Nicholas Richardson
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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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NATO

 “War should be the only study of a prince. He should consider peace only as a breathing-time, which gives him leisure to contrive, and furnishes as ability to execute, military plans.” The words of Niccolo Maciavelli, which seem in practice to have fallen out of favour, at least in what we might call the West, as peace is used as an excuse for cutting expenditure on defence, even beyond what many would consider prudent given the unpredictability in the world.

And thus to Warsaw for the four day Spring Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a body comprising 266 delegates from the 29 NATO member states, plus representatives from associate countries, and observers from other nations, which is focussed on issues such as NATO’s deterrence policy, ways of counteracting hybrid threats from Russia, and challenges related to energy security in Central and Eastern Europe.  The assembly was addressed on Sunday, its third day, by Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak, who spoke about the role of parliaments in providing security for NATO member states, saying that they were the place where decisions on security budgets were taken. He also said that more efficient command structures within NATO are key to boosting the alliance’s capacity for deterrence and defence.

Błaszczak said he hoped that a July NATO summit in Brussels will contribute to greater deterrence and defence capabilities for the alliance. “To reach that end, we need a more effective NATO command structure, including the land command,” he said. According to him, NATO needs “more combat forces with a higher degree of readiness, which should be closely affiliated to commands.” “We must create more detailed defence plans, modify training and drills, so as to restore the military capacity for carrying out defence operations,” Błaszczak said.

Of course, what NATO really needs is for each member to commit to the recommended levels of defence expenditure of two per cent. of GDP, something which, apart from the US, only a handful of other members manage, including the UK and Poland. Without adequate budgets, the ability of NATO to live up to the rhetoric is limited, something not lost on potential foes. Of course, some might be slightly relived that Germany – one of the worst offenders in the budget stakes – had to use tanks with painted wooden barrels in an exercise, and only a handful of operationally ready fighter planes, but that’s hardly the point if one is being serious about defence.

Poland, of course, is serious. On the first day of the assembly, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said efforts must be undertaken to boost NATO’s eastern flank. He added the effectiveness of the alliance reflected its capacity to adapt to new conditions. “At present, we must make sure that decisions on shoring up security on NATO’s eastern flank taken at summits in Newport and Warsaw are completely implemented and irreversible.”

For his part, addressing Monday’s plenary session, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda said that “ties between North America and Europe remain the key to ensuring the security of the Euro-Atlantic area.” “Today, perhaps even more than ever, we should strive to improve the political climate in transatlantic relations,” he added.

And he is, of course, quite correct. With the US president increasingly vocal about what is seen in the US as a failure by European NATO members to bear the burden of defence, combined with his America first policy, there is a risk of a lessening of the US military commitment to Europe, even if lip service is paid to NATO obligations. There is only one beneficiary from this tension, brother Putin, who must be congratulating himself that despite being outgunned militarily, economically, and demographically, he is still able to achieve his agenda with ease. Clearly, a man with a plan will always beat a man with a platitudinous tweet.

If diplomacy is war by other means, then gas pipelines are diplomacy by other means as the polish prime minster didn’t quite put it when addressing the assembly on Monday. For Mateusz Morawiecki the planned Nord Stream 2 subsea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is “a new hybrid weapon” aimed at the European Union and NATO, which may “have far-reaching geopolitical consequences.” He described it (please see Neighbours) as a “poisoned pill of European security,” Poland’s PAP news agency reported, arguing that the existing Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline had enabled Russia to obtain funds that it later used to modernise its army.

Si vis pacem para bellum, as the adage has it. Perhaps Germany prefers si vis pacem para pacem, reckoning that if Russia is suppling it with gas, it’s unlikely to want war, but you can hardly blame Poland for taking a more cautious view.

 

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Neighbours

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbour.” The words of G. K. Chesterton which, from a historical perspective, Poland has had plenty of occasions to rue, being blessed – God has a cruel sense of humour – with two particularly troublesome neighbours. And, it appears, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, they are up to it again this time, thankfully, the bone of contention being a gas pipeline rather than military action.

Thus, when Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on Monday, the controversial gas link between Russia and Germany was reportedly one of the topics for discussion. Other topics reportedly included the presence of US troops in Poland, policy on Iran, and Poland’s anti-defamation law.

After his visit to the State Department, Czaputowicz said that Poland and the United States had similar views on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which both have criticised, as have the Baltic states and Ukraine. Czaputowicz said that he hoped that diplomatic pressure from the United States would cause European companies to withdraw from the project. In March, a spokeswoman for the US State Department said that the US government was opposed to the project since it would undermine Europe’s energy security and stability.

Heather Nauert said that companies engaged in the construction and financing of the pipeline could expose themselves to sanctions under the US federal law Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The US is concerned that that the project, which would carry gas from Russia to Germany bypassing Poland and other countries in the region, would provide Russia with another tool to put pressure on other European countries, especially Ukraine. “We’ve seen that – what Russia has done in the past, when they’ve turned off the pipeline in the middle of winter, causing some families to not have heat … and we think that that is simply wrong,” she said.

Indeed, Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine, has reportedly said that while no decision has yet been taken, there is a continuing debate in the United States on whether sanctions should be imposed. Volker was quoted as saying that the potential sanctions would hit companies working with Russians and thus adding to Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy.

According to wpolityce.pl, CAATSA could affect five European energy companies – ENGIE, OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper, and Wintershall, which have agreed to lend Russian energy company Gazprom USD 950 million for the construction of Nord Stream 2, with the repayment period extended until 2035. If built (and construction has reportedly begun) the 1,200 km undersea pipeline, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, will supply aproximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per annum from Russia to Germany. Finland and Germany have approved the passing of the pipeline through their territorial waters, but other, including Denmark and Sweden, have yet to do so

In an article posted on the politico.eu website Poland’s deputy foreign minister Konrad, Szymański said that the planned gas link “is a bad deal for the European Union and a bad deal for Ukraine, and it should not go ahead.” Once the pipeline goes online in 2019 Gazprom “has the technical capacity to serve its Western European customers without the Ukrainian transmission system, any deal of the sort will be based solely on Russia’s good will, which is hardly an ironclad guarantee,” Szymański said. He added that supporting Ukrainian independence and maintaining the Ukrainian gas transit route after 2019 is crucial to the stability of Europe.

Cutting off the Ukrainian transit route would deal a harsh blow to the Ukrainian budget and, even more importantly, Kiev’s geopolitical situation would become much more vulnerable, according to Szymański. “Even if the pipeline would appear to benefit Germany and Russia in the short term, Europe as a whole will eventually lose, and the ultimate winner will turn out to be Russia,” he wrote in his article.

On the one hand the objection seems to that Nord Stream 2 will help Russia to sell more gas without the by-passed countries gaining economically, on the other that Germany will receive a better deal and is thus hardly being a good neighbour.  If, as the objectors suggest, gas supplies from Russia are ultimately at the whim of brother Putin, then Germany may not have got such a good deal after all, although perhaps he has less interest in upsetting mutti Merkel, than in irritating everybody else.  After all, there’s nothing worse than being ignored when you want a fight with the neighbours.

 

 

 

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Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.” The words of Thomas Jefferson which remain as relevant today as ever they did. Indeed, some might argue that the consolidation of power by the current government in Poland, including appointments of PiS party loyalists to the boards of state-owned companies, is a text book example of corruption in action.

The government argues otherwise. Put simply, according to PiS, since the fall of Communism previous governments (especially the previous PO/PSL government led by PiS bête–noir Donald Tusk) have allowed former communists to acquire too much of the wealth of the state by improper means, which is a wrong that must righted. Too many of them remain in place it is said, including within the judiciary, hence widespread reform is necessary to create a future for Poland that is free of such corruption and therefore fairer. And, as messages go, it has gone down well, at least with that large part of the electorate that supports PiS.

Thus, Poland’s Central Ant-Corruption Bureau (CBA) has detained six individuals, including a former deputy treasury minister in the previous PO led government, in connection with the privatisation in 2014 of the state-owned chemical company Ciech, a controlling stake in which was bought by a company controlled by the late billionaire Jan Kulczyk. The CBA’s Piotr Kaczorek told Polish Radio’s IAR agency that an investigation into suspected irregularities in the privatisation of Ciech included, amongst other possible offences, the alleged abuse of power for financial gain and substantial damage to Treasury interests. Prosecutors in Katowice are coordinating the investigation he said.

In addition to the former treasury minister, his former counsellor, a former treasury ministry director, another ministry official, and two experts from a company that evaluated Ciech prior to privatization have also been detained, according to Kaczorek. Deputy Justice Minister Michał Wójcik told public broadcaster Polish Radio 1 on Monday that these detentions demonstrated that “there were irregularities at the intersection of business and politics” when the previous government of Donald Tusk was in power in Poland.

Donald Tusk was not in power, however, in the 1990s when the concession for the A2 motorway was signed. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro told public broadcaster TVP Info on Sunday that an investigation will look at why the toll of a section of the A2 motorway is “so high”. Following a price rise last month, the toll on a 150 km stretch of the motorway from Konin to Nowy Tomyśl is PLN 60 (EUR 14.30), or 0.40 PLN (EUR 0.10) per kilometre, making it “the most expensive motorway in Europe,” according to TVP Info. The investigation will seek to determine the circumstances in which the concession agreement for the construction and operation of the motorway was signed and the role of former government in the transaction, Ziobro said. The motorway section in question is operated by Autostrada Wielkopolska, a company controlled by the family of the late Jan Kulczyk.

Be that as it may, as Lord Acton’s epithet reminds us, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so it is important that corruption be rooted out and alleged corruption be properly investigated, if folk are to have faith in the system. And it goes without saying – or certainly should – that nobody is above the law, including ministers. This is doubly important in a country where the all-embracing corruption of communism is still too recent an experience and where the concepts of democratic accountability and the rule of law are no so deeply rooted that they cannot be uprooted.

The difficulty arises where the criminal law is used, or might appear to be used, to settle political scores. That is not the suggestion here and no doubt, as with Caesar’s wife, the minister of justice and the prosecution apparatus are above suspicion, and the investigations well-founded. But even Caesar’s wife might have wondered at her own future resolve were she to find herself minister of justice, chief prosecutor, and with an extensive influence over the appointment of judges and the functioning of the courts. The inherent dangers are clear, and these cases show how in the hands of those with less than super-human probity, those powers could be abused.

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Anti-defamation

“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth.” The words of Friedrich Nietzsche which come to mind this week as Poland’s new anti-defamation law attracts international criticism, from the United States, Israel, and Ukraine. The new law, which was signed by President Duda on Tuesday, carries a sentence of imprisonment on any one who accuses Poland of being complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, or in other war crimes or crimes against peace and humanity. Interestingly, in view of the long running saga over the Constitutional Tribunal, the president has announced that he will refer the law to that body to see whether it is in line with the constitution.

Be that as it may, international reaction has not been favourable. United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US is “disappointed” that the president has signed the new law. The State Department had earlier raised concerns about the effect the law “could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships”, including the US and Israel. The department had earlier said that: “We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners”. Reacting to the signing, the department said: “Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech & academic enquiry”. The law provides that an offence is not committed if the perpetrator of the prohibited act acted “with the framework of artistic or scientific activity”.

From the Polish perspective, the law is seen as a way of combatting use of the phrase “Polish death camps”, which many say implies Poland’s involvement in the Nazi’s mass extermination programme. Poland has, understandably, fought against the use of this phrase which has often appeared in foreign media in relation to the concentration camps run by the Nazis during the Second World War in occupied Polish territory.

Nobody of any intelligence doubts that the industrial extermination of humans in the camps was perpetrated purely by the Nazis. Those using the phrase in question in the media are however more likely to be guilty of lack of precision than any wish to deny a historical truth or to attribute a falsehood to Poland, and it is simply a feature of colloquial English that Polish, French or whatever might refer simply to geography as much as to anything else.

That said, there is no excuse for imprecision and work has been done to encourage international media to be more careful. Whether this law is the most effective way to continue that work is open to debate. The government is adamant that the use of such phrases distorts history and, in particular, risks distracting from the fact that in Poland there was no collaboration as elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, that many Poles took great risks to save Jewish folk, and that Poles themselves died in great numbers in the camps.

For some commentators, however, there are concerns, particularly from Israel, that the new law could be used to inflict penalties for anyone who criticizes the role of individual Poles in the Holocaust (although this is not what the law provides). Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, said that in Israel the law “is seen as creating a possibility of punishment for Holocaust survivors’ testimony’.

In Ukraine the law was condemned on Tuesday in parliament since it allows criminal proceedings to be brought against anyone who denies crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists between 1925 and 1950, such as the Volhynia Massacre during the Second World War. According to the Ukrainian parliament, the new law contains a “distorted concept” of Ukrainian nationalism and threatens to strengthen anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Poland. The parliament adopted a statement appealing to president Duda and the Polish parliament to “restore the balance” in Ukrainian-Polish relations.

There is no doubt that Poland was not responsible for any part of the Nazi mass extermination programme during the Second World War. As the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel told Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz on Sunday, Germany was solely responsible. And by all means continue to urge more accurate terminology in the international media. But history is best discussed in an atmosphere of scholarship and open debate and the use of criminal sanction in this area is likely to prove counter- productive. The truth is incontrovertible; it does not need criminal sanction and the souring of international relations to defend it.

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Budget and Business

“The budget doesn’t have much control over the government. Then again, the government does not have much control over the budget.” The words of American satirist P. J. O’Rourke which, while apparently true of the United States are, thankfully thus far, less true of Poland, where a tighter ship is run. On Monday evening the president signed into law the budget for 2018, according to his chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski.

The budget sets government spending at PLN 397.2 billion and forecasts revenues of PLN 355.7 billion. The deficit is planned to be PLN 41.5 billion which equates to 2.7 per cent of GDP, below the EU ceiling of 3 per cent of GDP. The budget assumes that the economy will grow by 3.8 per cent in 2018. In the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, in the vote on the budget 240 deputies voted for, 189 against with two abstentions.

On current performance, the budget forecasts appear reasonable. Speaking at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the prime minister. Mateusz Morawiecki said that 2018 will be great for the Polish and global economies. According to him, the growth in Poland’s GDP in the final quarter of 2017 “may be close to five per cent” and 4.5 per cent for the year as whole. “Our business model works” he said. Not only was Poland not selling off assets or draining companies of dividends but Poland’s crackdown on tax fraud was “inspiring awe in Davos”.

Self-praise is no recommendation, of course, but the current performance is certainly good and perhaps helps to account for PiS’s strong performance in opinion polls. The latest, by Estymator, suggests that the governing party would receive 48.7 per cent in an election, three percentage points up from the last survey by the same pollster. In contrast, opposition PO is down 2.8 percentage points at 20.6 per cent, with Kukiz 15 on 9.4 per cent and the SLD on 6.8 per cent, and the largely rural PSL on 5.2 per cent.

Despite this, Morawiecki did recognize that modernization and innovation were the greatest challenges facing Poland. He said that there was much interest in Poland at the forum, which, with robust economic growth and a stable economy, is an attractive destination for investors according to the head of the National Bank of Poland, Adam Glapiński, who was also at the forum. Speaking to Polish Radio, he described Poland as one of the “hottest” places for investment internationally with investors liking the stability of the Polish democracy and the currency.
Speaking of the currency, Glapiński echoed the prime minister’s view that Poland could only join the Euro once the gap in incomes with western European countries had closed, saying that the central bank’s own analysis had concluded that “such a step should not be rushed.” Even were Poland to meet all the criteria for membership, whether adopting the Euro would be beneficial for the country would have to be considered and, in his view, there was no such need. Some businesses would benefit, but the majority of the population would suffer financially he said. Also at Davos, President Duda said that Poland could consider replacing the zloty with the euro only after earnings in the country approached the European Union average. On this point at least, they are all agreed, as are 47 per cent of Poles who believe adopting the Euro would be bad as against 14 per cent who say it would be good.

Be that as it may, back home on Friday the Sejm voted in favour of a package of measures collectively referred to as a “constitution for business” which aims to simplify procedures for those setting up and running their own businesses. The new rules include a presumption of entrepreneurial honesty and the principle of a friendly interpretation of regulations whereby any doubt will be resolved in favour of the entrepreneur. The general rule in business will be that “everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”

The package is designed to allow small entrepreneurs to run a business without the need to register it if their monthly income is less than half the national minimum wage. This measure could benefit about 75,000 people, including those who provide services such as private tutoring, according the government and is also aimed at reducing the unregistered, tax-evading segment of the economy where undeclared cash payments are common. New businesses will be given special start-up incentives by being exempted from paying social security contributions for the first six months, followed by two years of the “small social insurance” programme. This is certainly to be welcomed.

Thus, it seems that whatever other failings of which the government may be accused, on the economy rationality prevails.

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Plains, Trains and Electro-mobiles

“Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures – in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.” The words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and, although the century has changed, the coming together that transport enables – be it of people, goods, or ideas – has never been easier or achieved more cheaply than it is today. As technology advances, so do the possibilities, but whatever may be happening in cyberspace, for now at least, people and goods have physically to come together using traditional transport.

Air travel has grown in recent years, with budget airlines having made a tremendous impact. As a result, last year saw 24.34 million passengers used Poland’s 14 regional airports, 3 million up on 2016, according to data released by the Polish Regional Airports Association. Regional airports accounted for 61 per cent of all air traffic in Poland, which totalled 40.09 million passengers. The remaining 15.75 million passengers, 39 per cent of the total, flew via Warsaw Chopin Airport.

The top three regional airports in 2017 were Kraków (5.83 million passengers), Gdańsk (4.6 million) and Katowice (3.89 million), with the Olsztyn-Mazury airport in Szymany recorded the highest growth in air traffic, with passenger number up 122 per cent on 2016. Indeed, 2017 was the best year for Poland’s regional airports in history, Artur Tomasik, head of the Polish Regional Airports Association, said. “The substantial upswing in air traffic recorded by virtually all hubs shows that they are a vital component of the country’s transport system”.

He also said that there was room for optimism in the sector for the years ahead, with the Civil Aviation Authority forecasting almost 65 million passengers passing through Polish airports in 2025. On the assumption that more than half of them will use the 14 regional airports, he suggested passenger numbers of some 35 million. The CAA estimates that some 26.5 million passengers will pass through Poland’s regional airports in 2018.

Meanwhile, a new freight railway route linking Poland and southern China was launched this week according to the Xinhua News Agency. A train carrying electrical products and sheet metal left Qinzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region for Małaszewicze, eastern Poland, on Wednesday. The train will cover the distance of some 11,000 kilometers in between 18 and 20 days, which is 12 days shorter than the journey would take by ship. The Polish government has been actively seeking to increase the number of trains between Poland and China.

And on the roads, Warsaw is to receive 130 new electric buses, financed to the tune of EUR 41 million through the European Union’s Cohesion Fund. The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Crețu, said that the move will improve the quality of life in Warsaw as the electric buses should help to reduce car traffic and improve air quality, which is certainly in need of improvement. The buses are expected to appear at the beginning of 2021.

This is in tune with the thoughts of President Duda who said at last week’s conference entitled Future Technologies Electro-mobility and held at the presidential palace in Warsaw that e-mobility was important since replacing combustion-engine cars with electric vehicles in the future would increase Poland’s energy independence and reduce pollution. He added that a Polish economy focused on innovative technologies would be able to compete with Western economies. The senate is also to discuss a new law on e-mobility, which includes waiving tax on electric vehicles, free parking in cities, and the construction of some 6,000 charging stations around the country.

Of course, Poland has some way to go to establish its green credentials, not least in reducing reliance on coal – and the electricity to charge the batteries of these electric vehicles has to come from somewhere, as folk are wont to forget – but it is encouraging to see these issues now being thought about more widely. Of course, cynics will no doubt take a different view, but once for might we not accept positive developments at face value.

So there we have it, a snap shot of three very different aspects of developments in planes, trains and electro-mobiles. The common theme, a country, a people and an economy on the move which is certainly a positive start to the year.

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Democratic Freedom

Democratic Freedom

“Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.” The words of Aristotle, which although from a time when democratic involvement was much more immediate than today, are still relevant. Of course, no body is suggesting, at least not yet, that Poland has degenerated, or is in immediate danger of degenerating, into despotism, but there are some potential signs of wear and tear and some are none too keen on the direction of travel.

Thus Freedom House, a human rights organisation from the United States, has said in a report on democratic freedoms that Poland has fallen four points over a year, a year in which “democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades.” The report said that democratic freedoms such as minority rights, freedom of the press and the principle of the rule of law improved in 35 countries but worsened in 71.

According to the report, 39 per cent of the global population enjoyed democratic freedoms, 37 per cent did not and 24 per cent enjoyed only partial democratic freedom. Poland was classified as “free”, receiving a score of 85 points out of a possible 100, although the report said that in Poland “populist leaders continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society”.

In the view of Freedom House, “smears of the opposition appeared in public media….and [Poland] passed laws designed to curb the activities on non-governmental organizations.” It added that ”Poland’s ruling parry also pressed ahead with an effort to assert political control over the judiciary, advancing laws that will affect the Supreme Court, the local courts, and a council responsible for judicial appointments”.

One man’s step on the road to despotism is another man’s necessary corrective action and for a different view look no further than the interview with George Friedman, the founder and former head of US-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, in Monday’s conservative weekly Sieci. He said that the EU is targeting Poland because it wishes to retain control over the internal policies of member states. For him, one of the hallmarks of a rising power is that waning powers direct their heaviest guns against it. Poland has been targeted because it is an important country, Friedman argued. This is why the United Kingdom, which he said was leaving the EU because of interference from Brussels, had concluded a defence treaty with Poland, Friedman was quoted as having said.

He added that Poland is currently the leader of a bloc of countries that oppose the European liberal elites’ concept of what the European Union should be. He said that in 2015 Poles elected the PiS government which is doing what it promised to do. Those eurocrats who dream of a single European identity do not understand Poles, he continued, and the more they come under pressure, the more they remember their loss of their sovereignty in the past and the more stubborn they become. For good measure, he added that Germany was the “last country” that should teach others about human rights.

While no doubt more in tune with the government’s own view of its actions than that of Freedom House, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Reforms are needed in the Polish judicial system and, at the same time, the EU and others are right to remind the government of the importance of adhering to democratic values, especially when, given the turmoil of the last century, those values have still to re-establish the deep roots that are taken for granted – and more’s the pity – elsewhere. This process might be helped if the liberal elites were as quick to deal with voters’ legitimate concerns as they are to castigate them as knuckle dragging Neanderthals for having the temerity to vote in a way in which they disapprove.

And talking of voting, on Tuesday president Duda signed into law changes to the electoral law and rules on local government. The new rules change the way in which members of the State Election Commission (PKW), which conducts and oversees elections, are selected. After parliamentary elections scheduled in 2019, seven of the commission’s nine members will be elected by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in which PiS has a majority. Hitherto, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Administrative Court each delegated three judges to work in the commission. The new law also limits to two the number of terms that can be served by local government officials such as mayors as of this year’s local government elections. PiS say the changes will make voting more transparent and provide stronger guarantees of fair elections, but Mariusz Witczak, a deputy for the opposition Civic Platform party, said Duda would go down in history as a president who had sounded the death knell for free elections.

Be that as it may, the president of the European Commission said in the European Parliament on Wednesday: “We are not at war with Poland. We have a dispute with the Polish government”. Jean-Claude Juncker added that he was in “constructive dialogue” with the country, after he met Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week. Juncker also urged folk to stop suggesting that Poland will be subject to sanction “come what may,” after the Commission triggered Article 7 proceedings last December. It seems this battle is far from over.

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