The Mote and the Beam

SyzysmundFor a couple of months, Poland has drawn much media attention. Two controversial decisions taken by the new conservative government are fueling fierce debates over an alleged attempt to Democracy. Without any doubt, the Polish leadership has moved too quickly with a weak rationale and a poor communication. But noises about possible sanctions from the EU are not encouraging dialogue.

A succession of major ballots have confirmed the massive conservative shift of the Poles in favour of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) party, a platform presented as nationalist and Eurosceptic. Last 15 November, President Andrzej Duda has appointed Beata Szydlo to the position of Prime Minister. Her symbolic removal of EU flags from the official decorum was a first “offense” that raised eyebrows in Brussels.

Recently, the new government has taken a series of decisions that provoked an outbreak of criticisms. The media attention has turned into a hysterical Poland-bashing game. In Brussels, Eurocrats, EUMPs, think tanks and watchdogs have joined the chorus to condemn the alleged attacks against Democracy. The image of Poland is now seriously damaged but the government is resolutely sticking to his reform agenda and two reforms in particular are raising concerns.

The media reform has fuelled a blaze of disapproval across Europe. According to a law creating a new national media council, the government has the power to dismiss and appoint senior officials in public media. Four channel directors of public broadcaster TVP resigned in protest. There is no doubt that the biased and somewhat provocative attitudes of several TVP journalists during the recent election campaigns have inspired this governmental grip. A parliamentary report examining professional ethics in public media would have been the best option but the new team obviously wanted to show resolve. Criticisms argue that this decision is against the basic principles of media freedom. In Brussels, the overreaction of the European Parliament has sustained a fierce debate over the independence of public media.

European watchdogs have just missed an essential point: the politicization of State media is a reality in many EU countries where directors are either directly appointed by governments or selected by councils or committees whose members are themselves appointed by governments. Media history highlights that across the 28 EU member States, only few heads of public media have survived the first year of political change. Therefore, the governance of public media in Poland is no exception.

The other reform that sparked outrage is related to the nomination of Judges at the Constitutional Court. A few days before the general election, the outgoing Diet proceeded to a controversial last-minute election of five “November” Judges. After their invalidation by the newly 3 elected Diet, “December” Judges were appointed according to the provisions of a new law. Three of them have been sworn in by President Duda. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, has talked about a “coup d’état”. Critics are pointing at a dangerous precedent but in the past, they have turned a blind eye to similar commotions in other European countries.

To date, only 17 of the 28 EU member States have organizations similar to the Constitutional Court of Poland. Most of these Courts have members appointed with procedures that fully or partially involve the government. In Poland, the 15 members the Constitutional Court are elected for one single 9-year mandate by the Diet, the low chamber of the Parliament. This is by far, one of the most democratic selection process existing in the EU.

This is by far a very complex case with much technicalities. Loopholes in the Polish Constitution of 1997 do not help. The Constitutional Court is now challenging these nominations and media are reporting the arm wrestling between the judiciary and the executive powers. Obviously, President Duda did not overstep his capacity but his confirmation of “midnight judges” remains highly debatable. Three more judges, including the Chief Judge, will be elected and confirmed within the next 18 months and this perspective makes the issue even more sensitive.

The new Polish government has been clear about his transformative agenda. Recent fast-tracked decisions have provoked the expected turmoil but they are the expression a new confidence. Poland is the 6th most populated with the 6th largest economy in the EU. Since the integration in the EU in 2004, this country has been a success story and remains the biggest beneficiary of EU structural funds. €106 additional billion have been earmarked until 2020.

Now emerging as a regional power -a statute held during centuries- Poland claims a legitimate position in Europe and beyond. Sustaining a record growth, this country is the first economy in Central and Eastern Europe. Defense spending are exceeding the 2% GDP target of NATO. The coming Summit of the Alliance in Warsaw next July will be a demonstration of diplomatic assertiveness and military vigilance. Without any doubt, this new statute of Poland is rocking the European boat where a handful of old captains are competing for an uncertain leadership.

Hence the suspicion about the intentions of the Polish government. In many ways, the uncompromising strategy of the ruling team is certainly disturbing but it is neither reprehensible nor punishable. Moreover, speculations about the rise of an authoritarian and reactionary front in Eastern Europe are pure fantasy. The recrimination against Hungary and finger-pointing at Poland confirm that Eurocrats always need a villain. When they can have two rogue member states, it is even better.

Media are now making noise about penalties against Poland. In EU corridors, sanctions is another word for keeping unruly newcomers under control and defaulting members under pressure. Cutting EU funding or suspending voting rights would only marginally impact the course of the Polish government. But for the Europeans, such retaliation would be a complete failure ■

Marie-Jeanne C. Ksiazyk, Brussels

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