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Posted by on Dec 28, 2017 in Europe, Politics | 0 comments

Poland edges away from Democracy

So far the 21st century is seeming a perilous place for late 20th century democracy values, norms and mores. There’s now considerable concern over Poland’s evolution in Europe. The Christian Science Monitor offers this editorial:

The European Union has drawn a line in the sand with Poland. The issue is whether that country, which, along with nine other mostly Eastern European countries, joined the EU in 2004, must abide by certain democratic values to keep its membership in good standing.

More than Poland’s future is at stake. So is the very nature of the EU. While it now largely functions as an economic and trading union, many members envision a future of deeper cooperation in areas such as foreign policy based on common, democratic values.

Article 2 of the EU’s governing treaty, for example, speaks of broad standards of behavior. “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities,” the article states. “These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

But Poland is now moving in a troubling direction over the values of justice and rule of law. The ruling nationalistic Law and Justice party has taken steps to undermine the nation’s independent judiciary, including its Supreme Court, and bring its courts and judges under the control of the parliment, which the party controls.

“Within a period of two years, 13 laws [in Poland] have been adopted which put at serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland,” says Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president. “The entire structure of the justice system is affected … thereby rendering the independence of the judiciary completely moot.”

The Monitor notes that the EU has invoked an article that could ultimate remove Poland’s voting rights, and that some say this is Poland merely asserting its national sovereignty.

So why pick on Poland? For one thing a corrupted judicial system means trouble for any trading bloc: The rule of law must be applied fairly and consistently for cross-border commerce to flourish. An independent judiciary plays a key role in making that happen.

The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède points out that the EU isn’t punishing Poland but protecting it integrity as a bloc:

It’s been fascinating to look at some of the reactions, in Europe and beyond, after the European commission last week took the unprecedented step of triggering a mechanism against Poland, for the first time potentially threatening to strip a member state of its voting rights in the club.

Brussels decided to move against Poland’s democratic backsliding, namely the crushing of its independent judiciary – a process that had recently been accelerated by its populist government, elected in 2015. On social media, the far right raged. Here was the European behemoth lashing out at a country whose sovereign choices were being trampled on, its image unfairly tarnished. Sound familiar?

In Brexit Britain, on Twitter urged Theresa May to block the “EU bullying of Poland”, “tell the EU get stuffed” and “honour the alliance forged by the heroic sacrifice of Polish airmen in the defence of our country” – with hashtags “WWII” and “battle of Britain”.

Reading comments online, some of them from American sympathisers, I was also reminded of how Donald Trump had waxed lyrical about Poland’s government on his visit to Warsaw last summer: a nationalist US president fawning over a nationalist Polish government with heaps of scorn piled on the European project along the way.

The far right’s take on Poland, very much on display these days, pictures a nation valiantly resisting a “civilisational” threat to the west in which white, Christian identity risks being swamped by Muslim immigration, orchestrated by the EU. In Hungary, the prime minister Viktor Orbán, a self-avowed champion of “illiberal democracy”, declared an “attack on Poland” would be “an attack on central Europe”. He is keen to capitalise on anything that makes his own problems within the EU appear shared.

It matters little that none of this bears any connection to the EU commission’s actual decision last week. Brussels’ move focused solely on the need to preserve independent courts and judges as a key pillar of EU membership. It had nothing to do with migration quotas. Talk of a “nuclear option” being used against Poland is an exaggeration. It’s true the EU has entered uncharted waters, but rules of unanimity will probably protect Poland from further consequences, whether on voting rights or access to European funds.


The answer to this has to do with the way the EU functions. Admittedly, that is not something its citizens are often made aware of. The commission is the guardian of the treaties. It is not a human rights monitoring body. That specific task is carried out by other institutions, such as the Council of Europe. As Heather Grabbe, from Open Society Foundations, put it to me: “Rule of law is both a question of values and a foundation of the EU. Without it you simply don’t have the ground on which the single market can work.”

The commission isn’t just criticising the Polish government for its behaviour. It is trying to preserve a body of European law that concerns all European citizens without exception. Indeed if Brussels doesn’t draw a line here, you might end up with a situation where, say, a German or a Portuguese national living in or visiting Poland, or a business person investing there, will one day find themselves confronted with a politically controlled judge, not a fair and independent one. Much would start to unravel.

Protecting the “integrity” of the single market is likewise an important reason why Britain, as it negotiates its way out of the EU, cannot hope to carve out piecemeal exceptions. Yes, this Polish episode does concern Britain – only not in the way hardline Brexiters think. The commission’s move looks purely political, but it is in fact much more pragmatic than meets the eye. It is not about punishing Poland. It is about the EU’s self-preservation as an economic and trading bloc as much as it is about upholding democratic principles. Hungary, for all its flaws, has to date not crossed the same red lines. Its government, and the new Austrian one perhaps, will now be on notice that if it does, there will be consequences.

Project Syndicate’s Denuta Hubner notes the larger issue: the state of illberal democracies:

There are a number of sociological reasons why illiberalism is resurgent today. Across the West, once-universal public spheres have been weakened and divided, and once-public social concerns have been “privatized.”

But the main reason for the West’s illiberal turn concerns emotions. For those who are unsettled by the widespread change of the past few decades, national identities have become increasingly appealing as a way to offset often-unpredictable globalization.

Populist rhetoric poses a direct challenge to the EU and its tradition of procedural and rules-based governance. Indeed, it strikes at the very core of the European project. There is no European counterpart to Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” Given Europe’s twentieth-century history, such parochial sloganeering has been all but banished from the continent’s politics. Indeed, it is not well suited to the European timbre.

Yet the fact remains that Europeans are fighting for their very soul. To resist the populist backlash, we Europeans should be proclaiming the EU’s virtues more loudly, without descending to the populists’ level. Conjuring up some kind of EU-level nationalism to compete with state-level nationalism would be akin to taking medicine that is worse than the disease.

A better approach would focus on defending the rule of law against populist encroachments. The rule of law is the EU’s most valuable currency and a fundamental part of its DNA. It provides the foundation for the philosophy of multinational democracy that animates the EU’s institutions. While populists regard the rule of law as malleable or negotiable, Europe’s democrats understand that it is the essential bond holding our civilization together.

As Europe attempts to reverse the slide toward illiberalism, we must recognize that not all illiberal trajectories are the same. It seems counterproductive to put Hungary and Poland into one basket, and thereby drive them even further into an “alliance of the scorned” fueled more by convenience than real common interests.

The European project is about integration, not isolation. We should be careful about punishing countries simply because they happen to be led by irresponsible leaders at any given moment.

In fact, European integration must be about people, not political elites. Regardless of their governments’ stance, the majority of people in Poland and Hungary want to remain in the EU and participate actively in its continent-wide community. The EU is an expression of their values, and a mechanism by which they can realize their dreams. That means EU leaders have a responsibility, but also an opportunity, to turn back the illiberal tide.

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