Trouble over Poland's judicial reform

The battle lines have been drawn between the EU and Poland in the dispute over the reform of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. The EU has now sent a letter to Warsaw expressing its concerns about the rule of law. The Commission launched a probe into the rule of law in a member state for the first time in mid-January. Will the conflict with Warsaw escalate?

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Keskisuomalainen (FI) /

Plucky Union must keep an eye on Poland

The European Commission's decision to examine the rule of law in Poland is a courageous and necessary step, the daily paper Keskisuomalainen writes:

“[Finland's] foreign minister Timo Soini has criticised the launching of proceedings an overreaction and talks of the EU 'lecturing' Poland. Soini's True Finns party are in the same group as the PiS in the European Parliament. The Commission has made it clear that it has no intention of interfering in Poland's domestic affairs but is acting in the context of the European principle of the rule of law. It is good that the EU has the courage to intervene when a member state violates fundamental values. Naturally the Poles must be free to choose their own leader, but the EU is based on the idea of liberal democracy in which freedom of expression and an independent justice system must be guaranteed.”

Népszava (HU) /

EU has learned from experience with Hungary

The EU is taking a harder line against the Polish government than it did against Hungary on the rule of law because it has learned from its experiences, the daily paper Népszava explains:

“In addition to the fact that the former Commission President Barroso maintained very good relations with Orbán, the big difference is that in Hungary's case the EU wasn't prepared for the scenario of a member state trampling on democracy just a few years after joining. … The EU lacked the instruments to take unruly Hungary to task. One could say that Viktor Orbán's government was the EU's 'teacher' here; Brussels won't allow another member state to follow Budapest's example. Naturally this is no consolation for us. Here in Hungary it will now be extremely difficult to reverse all the changes that have been made.”

Newsweek Polska (PL) /

EU fighting a losing battle with PiS

Regardless of what further steps are taken, Brussels and Poland won't be able to reach an agreement because the PiS is too stubborn, Jacek Pawlicki writes in Newsweek Polska:

“Dialogue only makes sense when it is conducted with a specific goal. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue, like that taking place now, is just a sham. Recent events have shown that giving Warsaw more time won't achieve anything. Allowing the PiS a week more to present its position only means it can sell this as a tactical victory. It allows the PiS to convince its voters that a tough stance pays off. Deep down the PiS leader despises the EU, seeing it as a technocratic entity whose members are not even democratically elected. I don't know how long the Commission will need to understand that the Polish leadership won't give in on key points of the dispute.”

Gość Niedzielny (PL) /

Brussels must restore trust

Gość Niedzielny sees the EU's decision not to take further steps against Warsaw as an admission that it made a mistake:

“It is good that Frans Timmermans came to Warsaw. If the Vice-President of the European Commission doesn't change his mind again his visit and his words can be interpreted as Brussels' withdrawal from this political game. His statement that Poland must resolve the dispute on its own can be seen as an attempt to repair the loss of trust Brussels has caused in Poland. At least that's what we hope. … The Commission must now explain to the European and Polish citizens what it thinks gives it the right to take action against democratically elected governments it doesn't approve of.”

Új Szó (Slowakei) (SK) /

Poland reminiscent of Slovakia's time under Mečiar

Warsaw's reaction to the EU's criticism reminds Új Szó of the Slovakian government led by Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s:

“It was chaos in the Polish parliament last Friday. Things were articulated that put one in mind of Mečiar's wildest years. Clearly the political adventurers of Central and Eastern Europe have a lot in common. The Polish head of government Beata Szydło, for example, explained that the EU institutions were violating Poland's sovereignty and undermining democracy in Poland. Twenty years ago Mečiar took the same approach, suspecting any criticism from abroad as being an attack by Slovakia's enemies. Warsaw is using the same vocabulary today as Bratislava did back then. The government is simply protecting the interests of its citizens and Brussels doesn't like it, it claims.”

Rzeczpospolita (PL) /

Brussels avoiding conflict

After the expiry of the ultimatum on Monday the Vice President of the EU Commission Frans Timmermans travelled to Poland on Tuesday to speak with the government. Rzeczpospolita would have liked to see a tougher stance on Brussels' part:

“Of course the PiS would have been ready to make concessions if Brussels had upped the pressure. ... Brussels made a mistake when it backed down from its plans to give the leadership in Warsaw an ultimatum on the conflict over the Constitutional Tribunal. The fact is that the EU simply has no interest in exacerbating the conflict with Poland at this point in time, because in just under a month the Brexit referendum will take place. What's more, the refugee crisis continues apace and the Schengen Area is at risk of complete collapse.”

Dagens Nyheter (SE) /

Brute force wrong approach against populists

The EU must continue exerting pressure on Warsaw, but cautiously, Dagens Nyheter counsels:

“So far the Polish government has rejected all criticism. Bit by bit the EU has sharpened its tone. A deadline elapsed on Monday, but the former diplomat Frans Timmermans has prolonged the negotiations. The Commission and Europe's leaders must take a clear approach to the situation. But how to cure populists? Probably not with brute force from Brussels. ... The government's new laws deserve to be harshly criticised. But instead of being drawn into a war of emotions, the EU should adopt an attitude of coolness and clarity vis-à-vis the PIS.”

Polityka (PL) /

Another yellow card for Poland

The Polish government is coming under massive pressure, Krysztof Burnetko writes on his blog with the news magazine Polityka:

“The Commission won't pass any direct resolutions on the concrete steps it will take against the government in Warsaw in the next session. But merely the fact that such a high ranking institution is concerning itself with the conflicts in Poland can only be seen as another yellow card for Poland. This is very serious. Because one of the EU's key tasks is to 'defend the interests of the Community and its citizens when this is no longer possible on the national level.”

Rzeczpospolita (PL) /

Brussels putting its authority on the line

Brussels' threat to Warsaw is a major gamble, the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita believes:

“Brussels is risking a lot. Just imagine if the Polish government fails to react to the European Commission's demands. If the Commission enters the third phase and attempts to remove Poland's voting rights it will be putting its authority on the line. Because if Hungary keeps its word and defends Poland in the vote in the Council this will show clearly how powerless the Commission is vis-à-vis states it believes are not complying with EU standards. It would be great news for all opponents of the Union - and not just those in Poland.”

Lietuvos rytas (LT) /

Lithuania should not side with its neighbour

Maverick politicians and backbenchers in the Lithuanian parliament have voiced support for the new Polish government despite Brussels' criticism of it. The liberal daily Lietuvos rytas warns against officially backing Lithuania's hitherto rather unpopular neighbour:

“Of course friendship between Lithuania and Poland would be a thorn in the side for Russia, but only if it's heartfelt. However there's no chance of that even if our nationalists agree with Poland's rejection of the EU's 'horrendous' refugee policy. ... Furthermore it would come at the price of war with the EU, which would be an even bigger gift to Russia. Today's conflict between Warsaw and Brussels is a sign of the EU's systemic crisis. It threatens to escalate into an open conflict between the old and the new post-Soviet countries. And that is a dream that the Kremlin has long cherished.”

Dennik N (SK) /

EU can't shock Warsaw

The rule of law probe launched against Poland by the EU Commission on Wednesday won't scare anyone, the liberal daily Dennik N believes:

“The control mechanism was originally conceived for Hungary in 2014. But then the EU refrained from using the new instrument against Budapest although it had more than enough reasons to do so. Not only was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not prevented from building up an authoritarian system, he even received EU subsidies to do so. Whether the EU will carry the probe against Poland through to its final consequences - sanctions and the removal of voting rights - is debatable, to say the least. ... Poland is a large country, and almost as powerful as France or Italy, so every attempt will be made to avoid a direct confrontation. If anyone can bring Warsaw to its senses it's not the EU but the US, which is seen in Poland as the only guarantee against Russian aggression.”

Tages-Anzeiger (CH) /

Brussels can only use the carrot and the stick

Anyone who thinks it will come to a fierce battle between Brussels and Warsaw hasn't understood the way the EU works, comments the centre-left daily Tages-Anzeiger:

“When the EU enters a duel it always makes sure it has a second at its side who will take the opponent to one side and earnestly try to convince him to desist from his bad behaviour before somebody gets killed. We should imagine what will follow as if it were a scene on a psychologist's couch: the EU will conduct a therapeutic dialogue with the team of that narcissistic show-off Jaroslav Kaczyński. ... It can make threats and promises and conduct therapeutic discussions. But in the end it must hope that a majority of the freedom-loving Poles will turn their back on nationalism and focus on the future.”

Fakt (PL) /

A warning for Poland

The EU's decision should serve as a clear warning to the Polish government, the conservative tabloid Fakt comments:

“Some commentators have played down the significance of the European Commission's decision. … But this is the first time the EU has ever used this mechanism. And it certainly won't show our country in a flattering light. The Eurocrats have withdrawn our status as the best pupil among the new EU members and basically put us on the penalty bench, so to speak. This is a warning signal for the PiS. It must not use its election victory or the will of the people to justify all its political moves and the way it has gone about pushing them through. After all, the Polish people didn't vote for the PiS because they wanted it to reform the constitutional court. There was certainly no talk of that during the election campaign.”

Handelsblatt (DE) /

EU Commission only doing its job

Not only moral obligations have left the EU Commission with no choice but to launch a probe against Poland, the liberal business dialy Handelsblatt points out:

“It is Brussels' duty to communicate a clear stance to all the citizens in Poland who are taking to the streets waving European flags and accusing their own government of shaking the country's democratic foundations. It is not for Brussels to decide whether or not to enforce compliance with the rule of law. As the guardian of the EU treaties it is obliged to do so as soon as it has reason to. And Warsaw has certainly given it reason to step in. ... Europe's fundamental values apply to all citizens, regardless of whether that suits a government or not. The member state committed to this when they joined the EU. ... The EU was also founded with the purpose of turning enemies into friends, of learning the lessons the past has taught us together. Preserving the rule of law is definitely and unquestionably one of those lessons.”

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