“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” The words of Albert Einstein. And whether or not God chooses to remain anonymous, the European Commission Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, does not. He was hitting back on Sunday at accusations of political bias from Poland’s government, as he campaigned as a candidate for May’s European elections.
On Wednesday, wearing his EU Commission hat, Timmermans had announced that the commission was taking fresh action against Poland over the government’s judicial reforms. In particular, he said, the new disciplinary regime for judges would have a “chilling effect” on judicial independence. On Thursday, Jarosław Sellin, a deputy culture minister in the Law and Justice (PiS) government, accused Timmermans of playing politics by launching the new infringement procedure ahead of the elections to the European parliament which take place in Poland on 26thMay.
Timmermans dismissed the accusations in comments he made to reporters in Warsaw Sunday, as reported by AFP. ”There is no link whatsoever even though the Polish government pretends this is linked to the elections,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the election.” “It is clear from all evidence that the way the new disciplinary measures work, it has a chilling effect on Polish judges, so it intimidates them,” Timmermans added.
As Timmermans would no doubt agree, justice must be done and manifestly seen to be done and not, as is alas, all too often the case, seen to be believed. And herein lies a slight difficulty. While the Commission’s action against Poland is no doubt wholly separate from Timmermans’s own political views, and the fact that he was speaking at a joint press conference with Robert Biedron, the leader of Poland’s new progressive Spring party at a campaign event for the European elections was no doubt a coincidence, it does allow others to take a less charitable view.
On Thursday, Sellin said of Timmermans: “He has a political interest in it because he is in the heat of the election campaign,” the Polish PAP news agency reported. “He wants to be the chief European commissioner on behalf of the socialists, he fights for this position and wants to renew his mandate.” Appearing in Warsaw on a platform with an opposition party leader was thus grist to PiS’s mill.
And, of course, this is but the latest salvo in the battle between EU and the PiS government over the latter’ extensive reforms which it insists are needed to tackle corruption and to reform a judicial system still haunted by the communist era. The EU has already launched unprecedented proceedings against Poland under article 7 of the EU treaty over “systemic threats” to the rule of law that could ultimately see its voting rights in the EU suspended. In fact, suspension seems unlikely since all the other 27 EU member states would have to agree and Hungary, also under the same procedure, has said it will veto such a move.
Timmermans aside, those bastions of EU propriety, France and Germany, also expressed concern, as reported by Reuters, over the independence of Polish courts at a meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday, supporting the EU Commission view that the new disciplinary system for judges, is intended to intimidate them into sentencing in line with the wishes of the ruling party. “We hope that the infringement procedure launched by the European Commission last week regarding the new disciplinary regime for judges will allow some improvements, in particular regarding the right to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial court,” a Franco-German statement said.
“We want to seize the opportunity … to stress, once again, our concerns regarding the overall situation created by the reform of the judiciary system in Poland,” the joint statement said. “In our view, the combined effect of the legislative changes could put at risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland”. Concerns over the rule of law in Poland that led to the launch of the Article 7 procedure had not been completely and properly addressed, it continued. “We reaffirm our support to the Commission in this regard… In view of the recent developments, we propose to hold a new session of the hearing of Poland after the European elections … in June.”
It seems that this saga will run and run. The Polish government has always maintained that the reforms are necessary, and that the EU does not understand Polish circumstances, the EU countering that, in effect, it understands only too well and knows a breach of EU principles when it sees one. In such a climate, some coincidences are just too convenient.