Nicholas Richardson
News

Return

“Neither can the wave that has passed by be recalled, nor the hour which has passed return again.” The words of Ovid which, since we have yet to develop time travel, remain as true now as ever they were. And after passing over many waves, and spending many hours travelling to Australia, Polish president Andrzej Duda has suggested to Polish Australians that they might like to return – geographically if not temporally (cynics might disagree on that) – to Poland.

The visit is aimed at boosting bilateral ties, especially trade, as well as meeting as many Polish expatriates as possible during this, Poland’s centenary year. According to Duda, there are 180,000 folk in Australia of Polish heritage, while the Polish diaspora world-wide is some 20 million.

Meeting Polish Australians at Keysborough near Melbourne, during the first ever official visit by a Polish head of state to Australia, the president said that Poland is developing, is increasingly beautiful and that Poles are ever better off. He added that when they visit Poland “you will be able to look with satisfaction and think: maybe it would be worth coming back.” Duda also thanked Australia for accepting Polish soldiers after the second world war during a ceremony in Melbourne to commemorate troops from both countries who took part in an eight-month campaign in Tobruk, Libya, in 1941.

President Duda also met Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, and the foreign and defence ministers, to discuss defence, security and energy ties. The suggestion that this meeting would be cancelled because at the last moment the Polish prime minister decided to cancel the planned purchase of three Australian frigates, which was one of the main purposes of Duda’s trip, was not correct.

Be that as it may, is Poland’s current performance likely to lure folk back from Australia? Certainly, Poland’s economy continues to perform well. According to the Central Statistical Office (GUS), industrial production in Poland grew 10.3 per cent in July compared with a year earlier, with output in the construction and assembly sector up 18.7 per cent year on year. In the first six months of this year 6.3 per cent more homes were completed than during the same period in 2017.

Looking at the economy as a whole, according to the latest flash estimate from GUS, the economy grew by 5.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year compared with 5.2 per cent GDP growth in the first quarter. The figure for 2017 as a whole was 4.6 per cent and the investment and development minister Jerzy Kwieciński said in May that Poland was capable of maintaining economic growth at between 4 and 5 per cent.

Annual inflation stood at 2 per cent in July, according to GUS, the same level as in June, but up from 1.7 per cent in May, 1.6 per cent in April, and 1.3 per cent in March. Average wages rose 7.2 per cent in July compared with a year ago. This takes the average Polish monthly wage to PLN 4,825 (EUR 1,122, USD 1,298), a slight decline from PLN 4,848 a month earlier, but still modest by Australian standards (median wage approximately EUR 3,000). At the same time, total employment in Polish companies increased 3.5 per cent in July year-on-year (the figures are for companies with more than nine employees).

Which is all very well, but most folk don’t make decisions affecting their own families based on economic statistics alone. At a purely practical level, if families have a life in Australia (or any other country for that matter), homes, careers, children at school, and so on, it seems unlikely that they will wish to face the upheaval of moving back to Poland just because the president thinks they might be surprised by what they find. Lower average salaries may be an opportunity for businesses investing in Poland, but they are unlikely to appeal to many with good jobs elsewhere.

Added to this is the concern about the current direction of government policy, particularly the continuing tension with the EU over the rule of law, creeping nationalisation, a tendency towards a more authoritarian approach generally, and a general uncertainty as to where this might end, it seems unlikely that many will be following the president’s advice.

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Rejection

“The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The judgments of the European Court of Justice have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights. The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must.” The words of Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. For which reason it will come as no surprise that the Commission in its reasoned opinion has rejected the Polish government’s explanation of its judicial reforms, on the basis that it regards them as ‘incompatible with EU law’.

On Tuesday the Commission urged Poland either to change the law which forces judges of the supreme court to retire early or to face an action in the European Court of Justice. This is the latest round in the conflict with the Polish government over its reforms to the Polish judiciary which reforms, the Commission argues, are eroding the rule of law. The government as a month to respond.

This particular episode arises following last month’s formal notice from the commission to Poland of an infringement process for Poland’s breaking EU law by increasing political influence over judicial appointments. The Polish government responded by saying that the Commission’s concerns were unfounded and that under EU rules “the organisation of the justice system is the exclusive competence of the Member States”, and that “Poland is not in breach of the general provisions of EU law when it determines the retirement age of Supreme Court judges”. This response, as reported in the Financial Times, “did not alleviate the commission’s legal concerns”. The opinion itself said that: “The European Commission maintains its position that the Polish law on the supreme court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges”.

If the government fails to act, the infringement procedure could result in Poland being brought before the ECJ. One EU official said it is a political to escalate the process so quickly “and a sign that political dialogue is non-existent.”  And, in addition to this infringement process, the Commission last year launched the Article 7 procedure in reaction to concerns about the rule of law in Poland, which could ultimately lead to Poland’s losing its EU voting rights.

Infringement proceedings before the ECJ can take years so the Article 7 procedure is likely to be of more immediate concern. However, sanctions under Article 7 require unanimity and Hungary, itself no stranger to battles with EU, has said in the past that it will veto sanctions against Poland.

At is heart the problem is simple. The supreme court law which came into force in July lowers the retirement age for judges from 70 to 65 which could force 27 out of the 72 judges to retire early. The government argues these changes are necessary to deal with reforms left unfinished from the communist era while the EU is concerned that these changes increase the government’s political influence over the judiciary. Indeed, Malgorzata Gersdorf, head of the supreme court and one who would be affected, has resisted early retirement, branding the reforms a “purge”.

In its reasoned opinion, the Commission said that measures that allow a judge to appeal against early retirement and remain in office with the explicit permission of the Polish president did not constitute an “effective safeguard” for the rule of law. “There are no criteria established for the president’s decision and no judicial review is available if the request is rejected”, said the Commission.  And it’s hard not to agree that as safeguards go, that one is not safe.

Be that as it may, the supreme court has suspended applying parts of the law, citing provisions in the civil code that allow courts to suspend the execution of a law when it could prejudice a judicial appeal process. It has also referred five questions to the ECJ, including whether the law breaches EU anti-discrimination rules, and whether law violates the Polish constitution.  The Polish president’s office said there was “no legal basis” for the supreme court’s move, while the head of the Constitutional Tribunal – changes to which kicked off this saga – said it was “against the constitution”.

So there you have it. Plucky Poland taking on the malign interventionist forces of the EU to bring about necessary changes to the judiciary, or the EU stepping in to defend the fundamental values of the rule of law without which freedom itself is under threat. As ever, much depends on viewpoint and context. While each individual change to the Polish judicial arrangements might be defensible on its own, taken as a whole, and in the context of a government which seems keen to consolidate its hold in every possible area, the EU is right to voice concern.

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President

“A President’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.” The words of Lyndon B. Johnson which probably apply not only to presidents of the United States, but to presidents elsewhere and, indeed, to all who hold elective office or any degree power over their fellow citizens. Power has a corrosive effect. As Lord Acton famously said: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which is why the rule of law is such an important feature of a properly functioning modern democratic state. Fortunately, very few leaders in the modern world enjoy absolute power, and certainly not the president of Poland, the third anniversary of whose swearing in as president was on Monday.

How has he done so far? According to the president’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, who was speaking to public broadcaster Polish Radio on Monday, Duda’s foreign policy successes during his first three years as president included the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, and “activities as part of the United Nations and the Three Seas Initiative”. In terms of foreign policy, the third year of Duda’s presidency was dominated by consistent efforts to “build Poland’s position in the international arena,” Szczerski told the state news agency PAP.

In his fourth year as president, Duda will visit the White House and the Vatican, and later this month will make a trip to Australia and New Zealand.  He will also take part in a summit meeting of the Three Seas Initiative (an initiative that aims to boost cooperation among countries between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas) as well as receiving the French president, Emmanuel Macron in Warsaw.

President Duda was elected for a five-year term in 2015. Last month the leader of the governing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that there was likely that the party would field Duda as its candidate in the next presidential election in 2020. According to a June poll, commissioned by the Super Express tabloid, Duda would beat former Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the second round of Poland’s 2020 presidential election if both entered the race. Roughly 52.5 per cent of those surveyed said they would vote for Duda, while 47.5 per cent said they would support Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and now president of the European Council. Of course, if a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson is said to have said, presumably two years is an age during which anything could happen.

Be that as it may, how has the president done on the domestic front? For many, a key aspect on which the president’s performance will be judged is his defending of the constitution and his role in the various changes to the way judges are appointed and the terms they serve, particularly the appointments to Poland’s constitutional tribunal which originally kicked off this saga. As a graduate law in law from Kraków’s Jagellonian University, where he served as an assistant in the administrative law department from 2001 to 2006, and from which he gained a Ph. D. in law in 2005, he might be assumed to know what was right in relation to the working of Poland’s constitution.

And, to be fair, he did last year veto two bills (please see Veto) dealing with with the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary (although they later entered into law in amended forms and are the subject of the current rule of law dispute with the EU Commission). This showed that he knew what was right and was inclined to do right, although others will argue perhaps that this is an over generous interpretation of his actions or lack thereof, both before and since. The president’s own proposal for a referendum on the Polish constitution was last month rejected by the senate.

One problem, which may be a reason, but which is hardly an excuse, is how quickly those elected to high office seem to lose touch with reality. Leaving aside those for whom the strength of their convictions is inversely proportional to their respect for the rules, and for whom the ends justify the means, the pressures of modern office mean that holders are on a non-stop merry-go-round of meetings and engagements, meeting only officials, other politicians, and interest groups of one sort of another, allowed barely time to rest let alone think. It’d hardly surprising that in these circumstances the vision of what is right becomes clouded. Nevertheless, ultimately there is no excuse: the buck stops with president who must be equal to the task.

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Road to Hel(l)

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” The words of Winston Churchill which, unless hell happens to be your final destination, are worth remembering as an encouragement to strive for better times ahead. In Poland, if you take the road to Hel (one l) you do eventually have to stop, or you will end up in the sea, a rather cooler destination than hell itself. And it is the road to Hel, or rather the bus which travels along it, which has invoked the ire of one Catholic website.

The route to and from Hel, a town which lies at the end of the eponymous Hel Peninsula on Poland’s Baltic coast – and a popular summer seaside holiday destination – is served by bus route 666. According to the website, Fronda.pl, the numbering of the route is “scandalous anti-Christian propaganda, in fact simply satantic….The 666 to Hel, to put it briefly and bluntly, undermines the Christian order of the Polish state…A mentally sound person does not disregard the reality of damnation.”

Does this example of humour on the part of the bus company in truth constitute a danger to the Christian order of the Polish state or, more important, to the souls of the passengers using the bus, or those who find the whole thing mildly amusing? It is perhaps worth remembering that the Church has always appreciated a lively sense of humour, often of the bitingly satirical kind such as that exhibited by the Roman poet Juvenal or St. Thomas More, to name but two. In consequence, there is no reason to suppose that this particular joke poses any particular danger. If, as Mathew 16:18 tells us, the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, the bus to Hel is hardly likely to either.

Of course, true demonic possession, which is thankfully rare, is no laughing matter. But, like many problems in life, it does require a certain willingness or encouragement on the part of the person afflicted. So dabbling in the occult or satanism is to be avoided, the danger of which the late Pope John Paul II warned about. Incidentally, satan is a stickler for detail and when, after the Second Vatican Council, the Church adopted the vernacular language, it was found exorcisms were not effective, which is why exorcists thereafter were permitted to use the Latin forms.

Whether one chooses to believe or not, it seems that lack of charity is a greater danger to the Christian order than the numbering of a bus route. Christianity is a call to action, and the gospels are full of examples of, and exhortations to, practical charity, of which the best known is the parable of the good Samaritan. The correct attitude is summed up in the requirement to love your neighbour as yourself. The state does not have to be a soft touch, and it does have a duty to defend its citizens, but a Christian order without charity is simply not Christian.

Be that as it may, we come to the number 666 itself. Needless to say, much nonsense has been written about these words from Apocalypse 13:18: “Here is wisdom. He that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast. For it is the number of a man: and the number of him is six hundred and sixty-six.” Thus, the number has entered popular culture as a sign of satan, for example, as Damian’s birthmark in the film The Omen, but this means nothing.

It is not certain that 666 is even the exact number. In the days before printing, copying errors often crept into transcriptions over time, especially in the case of numerals since the Greeks used letters of the alphabet for numerals. However, without dwelling on transcription differences (whether is it 666 or 616), by a process known as gematria (from the Greek word for geometry) words and sentences are read as numbers by the assigning of numerical, instead of phonetic, values to each letter of the alphabet. As it turns out, the number “666″ has specific reference to Caesar Nero in Hebrew. Unsurprisingly, the variant reading, 616, has specific reference to Caesar Nero in Latin and Greek. Thus, we have all three sacred languages concurring in the interpretation of the “mark of the beast” as Caesar Nero. And while we are at it, the translation “beast” is not strictly accurate in modern English. The Greek word, therion, refers simply to a wild animal, even an insect, whereas in modern English the word “beast” carries a pejorative, or even monstrous, connotation.

The upshot of all this is that the reference is to the pagan Roman emperor Nero who serves as a representative of the pagan Roman empire opposed to Christian Rome. Thus, having the “mark of the beast” meant doing obeisance to the pagan emperors of Rome and, since Nero and his pagan empire are long gone, there is no need to worry about 666.

A final word: since the Church favours learning and truth over ignorance and superstition, the latter also undermine the Christian order of the state.

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New Constitution

“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” The words of Abraham Lincoln. He was, of course, describing the constitution of the United States, but the principle still holds good unless one is unfortunate enough to be living in a country whose constitutional arrangements pay lip service to the safeguarding of individual rights, whatever its constitution might provide.  Be that as it may, interfering (or tinkering) with the constitution is something politicians can’t help themselves from time to time proposing and Poland, it will come as little surprise, is no exception.

President Duda has proposed that a referendum to change the constitution be held on 10-11thNovember, which date marks the centenary of Poland regaining independence. On 11 November, 1918, Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw after being held prisoner in Germany during World War I, announcing Polish independence the day that the armistice to end war was signed, enabling Poland to return to the map of Europe after more than 120 years of partitions and foreign rule. The proposal has been sent to the senate which will decide whether the referendum should go ahead.

The president is proposing that ten questions be asked, starting with whether folk are in favour of adopting a new constitution, changes to the current constitution (which dates from 1997), or leaving it unchanged. Further questions go into specific detail asking, for example, whether voters are in favour of: a presidential system, and the strengthening of the constitutional position and competence of a president chosen by the electorate; a cabinet system, and strengthening the constitutional position and competence of cabinet, but choosing president by a national assembly;or maintaining the current arrangements.

Other questions ask about the election of members of parliament, local government, whether the constitution should emphasise the significance of the Christian roots of the Polish state and of the culture and identity of the Polish Nation, whether the constitution should guarantee protection of the family (including acquired rights such as the 500+ plus programme), the retirement age, and membership of the EU and NATO respecting the principles of the sovereignty of the state and the supremacy of the constitution of the Republic of Poland.

The result of the referendum would not, apparently, decide the future constitution but would serve as an indication of the sort of changes Poles might like to see. Cynics would no doubt contend that the change Poles would most like to see is a constitution which is actually respected and upheld by the president, but such lèse-majesté is doubtless to fail to enter into the spirit of the debate, although for folk who don’t do irony they do seem rather good at it.

Besides, Poland would not be the first country to amend its constitution. To take but two, the United States constitution has 27 amendments (the first ten constituting the Bill of Rights) of which 25 are still in force, and France is already into its fifth republic. For Poland to clock up a fourth would hardly be earth-shattering. But the real question is the motivation behind the changes.

The governing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party has long regarded the current third republic as a post-communist creation, the very foundations of which must be changed to create a truly democratic state free of its past. Although in this connection, as cynics might also note, just as there seems to be the wrong sort of Pole, there also appears to be the right sort of communist, but that’s another story. That aside, there is always the danger of the cure being worse than the disease, if indeed disease there be.

When the constitution is contained in a single document there is always the danger of somebody coming along and tearing it up, always outwardly for noble reasons, often with ignoble results. In this regard, the constitution of the United Kingdom is perhaps unique. Not being set down in a single document, but a being a combination of statute, convention, practice and tradition, it is at once flexible and durable. It serves the nation well, although, having evolved over centuries, it is not a model that is easily adopted elsewhere.

But back to Poland. By all means make changes to the constitution if that guarantees the rule of law, democracy and individual freedom. But if these values are not genuinely at the heart of the new constitution, if the changes do not guarantee to protect these values against all who seek to undermine them, then the whole exercise is pointless.

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Parliament

“Machiavelli’s teaching would hardly have stood the test of parliamentary government, for public discussion demands at the least the profession of good faith.” The words of Lord Acton, best known perhaps for the epithet: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, words with which we may probably all agree. And it was perhaps a feeling that the government lacked good faith in its commitment to parliamentary democracy that caused some opposition politicians to boycott a special national assembly held in Warsaw on Friday.

The occasion was celebrations to mark 550 years since the establishment of the first Polish parliament. President Duda, the prime minister, and the speakers of both houses of parliament attended Mass in St. John’s Cathedral followed a special joint meeting of both houses at the Royal Castle. This meeting was boycotted by Civic Platform, the largest opposition party, which said it would hold its own celebrations instead. Senator Barabara Zdrojewska said that since the governing Law and Justice party “governs alone, let them celebrate alone,” which seems rather to miss point of parliamentary opposition.

Members of parliament from the Modern and Polish People’s Party groupings managed at least to get to the event, then walking out before the president began his address. “We cannot be with those who break the law,” Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna said at the joint celebration held with the Modern party. The walk out was reportedly called “childish” by the deputy speaker of the Sejm, Stanisław Tyszka, from the Kukiz 15 party. Members of that party remained at the national assembly because, according to Tyszka, “we will not ever be offended at our country”, although “we strongly disagree with Law and Justice’s policies”.

And protests were not confined to within the castle. During the national assembly the Committee for the Defence of Democracy held an anti-government protest in the square outside, to oppose changes to Poland’s judiciary which the EU Commission has said undermine the independence of the Polish judiciary. For his part, during his address, the president said, “I deeply believe that we, Poles, a great and wise civic nation, will know how to draw inspiration from 550 years of parliamentary heritage”. Well, let’s hope so.

For it was on 13thJuly, 1468, according to recent research, that a meeting of Polish notables during the First Republic (1454 -1795) decided that a new bicameral parliament would hold its first session in November of that year. This, according to the speaker of the lower house, Marek Kuchciński, makes Poland’s parliamentary tradition one of the oldest in the world. Other notably old parliaments include the Tynwald on the Isle of Man, which claims over 1,000 years of continuous functioning, and the mother of Parliaments, the United Kingdom, whose first meeting as a parliament is reckoned to have been called in 1254, albeit with earlier references, not least in Magna Carta in 1215, and a tradition stretching back to the Anglo-Saxon witan.

Coincidentally, apart from 550 years of parliamentary tradition, 2018 marks the centenary of Polish independence. For it was on 11th November 1918, that Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw after being held prisoner in Germany during World War I, to announce Polish independence on the same day that the armistice to end the Great War was signed. This event enabled Poland to return to the map of Europe after more than 120 years of partitions and foreign rule.

Of course, Polish parliamentary history has always been somewhat fractious. The combination of the liberum veto and an aristocracy lacking much sense of national interest certainly did the Polish Commonwealth few favours as the eighteenth century progressed, when foreign powers bribed Sejm members to paralyze its proceedings, hastening the Commonwealth’s eventual destruction.

Be that as it may, this is the 21stcentury, and parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before in the recent past. In these circumstances, all parties must rally to the cause. And, tempting as it may be to boycott parliament, that does little in the longer term either to safeguard democracy or to enhance the standing of the institution. Sometimes it is necessary to draw a distinction between the institution or the office, and those who at present occupy either. One should never mistake the failings of the latter for defects in the former. Being there may change little immediately, but not being there changes nothing, for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Regional Security

“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care, and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.” The words of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And if your country has escaped the prison-like embrace of Soviet Communism you might well be inclined to favour a form of security that ensures your liberty is not threatened in the future. Thus, in the view of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Polish and regional security depends on good ties between Poland and Ukraine.

Tusk was speaking as an EU-Ukraine summit came to a close in Brussels on Monday, and he said that a rift between the countries would serve only Russia. Inevitably, in this neck of the woods, the ties between Poland and Ukraine have become somewhat strained over their shared history, with both countries holding separate commemorations of the anniversaries of WWII atrocities last weekend.

Polish President Andrzej Duda took part in observances in Ukraine on Sunday marking the 75th anniversary of the Volhynia Massacre, during which, according to Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, between March 1943 and the end of 1944 some 100,000 Poles were killed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in what was then Nazi German-occupied Poland. On the same day, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko visited the eastern Polish village of Sahryń, where hundreds of Ukrainians were killed by soldiers of Poland’s underground Home Army in 1944, public broadcaster Polish Radio’s IAR news agency reported.

In summing up the EU-Ukraine in remarks addressed to Ukraine, Tusk said: “I can see clearly that you will not be defeated by an external enemy. You are too strong. You can only be defeated by yourselves”. He urged Ukraine to “keep your unity at any cost, and to avoid like the plague internal conflicts”. And in remarks addressed to Europe, he said that “only united can we overcome the challenges of modern times”. He urged Poland and Ukraine to find a new approach in building relations.

Tusk said the friendship between the European Union and Ukraine was “strong and deepening”. During the summit the European Union finalised the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which will boost Ukraine’s political and economic integration with the bloc. He noted that the trade part of the deal, implemented provisionally, had already seen trade grow by 25 percent, and that Ukrainians have been allowed to travel to the European Union visa-free since last month. For good measure, Tusk also condemned Russian aggression, the annexation of Crimea, and called for the “immediate release of all illegally detained Ukrainian citizens in Russia and on the Crimea peninsula”.

Following Donald Tusk’s remarks, Krzysztof Szczerski, chief of staff to President Duda, said on Monday, as quoted by Poland’s PAP news agency, said that presidents Duda and Poroshenko will meet in Brussels during the NATO summit this week, on the initiative of Ukraine. He added that the planned presidential talks showed that dialogue between Poland and Ukraine “is intense and sustained and does not require external impulses.”

All of which makes eminent sense. Looking at the relative economic growth of Poland and Ukraine since the former joined the EU, it quite clear that Ukraine’s longer term economic interests lie in closer ties with EU. Ukrainians have already moved to Poland in large numbers to meet Poland’s growing demand for labour at all levels and one might therefore assume that it’s only a matter of time before they are free to work in the EU too. Which seems a more logical way of dealing with western Europe’s labour shortages than expecting immigrants from across the Mediterranean, many of whom lack the necessary skills, to do so.

Be that as it may, closer ties would be another message to brother Putin that the seeds of division which he seeks to sow are falling on ever stonier ground. Putin respects action, not pious tweets.  NATO showing commitment to the security of its eastern flank by enhanced military presence, and Poland and Ukraine reaching a new common understanding in the context of Ukraine’s closer ties to the EU, are actions which should help to deliver a message to the Kremlin that enough is enough.

 

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Energy Security

“Whoever thinks… that the European economy can be competitive without economic cooperation with Russia, whoever thinks that energy security can exist in Europe without the energy that comes from Russia, is chasing ghosts.” The words of Viktor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister and not, it has to be said, everybody’s cup of tea when it comes to selecting words of wisdom. Therefore, who better than his ideological bed-fellows, and themselves no strangers to chasing ghosts, the Polish government, to prove him wrong?

Last week, Polish state-run gas company PGNiG, as reported Polish Radio’s IAR news agency, announcedthat it had signed a long-term agreement with two American companies for the purchase of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States as part of the effort to make Poland independent of Russian supplies. Under the agreements, with Port Arthur LNG and Venture Global LNG, PGNiGaims to import more than 100 billion cubic metres of LNG from the United States over 20 years.PGNiG’s CEO, Piotr Woźniak, was quoted as saying that the agreements, which the Polish company signed in Washington on Tuesday, “will not only allow further diversification of our import portfolio following 2022, but will also let us develop our trading competences and enable PGNiG’s presence as a global LNG market player.”

Port Arthur LNG and Venture Global LNG are building LNG terminals on the Gulf of Mexico that are expected to be completed in 2022 and 2023 and once ready, Poland will start importing 5.5 billion tonnes of LNG from them each year. Woźniak was quoted as saying that Poland aimed to rely on three sources of natural gas in five years: its own deposits, LNG from the United States, and gas imported from Norway via Denmark through a planned new pipeline known as the Baltic Pipe. Poland aims to stop importing natural gas from Russia after 2022, when the long-term gas supply agreement with Gazprom expires.

And, on that front, there is potentially good news, with a Stockholm-based arbitration court ruling that PGNiG may demand a lower price for gas it buys from Gazprom under that contract, PGNiG announced on Saturday.PGNiG filed for arbitration in May 2015, arguing that it was paying more for Russian gas than other buyers in Europe. The court has now issued a “partial ruling” in which it sided with PGNiG. “We are satisfied with the Tribunal’s ruling, which confirms PGNiG’s right to demand a reduction of the contract price and we await the reduction of the contract price to the level of market prices at a later stage of the proceedings,” PGNiG CEO Piotr Woźniak was quoted as saying in a statement.

Of course, there is more to energy security than gas supplies.  Thus, on Thursday, in Brussels, Poland, the Baltic states and the European Commission, signed an agreement by which Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will be able to decouple their power grids from Russia.Baltic electricity systems will instead be connected to the Continental European Network (CEN) via Poland by 2025 under the agreement, which was signed by the prime ministers of Poland, Latvia and Estonia, the president of Lithuania, and the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was quoted as saying during the signing ceremony that Poland was helping the Baltic states to break their dependence on Russia. “We are taking a very serious step in the right direction today, one whereby Poland is boosting the energy security of the Baltic states, while at the same time showing solidarity with these countries and consistently implementing its own policy of enhancing energy security”.

All of which seems eminently sensible if dependence on Russia for any energy supplies is considered to be undesirable. Germany appears to be taking a more sanguine view of Russian gas supplies, however, with the Nord Stream 2 project moving ahead (please see Neighbours). One can hardly blame the Polish government for following a different path, especially when the ghosts of the historic consequences of Russian-German cooperation are all too real, albeit that the world has – hopefully – changed.

 

 

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Dispute

“The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The judgments of the European Court of Justice have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights. The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must.” The words of Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with which, in so much as they restate the importance of the rule of law, few would disagree. Where there is a dispute, however, is whether the rule of law is under threat in Poland.

On Sunday, the eve of an expected visit to Warsaw, Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, was accused by a senior aide to the Polish president of being “interested in escalating” the rule of law dispute between Poland and the EU Commission. According to the spokesman, Andrzej Dera, as quoted by public broadcaster Polish Radio, Timmermans is trying to use the dispute with Poland “to build his position in Europe”. Timmermans had said on Twitter last week that he would visit Warsaw on Monday to discuss the rule of law in Poland with the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki.

This long running dispute, triggered by changes made to the composition and operation of Poland’s constitutional tribunal and to the appointment of and tenure of judges in the supreme and lower courts, lead to the EU Commission in December last year taking the unprecedented step of triggering article 7 of the EU Treaty. This move, in effect notice by the EU Commission that it wishes EU member states to declare that the rule of law is under threat in Poland, could potentially lead to sanctions being taken against Poland by the EU, although Hungary, for one, has said it will veto any such move.

Last week, Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, said that Poland would defend its right to reform its justice system. Responding to news that the European Union’s executive has requested that the EU Council holds a formal hearing focusing on concerns that the Polish government has eroded the rule of law in Poland, Czaputowicz said ”we will emphasise Poland’s right to carry out reforms and that these are compliant with EU standards.” He had previously said that there was little room for further compromise, that the EU Commission’s intervention in Poland’s judiciary had gone too far, and that the row over Poland’s justice system “is about how much the European Commission is allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries”.

Ryszard Czarnecki, a MEP for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, told public broadcaster Polish Radio on Thursday that there was a disagreement within the EU Commission over the Article 7 procedure against Warsaw. According to him, a former vice President of the European parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Secretary-General Martin Selmayr, wish to end the dispute with Poland as soon as possible, while Timmermans wants the procedure to go on. After meeting Timmermans in Warsaw on Monday, Morawiecki said he had given him a “list of various changes that have taken place.” “I am pleased that … we are trying to arrive at some agreement, at the same time bearing in mind the necessity for reform of the judiciary”.

Thus, the spat continues. On the one hand the EU which seeks to defend the rule of law against what it sees as a serious threat to EU values, with the threat of unprecedented sanctions under the Article 7 procedure, no doubt pour encourager les autres; on the other the Polish government which fails, disingenuously at times one might think, to understand why the much-needed judicial reform has met with such condemnation.  Of course, one man’s lurch towards tyranny is another man’s attack on his amour propre, and no amour is more propre than this one, especially given the proposal that future EU budget support could financially penalise countries that are judged to have breached EU principles on the rule of law.

Be that as it may, Poland’s judicial system does need reform, largely in the area of better timetabling to enable cases to be heard, and decisions reached, more quickly. If there are corrupt judges, by all means remove them, but one of the government’s justifications that the judiciary is dominated by Communist era judges who must be removed wholesale, seems less likely, given that over a quarter of a century has passed since the Communist system was overthrown, and most of those judges must by now have retired. Besides, some of the other reforms appear more politically motivated than simply genuine attempts at improving the system.

But perhaps there is a simpler explanation. In an environment where for many years the rule of law and judicial independence were little more than a sham, it takes time to adjust, and to resist the temptation to see electoral success as justification for accruing as much power as possible, stoking up supposed grievances along the way. Perhaps it’s all part of the period of adjustment to a fully-ledged, constitutionally robust, parliamentary democracy. There again, perhaps not. In

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Command

“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.” The words of Niccolo Machiavelli which are, perhaps, self-evident and amply demonstrated by the success of charismatic leaders throughout history to attract followers, and to command or inspire them to achieve the extraordinary good and, alas, bad. Folk instinctively it seems yearn to be commanded by a strong leader and contemporary world politics is not short of such figures, although one might ask wither western leadership.

And thus to Brussels where a meeting of NATO defence ministers on Thursday approved a new command structure. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, said that the changes aimed to “boost defence and deterrence against threats from any direction” and “ensure we have the right forces in the right places at the right time.” He told a press conference that the ministers had “agreed to strengthen the new command structure by more than 1,200 personnel” and that they “also agreed that our new Joint Force Command for the Atlantic will be based at Norfolk, Virginia in the United States. And that a new Enabling Command will be based in Ulm in Germany.” Stoltenburg added that “these headquarters will be essential for Alliance reinforcements across the Atlantic and across Europe.” The decisions will formally take effect after they are approved by NATO leaders during their summit in Brussels in mid-July, the IAR news agency reported.

Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, speaking to journalists after the meeting said that the changes, including a decision to enhance the combat readiness of NATO troop s in member countries, were beneficial and made the country more secure. “We are interested in seeing a situation where, in the event of a crisis, a state of danger, we will know that a potential attack will be met with a swift and decisive response from the Atlantic Alliance,” he said.

Meanwhile, Poland has its eye on a larger prize. The head of the president Duda’s National Security Bureau, Paweł Soloch, said that Poland wished to become “a hub for the presence of American troops in Europe.”He told public broadcaster TVP that permanent US military bases in Poland would be “in the interest of not only Poland, but also other countries in the region.” According to Soloch, not only the three Baltic states, but also countries such as Sweden and Finland are interested in seeing permanent US army bases set up in Poland. At present, four rotating multinational battalions are stationed in Poland and the Baltic states, a decision taken at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016 as a response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

A stronger NATO is certainly desired by the nine CEE countries on the alliance’s eastern flank. Following a meeting in Warsaw on Friday, a joint declaration, signed by the leaders of those counties, said that Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia wanted the 2018 NATO summit to build on “pivotal decisions” that were taken at previous summits and which bolstered the alliance’s eastern flank. The declaration said that the Bucharest Nine were “confident that the upcoming NATO summit will mark further strengthening of the alliance,” especially deterrence and defence against existing and future threats to security, and that they welcomed increased ally engagement in the region, and noted “with deep concern” Russia’s aggression, efforts to destabilise other countries, and boosted offensive capabilities. President Duda said the declaration was the most important achievement of the summit which he hoped “… will contribute to decisions at the NATO summit in Brussels”.

Be that as it may, a permanent us base in Poland will take some doing. Leaving aside the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 prohibits the alliance from basing large number of troops in the CEE (and that this not something which Germany, at least, is likely to leave aside) there is the question of President Trump’s continuing demands that European members of NATO should a fairer share of the defence burden. As this weekend’s G7 summit in Canada showed, Trump has other fish to fry and, much to the others’ chagrin, suggested that Brother Putin – presumably the putative enemy – be re-admitted to what was the G8. Italy also would like to see an easing of sanctions against Russia.

And at a time when the western alliance seems increasingly fractured, Putin was receiving the first friendship necklace from none other than President Xi of China. It seems clear that China will be a growing problem to the west even as the west fights to suck at China’s financial teat. In the future, beware of Chinese bearing necklaces may turn out to be but another version of beware of Greeks bearing gifts. NATO must defend its eastern border, but in the longer term, perhaps the east will turn out to be further east than we think. Those in command ought to know that.

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