Polish Prime Minister on the defensive in EU Parliament

Polish Prime Minister attempts to shrug off rule of law concerns, but recieves word of warning from MEPs.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

20 Jan 2016

The newly-elected Polish government has come under fire in recent weeks, following the introduction of controversial laws granting the state greater control over the country's media and constitutional court.

Last week, the European Commission announced it was launching a rule of law assessment of Poland - an unprecedented occurrence. Keen to clear her government's name, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło appeared in plenary to discuss Warsaw's new laws with Parliament, Commission and Council.

Opening discussions, Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders - whose country currently holds the Council presidency - noted that; "Membership in our Union does not only entail benefits, but also responsibilities. Among these is the respect for fundamental values, most notably, respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights."


He added that, "independence of tribunals and freedom and pluralism of the media are indispensable and fundamental values and essential pillars of democracy." However, he also underlined that it was "not for the presidency to pass judgement."

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans then took the floor, explaining that; "The main reason for beginning this assessment is the situation concerning the Polish constitutional tribunal, and in particular the dispute about the nomination of a number of judges of the tribunal."

"In principle, this should be an issue for the constitutional tribunal itself to resolve. However, as things stand, the other institutions of the Polish state have not complied with the judgments rendered by the constitutional tribunal on the matter. This has given rise to uncertainty regarding the functioning of the constitutional tribunal."

"Given the central position of the constitutional tribunal within the Polish judicial system, we risk seeing the emergence of a systemic threat to the rule of law."

In what was possibly an effort to downplay tensions between Warsaw and Brussels, Timmermans stressed that, "we should make use of the rule of law framework in an open and constructive manner, in a spirit of cooperation not of confrontation."

He also underlined that; "The framework has a preventive nature, and the start of a detailed, factual and legal assessment in no way implies any automatic move to decisions at later stages."


Polish address

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło insisted that, "freedom, equality and justice are the values upon which our country is being built."

"The Poles want to support Europe at times of difficult decisions. We are part of the united Europe, this is tremendously important to us."

Nevertheless, Szydło was eager to move on to other topics, saying; "I don't see the need to devote so much time to Poland - there are many important issues to discuss. Europe has many problems we need to grapple with."

She argued that the legislative changes introduced by her government, "reflect EU standards and in no way differ from standards in other member states." She explained that, "we had to change the law, because in June 2015 the outgoing Parliament adopted a law on the constitutional court that - in December 2015 - was ruled unconstitutional in part by that same court."

She also told MEPs that; "There were going to be 14 judges [out of 15] nominated by the outgoing government. There should be democratic representation in the constitutional court; therefore the ruling party should not appoint the vast majority of judges. We did what was necessary."

She also affirmed that the new government, "has never tried to seek a majority in the constitutional court. What we have sought to do is to restore equilibrium. We agree that out of 15 judges, eight should belong to the opposition."

Regarding changes to rules on Polish media, the Prime Minister argued that, "changes have been undertaken by Parliament with a view to turning public media in Poland into truly impartial broadcasters. No legal standards have been breached; our aim is objectivity in reporting. We seek pluralism, equality of access and honesty."

Upon coming into power in October, the new government replaced many senior media figures with individuals closely linked to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

MEPs react

EPP group Vice-Chair Esteban González Pons was the first MEP to respond to Szydło's address. He  began by explaining; "The Chair of my group [Manfred Weber] is German, and in the spirit of the greatest respect he has invited me to take the floor so that no one would take nationality as an excuse."

Relations between Poland and Germany have been increasingly frosty, after several German politicians - including European Parliament President Martin Schulz - were quoted in the media strongly criticising Warsaw's legislative changes, angering Polish representatives.

González Pons warned that; "Authoritarianism does not always come from outside and the destruction of the judiciary and control of the media is often the first step in ending democracy. The problem is not Poland, the problem is authoritarianism."

He added; "In matters of an internal order, the Polish government has the right to develop its programme, but on some points concerning all of us, such as the defence of the rule of law, we must not delude ourselves. The Polish government is entitled to change the law but not the democratic values."

S&D group Chair Gianni Pittella said; "Poland could slide into becoming a country where the independence of the constitutional court and the freedom of the media are under threat. The European Commission has therefore rightly opened a preliminary investigation and dialogue on these changes. I urge the Prime Minister to withdraw the contested measures. Poland is a great country and the Polish people deserve better. We are on their side."

ALDE group Chair Guy Verhofstadt told the Polish Prime Minister; "You and your party won the elections and got a strong mandate to lead your country. Based on your broad majority, it is your right to shape the media landscape and reform the civil service."

"However, what alarms most members of this House and what a democrat never does, is to use a parliamentary majority to dismantle a country's system of checks and balances. The increased quorum, together with the two-thirds majority imposed by your government and the enforced chronological order of cases are clearly undermining the court. This combination has led to its paralysis."

"These measures represent a drift towards authoritarianism, towards Putin's Russia," he warned.

ECR to the rescue

Beata Szydło did find an ally in ECR group Chair Syed Kamall. This hardly came as a surprise, however, given that Szydło's PiS party is affiliated with the ECR.

The British MEP said; "Having spoken to Polish MEPs, Ministers and the Prime Minister, it is clear that they have no intention of undermining pluralism and the rule of law in Poland."

"When the last government passed a law to stuff the constitutional court with their nominees before they left office, why did no-one here complain then? Why the sudden complaints when the new government seeks to appoint only five out of 15 judges?"

He claimed that, "in this chamber, there are former national politicians who would phone editors of newspapers or TV stations complaining about journalists, leading some to be sacked. What hypocrisy."

Kamall cautioned his colleagues that, "if you decide to gang up on the democratically Polish government today you will also be pointing fingers at the people who voted for that government. So don't be surprised if the Polish people respond by electing more Eurosceptic politicians, as in Hungary, Italy and France."


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