Poland and the EU have not been seeing eye to eye for a while. Since it won the absolute majority to govern, the right-wing PiS Law and Justice Party has been refashioning Poland’s relationship with the EU. The EU’s response? Lodging complaints with the European Court of Justice and filing proceedings for a “breach of contract”. The majority of Poles, meanwhile, both support their government and, at the same time, remain enthusiastic about the EU. There’s no talk of a Polish exit from the Union – on the contrary, the latest survey indicates that 50% of Poles like the EU, 7% have no opinion and only 12% were negative about it. How is this possible?
The first disagreement was over Europe’s refugee quotas. Poland had previously agreed to take in a certain number of refugees but, after the 2015 election, the new government didn’t feel compelled to stick to their predecessors’ agreements. The European Court of Justice has sided with the Commission but the issue remains unresolved. Meanwhile, Poland’s opposition, is protesting proposed judicial reforms, but the media and public institutions are becoming more and more loyal to the government. So where is Poland heading with this current government?
We asked our readers and Nescho doubted that the Polish government was aware of the damage they are doing to democracy with their reforms.
We shared his point of view with Dr Gesine Schwan, a German political science professor who’s been championing the German-Polish relationship for decades. She was twice in the running to be Germany’s President and is currently the President and Co-Founder of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform gGmbH, which advocates the promotion of democracy. Does she agree with Nescho? Is the PiS party aware of the consequences of its reforms?
Our reader Marek had a totally different point of view. Poland democratically elected its government so that’s the end of the story. Is a democratic election a valid argument or does it fall short?
For a second opinion, we asked Dr Tomasz Grosse, a professor at Warsaw University and a researcher at the Sobieski Institute, a Polish think-tank. Does he agree with Marek?
The Polish government (supported by the Law and Justice party (PiS) has a clear electoral mandate. It has introduced various audacious reforms which are contested by opposition as well as the European Commission, but still it has the right to introduce those reforms as long as it is in accordance with the Polish Constitution. There are controversies between politicians and legal experts as to whether some reforms, including judiciary reforms, are in accordance with the Polish Constitution.
The problem is that the Constitution gives various arguments both for government and for opposition. For instance, it states in art. 180 that the Polish parliament has the right to decide in ordinary bill about the retirement age of judges, including the judges of the Supreme Court. So Parliament has the right to shorten the age limit to 65. In another article the Constitution states that the mandate of the President of the Supreme Court lasts for a six-year term (art. 183). The opposition claims that the mandate of the current Supreme Court President should last until 2020, even if she is older than 65. The only institution which could resolve the conflict is the Polish Constitutional Court, not the European Commission or the EU Court of Justice.
What is Gesine Schwan’s reaction towards Marek?
Coming up next, our reader Silke thinks that it can’t continue like this and the EU needs to take measures. Poland doesn’t want a dictatorship. Should the EU take action?
First of all, it is hard to understand why Polish democracy is threatened. In Poland we have normal political elections, without any political opposition representative in prison or any obstacle for the opposition to be active in the public sphere or in media. There is a diversified media landscape with the whole political spectrum represented without political monopoly in Polish media, nor any official or formal censorship in public discourse. The political opposition has the freedom to demonstrate political views in public.
But we have a very strong political internal conflict between government and opposition, which is pretty normal in Polish political culture. What is not so normal is the very strong and permanent support from Polish society for the PiS government and the distinct gap between support for government and for opposition parties. What’s more we could add that conflict and deliberation are the foundations of democratic order. So it could be considered proof for the vitality of Polish democracy.
Secondly, the EU is not well prepared to intervene in the Polish political debate. The EU has no competence to settle member state dispute about allegedly breaching the Constitution. What’s more, the EU has its own problems with democracy, which is known in literature as the “democratic deficit” of the EU. And many scholars are of the opinion that, during the crises, this deficit has expanded.
Next up we had Josef, who goes so far as to suggest that Poland shouldn’t stay in the EU if it doesn’t stick to democratic values. He thinks they only joined the EU for the subsidies anyway. How does Dr Schwan respond to this?
Is Poland giving up on democracy? Are justice reforms and the management of refugees national issues? Should the other EU members accept this situation or should the Commission get involved before it’s too late? What do you think?