must respond” Juan López Aguilar MEP

Polish Socialist member Sylwia Spurek noted, “Like Hungary, Poland is increasingly detached from the EU and our values. It is not enough to analyse, monitor and appeal; it is high time to link state compliance with the rule of law with EU funds and punish governments.”

Other members referred to a “systematic and continuing” attack against judicial independence and democratic institutions which, they said, pose a threat to the “very structure of the EU.”

With MEPs set to debate the MMF on Wednesday, including the issue of “conditionality”, the linkage of EU funds to the rule of law and democracy in a Member State, the committee called for “decisive action” by the Council and Commission, including budgetary measures.

Members also pointed to recent moves by the Polish authorities to change the electoral code in order to hold presidential elections in the middle of a pandemic, warning this “undermines the concept of free, equal, direct and secret elections.”

MEPs have until 28 May to table amendments to the draft interim report and the committee will vote on the text in July, with the plenary vote scheduled in September.

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