There is “deep concern” about the direction Poland is heading in, one policy expert says.
Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office, told Business Insider Poland “is going in a quite worrying direction” after a few changes intended at centralizing power with the recently elected ruling party.
The country has been under scrutiny since the European Union launched an unprecedented rule-of-law investigation into sweeping changes across Poland, such as the limiting of its highest constitutional court’s power and its insertion of a government proxy to head the nation’s public media.
There have been many recent protests in Warsaw and throughout the country over the changes, but Buras and others agree that it’s highly unlikely the European Commission, the group leading the investigation, would levy any sanctions against Poland — such as suspending its vote — since a unanimous decision would have to be reached to do so.
“But it means the conflict between the EC and Poland will exacerbate in the upcoming weeks or months and it will be very difficult to be resolved,” he said. “I don’t see the Polish government stepping back or backtracking on this, especially on the issue of the constitutional court.”
The two options the council can pursue are to either push forward or freeze the investigation, which will essentially mean the council accepts the decision-making of the Polish government. Buras said that could backfire and push Poland into an even greater Euro-sceptic position.
Of the recent changes made by the ruling Law and Justice party, which took power in October, Buras said the most important, and dangerous, one was the limiting of the constitutional court’s power. The role of the court is to rule on the legality of legislation being passed by the government, and the strains put upon the court by the ruling party render it “inoperable,” he said.
“[It’s] maybe the most important reason to be concerned about Poland,” he said. “But this is accompanied by certain policy steps, or certain reforms which may not even be unconstitutional or illegal, but they do change the way how the public institutions function.”
“They have a common denominator, which is that they’re deeply illiberal,” he added. “Which tries to, in the first place, strengthen the power of the executive and give it much more control of all other sectors of power and of public institutions.”
He said that some of the other changes, such as those involving public media, aren’t quite as alarming as some would believe when examined on their own. It’s when everything is added up that it becomes a worrying situation.
“If you take them altogether and within two months, six or seven completely new laws changing the institutional setup of the country with one particular aim, to strengthen the power of the executive and its control functions,” he said. “It cannot be an accident and it is not an accident.”
Earlier this month, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said her country has been wrongly accused of violations.
“It’s not true. It’s slander. Democracy in Poland is doing well,” she said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “The best proof that democracy is doing well are protests organised by some groups against the government and the changes we’re introducing.”
She also said she doesn’t think sanctions will be imposed, but did admit the party could’ve gone about some of the changes in a different way.
“I am not saying that we made no mistakes,” Szydlo told TVN24.
The driving force behind those changes in Poland isn’t Szydlo or the new president, Andrzej Duda, but the head of the Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The head of the ruling party is arguably the most powerful position in the Polish government, according to The New York Times.
“No pressure and hollering, no words … will turn us from this path,” Kaczynski
told supporters earlier this month, per the Times. “We will continue moving forward.”
A January public opinion poll found just 36% of Poles supported the government, which won election about three months prior.
An issue at the heart of the current state of Polish politics is the growing rift between Germany, viewed as the model of a “liberal” Europe, and the Polish government, which is embracing more “eastern” values, he said. The border between the countries is becoming a de-facto East-West divide, with a prominent issue being the question of what to do with the influx of refugees into Europe.
“There is certain pressure on the Polish government to improve its relationship with Germany, or at least not to escalate it anymore,” he said. “There has been very harsh rhetoric.”
High-level US officials, such as US trade czar Michael Froman, have visited Poland and expressed concerns, Buras said. Recently, Standard & Poor’s cut Poland’s credit rating somewhat unexpectedly, Reuters reported.
“As a fellow democracy we do follow developments here very closely,” Froman told reporters during a visit to the Google Campus in Warsaw on Sunday. “We certainly do follow it. As a democracy, we want to make sure that Poland’s democracy continues to address the issues.”
A recent opinion piece in Foreign Policy Magazine said the crisis is “escalating at breakneck speed” and that President Obama should use the “bully pulpit” to make a bold statement by not attending the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw this summer. That would show Europe that NATO is willing to stand up for democracy, the article argued.
However, Buras said accusations made by European Parliament President Martin Schulz that the changes being made in Poland are a part of a “dangerous Putinization” are “completely bulls—“
“Of course we don’t have any Putinization of Poland,” he said. “This kind of criticism is very counterproductive.”
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