Nicholas Richardson
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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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Budget

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” The words of Albert Einstein, which while an interesting commentary on the human condition, say little about those who neither fear punishment nor seek reward, especially if they see themselves as good, or at least in the right, in the first place. Thus while some would seek to punish Poland with EU budget cuts for the government’s failure to take in refugees under the EU scheme, the president of the European Commission takes a different view.

Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking during an interview with Belgian broadcaster RTBF, and his remarks followed those of Martin Schulz, the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, last week said that Germany would limit its contributions to the next European Union budget, which runs from 2021 to 2027, if Poland and Hungary did not help to resolve the migrant crisis facing the EU.

Last month the European Commission took Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failure to comply with their legal obligations to relocate migrants under the scheme agreed by the EU in September 2015 (Poland’s then government had agreed to take 6,000 of the 160,000 to be relocated). Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Warsaw would not cave in to demands by the Commission, and argued that Islamic migrant communities in Europe increased the threat of terrorism.

Polish government officials have repeatedly said that Poland is supporting those in need by increasing humanitarian aid to the victims of the war in Syria and by working with aid organisations to rebuild hospitals. The previous prime minister Beata Szydło had said that this type of help was not only cheaper but more effective, since EU migration policy had not stopped additional waves of migrants to Europe.

The ECJ, based in Luxembourg may impose high fines on Poland if the Commission asks for them in a further lawsuit. The procedure could take several years and it is not clear anyway that these countries could be legally punished by having withheld funds agreed under the budget.

Of course, that may be a distinction without a difference, given the timing. With Brexit looming, Juncker has already warned EU member states that they will have to pay more to fill the annual shortfall of €18 billion, based on this year’s figures. Those countries which are net contributors are expected to resist: Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have refused to pay more and France and Germany are also reluctant.

Southern, central and east European countries are keen to avoid any cuts as they are dependent on EU regional funding, which, in the case of Hungary, for example, is worth three per cent of GDP. In this context, when agreeing the new budget, it would be very easy to argue for significant reductions in the support allocated to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, claiming that the reductions are not so much a punishment as a result of less money being available. Those who consider that these three countries have not shown the correct community spirit are unlikely to have any sympathy were those three to see significantly reduced budgets.

Be that as it may, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was in Brussels on Tuesday to have talks with officials, including dinner with Juncker, amid the continuing tensions over the rule of law procedure which could – although given Hungary’s pledge to use its veto, probably won’t – end with sanctions against Poland. At the times of the decision, Morawiecki had said in a tweet that Poland was “as devoted to the rule of law as the rest” – which may or may not be a source of comfort – while Juncker had tweeted that “the dialogue between the Commission and Warsaw needs to be both open and honest. I believe that Poland’s sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled.”

On Monday, Juncker said in Brussels that the talks with Morawiecki would be an in-depth discussion covering a range of issues concerning Europe and Poland. “We are not at war with Poland – far from that,” Juncker said, as quoted by the DPA news agency. “But we are taking seriously on board Polish concerns and I would like our Polish friends to take seriously on board our own concerns.” For his part, Morawiecki has said that judicial reform in Poland “is deeply needed.”

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be, but money does have a way of concentrating the mind. Or, as Voltaire has it, “when it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

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Ideas

“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” The words of Franklin D. Roosevelt which are as relevant today as ever they were, and the sentiment behind is clearly appreciated by Poland’s prime minister who has said that the focus of the government in 2018 will be to ensure the financial security of families.

Mateusz Morawiecki, who was speaking to public broadcaster TVP on Monday evening, said that the government would work to “ensure that there are as many well-paid jobs as possible.” Not only that but every effort would be made to guarantee “internal security in terms of both finances and the physical security of citizens.” The prime minister said that the government will also work to ensure “external security” by protecting the country’s borders, “in addition to guaranteeing security against various ideas and initiatives being proposed in the world around us by either the European Union or our other neighbours.”

It’s not entirely clear what these obviously dangerous ideas and initiatives might be, but anyone of intelligence with an interest in Poland will be able to make certain assumptions. It is, of course, self-evident that in 2018, a year which President Duda said in his New Year’s Eve address will be “an opportunity to rediscover the greatness of our history, to consolidate our national sense of identity and pride inspired by the outstanding achievements of past generations”, that the right ideas flourish and the wrong ones do not. After all, the wrong ideas may also be “the stuff of which dictatorships are made”, as the 1930s, for example, clearly demonstrated. Or, as Joseph Stalin said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

Be that as it may, Morawiecki said that one of the biggest challenges for the government this year, is to deal with the health service and the long running protests by doctors and the shortage of medical staff. These, he said, were a legacy of inadequate government policies over the previous 25 years. “We have a very imperfect medical system that needs to be improved and looked at in a slightly different way.” That is certainly a good idea.

Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the president’s idea is that 2018 be a year of national pride. Duda said that 2017 “has been a time of building a state that serves citizens – all of them, without exception, a time of reforms thanks to which state institutions and authorities operate in a transparent manner under greater democratic surveillance.”

The president stated that 2017 had been “marked by effective efforts to secure faster and more prudent development for Poland, and to make sure the fruits of this growth are fairly shared.” Thus “millions of Polish families” were feeling the effects of continuing economic growth and that the country’s “internal and external security is founded nowadays on solid foundations.” According to Duda, 2018 will be “a unique and exceptional year” for Poles, a year when the country will be celebrating the centenary of regaining independence.

In the president’s view 2018 will also be “a time for reflection: to ponder on what kind of Poland we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.” He encouraged Poles to “take part in a debate on the shape of our civic community” and to “decide together about the new constitution intended to serve modern times.” He made this appeal: “Let us forge our future with hope and confidence in our own potential, the same way our ancestors did – winning back the Polish state with their courageous struggle and their persevering effort.” And his conclusion: “Let us make it a year of our national pride, nurturing the sense of belonging to our civic community. Let us celebrate together the achievements made so far and let us work together to score new success. Let us be together in this unique time: here, at home and among our fellow citizens living abroad.”

And there is no doubt that greater civil engagement is also a good idea – the worst calamity for a young democracy is for cynicism to lead to apathy and an uninterested electorate, another ingredient of the stuff of dictatorship. Poland begins 2018 in a strong position and to harm it with the wrong ideas would be very sad.

May I wish you a happy new year.

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Two Laws

“There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.” The words of Montesquieu which are not inapposite when considering the further proposed changes to the appointment and functioning of the Polish judiciary and, in particular, two laws which were approved by the upper house of Poland’s parliament on Friday evening.

If the two laws come into effect, that is if the president does not veto them, they will reshape Poland’s Supreme Court and reorganise the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that nominates new judges and which is also responsible for safeguarding the independence of the courts. The government regards these reforms as vital to tackle the inefficient and, it is claimed, sometimes corrupt system of justice. The opposition has criticised the changes as being unconstitutional and has accused the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) as trying to pack both the the Supreme Court and the KRS with persons loyal to PiS.

Will the president veto these laws? That seems unlikely given that he submitted two draft bills to parliament himself, having in the summer vetoed two government supported bills dealing with broadly the same subject matter. Of course, president Duda might decide that amendments made in parliament change the bill, but this also seems unlikely. His spokesman Krzysztof Łapiński said on Polish Radio 3 on Saturday that after the parliamentary process both laws retained all those provisions about which the president was especially concerned. And earlier, senior presidential aide Paweł Mucha had welcomed the passing of the laws by the Senate without further amendment, saying that he hoped the changes to the judiciary would “serve the Polish people.”

The view from Brussels is less sanguine. The European Commission will on Wednesday assess these changes to decide whether to invoke article 7.1 of the EU treaty. This means that, at the request of a third of member states, the European Parliament or the European Commission, the EU Council may declare that there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” by an EU country of the bloc’s values. The decision would have to be taken by a three-fifths majority of member states. Any sanctions against Poland would require the unanimous backing of member states and Hungary has said it will not back sanctions. For his part, Poland’s new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said on Thursday that triggering Article 7 would be unfair and that sovereign nations have the right to reform their judicial systems.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said in a joint press conference in Brussels that if the EU Commission does decide to take this action against Poland they will support it. Which does rather play into the hands of those who consider that Poland is being unfairly treated since both Germany and France are no strangers to ignoring EU law when it suits.

Be that as it may, what of the actual changes themselves? The Supreme Court will be able to conduct “extraordinary reviews” of final judgments by lower courts, including those issued as far back as 20 years. It does not take much imagination to see how that could be abused. Under new rules for the KRS, the lower house of parliament would elect the majority of the panel’s 25 members, with each parliamentary caucus being able to nominate not more than nine members. At present, the majority of panel members are judges.

In another change, an autonomous disciplinary chamber will be created within the Supreme Court, in part staffed by lay members elected by the upper house of parliament, while Supreme Court judges will retire five years earlier than now at 65, although the president will be able to extend the retirement age in individual cases. The forced retirement of Supreme Court judges was an issue on which the EU Commission has said in July it would be ready to trigger a formal warning to Poland. The Venice Commission had said the previous Friday that the planned changes put the independence of “all parts” of the Polish judiciary “at serious risk”.

And the question remains – are the changes a step in the direction of a more cruel tyranny or an attempt to right wrongs? Nobody questions that certain reform is needed and it is probably the case that as a relatively new democracy tries to put down roots the medicine may need to be drastic. The difficulty is that power tends to be abused by politicians keen to impose “winner’s justice.” The reforms could probably work with men of goodwill but these, despite the season, are apt to be in short supply in politics.

And so, as yet another year draws to a close, may I thank you for reading and wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

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Prime Minister

“In the end we are all sacked and it’s always awful. It is as inevitable as death following life. If you are elevated there comes a day when you are demoted. Even prime ministers.” The words of Alan Clark which, although describing the United Kingdom are true of any democracy. In Poland, there is a new prime minister although the previous prime minister, Beata Szydło, appears to have resigned rather than having been sacked.

The new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki and his ministers took their oaths on Monday before President Andrzej Duda in a ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw. All government ministers kept their jobs with Morawiecki has remaining as finance and development minister as well as becoming prime minister. Clearly there are administrative advantages in having the direction of economic policy in one pair of hands with, one assumes, the ability actually to make policy happen. That, at least, must be the theory.

Beata Szydło, who tendered her resignation on Thursday, half way through the government’s term of office, which resignation was accepted by the president on Friday, remains in the government as a deputy prime minister in charge of social policy. Those expecting, or hoping, for a wider reshuffle will now have to wait until January when, according to the state news agency PAP, it is expected to take place. On Tuesday, Morawiecki is due to deliver a policy speech in parliament, outlining his government’s priorities, followed by a vote of confidence in the new Cabinet.

Why the change? Law and Justice (PiS) politicians have said that this reflects the government’s determination to focus on the economy over the next two years, something which the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank also suggests might be a motivation. The suggestion is that Szydło having successfully completed her mission to implement the first stage of social and political changes, the emphasis will now be placed on meeting the development challenges.

Other suggested motivations are: to attract more support from the political centre in time for the 2019 parliamentary elections with Marowiecki “becoming a conservative version of liberal Donald Tusk”; as a “counterweight to government hardliners, such as Zbigniew Ziobro and Antoni Macierewicz” or “a reaction to Szydło’s huge popularity among PiS voters” which “risked [her] becoming too powerful for Kaczyński”; and “to refurbish Poland’s image abroad, and ideally to amplify its voice on the key debates on Brexit, Eurozone reform, and the next EU budget.”

Be that as it may, and whether one agrees with the ECFR suggestions or not, it remains to be seen how, if at all, the new prime minister will deal with Poland’s apparent drift to a more authoritarian regime, an approach traditionally at home, whether as a resident or an (uninvited) guest, further east. Thus while PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński said at the 92nd monthly “March of Remembrance” that was held in Warsaw on Sunday or the 92nd time to commemorate the victims of a fatal Polish presidential plane crash on April 10, 2010, that a “sovereign, free, democratic, respected and fair Poland is our aim,” the broadcasting regulator fined US owned broadcaster TVN PLN 1.5 million for coverage that it said “propagated illegal activities and encouraged behaviour threatening security.”

The coverage was of events around parliament during anti-government protests last December. The media studies lecturer who reportedly wrote the opinion that led to the regulator imposing the fine, accused TVN of “calling almost directly for the collapse of the legal order of the state” by broadcasting images of anti-government protests “in silence, without commentary.” Although the regulator, coincidentally led by a former PiS local councilor appointed last year by the PiS majority in Parliament, has not yet publicly released the full justification for its decision, TVN, as Poland’s largest private broadcaster, is regarded as an opponent by the government and is one of the main targets of a planned new law to restrict majority foreign ownership of media companies.

For its part, TVN rejects the charge and will appeal. A professor of media studies art private SWPS University suggests that the government is sending a clear signal to the media: “From today we are in charge and the only message [allowed] is pro-government.” While TVN is able to absorb fines, smaller outlets might be intimidated into changing their reporting.

But perhaps it’s all a simple misunderstanding, a case of over zealousness on the part of functionaries trying to impress the powers that be, something not unknown to dominant leaders. After all, “this aim will be achieved already within the lifetime of this generation. We will win,” Jarosław Kaczyński said on Sunday. After all a free, democratic, respected and fair Poland surely has space for a free press. If only folk would stay on message.

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