“I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.” The words of Margaret Thatcher, a great prime minister, who did not need to kick over the traces of democracy to achieve her objectives. Would that those who followed have been, and be, so careful. And looking to the current Polish government, led by a woman prime minister, does Beata Szydło also love argument and debate?
Well, she certainly put up a spirited defence of her (ownership disputed by some) government in the European Parliament during last week’s debate on the rule of law in Poland. Notwithstanding one or two factual inexactitudes, her speech was generally well received in the international press with Bloomberg even going so far as to describe Szydło as “a new combative force in Poland, and the world just took notice.” As intended, although some were not convinced, her assertion that Brussels was meddling in Polish affairs went down well at home too, with more than half of those Poles surveyed by SW Research for Newsweek saying that Germany should not have the right to judge Poland’s democracy.
And, it appears, this democracy business is quite catching, with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe toying with the idea whether to hold a debate on the state of democracy in Poland. The parliamentary assembly is part of the Council of Europe, an international organisation which aims to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and is therefore quite separate from the EU, and not to be confused with European Council, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament or, not to be outdone, the European Commission which set the hare running in the first place.
Rather unexcitingly, the Parliamentary Assembly, which meets several times a year and comprises 318 members from the parliaments of 47 Council of Europe member countries, decided on Monday decided not to hold a debate on the state of democracy in Poland – you wait ages for a bus, two turn up at once, and then one breaks down – since the requisite two–thirds majority needed to pass the motion to hold the debate was not reached.
Be that as it may, the main issue remains. Not only does the current Polish government appear not to be as keen on argument and debate as might be hoped, but nobody has any job who is not prepared to sit there and agree with the party leader, especially if that job is in publicly owned media. Indeed, it was the signing by the Polish president of new legislation allowing the treasury minister to dismiss the heads of public media an appoint replacements, which appointments had hitherto been made following competitions held by the National Broadcasting Council, and the nocturnal appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal, which gave rise to the current disquiet.
So while the Parliamentary Assembly was deciding in Strasbourg not to debate, at the Geneva headquarters of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), talks took place between EBU Director General Ingrid Deltenre, President of the Board of Directors and Editor-in-Chief of Polskie Radio (PR) Barbara Stanisławczyk-Żyła, President of the Board of Telewizja Polska (TVP ) Jacek Kurski, and Krzysztof Czabański, Poland’s Deputy Culture Minister Responsible for the Media Reform. “The EBU welcomed the open discussions; both sides agreed to keep all channels of communication open in the future,” the EBU said in a statement, continuing that it “will continue to involve TVP and Polish Radio in all EBU operations and activities, as has always been the case.” For communicators, they seem very good at saying nothing.
Closer to home, the Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski argued over the weekend in an article published in leading newspapers across Europe, that the EU has launched “an utterly pointless conflict with Warsaw” rather than tackling the urgent issues facing the continent such as the unstable southern frontier of the EU and a belligerent Russia to the east. Of the two key issues he said that “our attempt to overhaul the Constitutional Tribunal is not an assault on the rule of law,” but an effort “to correct deformations rushed through in the dying days of the previous government,” and on the media, “There is a clear aim: to introduce legislation that restores a sense of mission within public media while simultaneously guaranteeing pluralism, independence and objectivity.”
So perhaps it’s not so bad after all. There is debate, there is protest, and there is the Polish government unable to ignore international concern. Democracy may have caught a chill in Poland, but it’s far from dead.