Nicholas Richardson


“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.” The words of French philosopher Albert Camus which still ring true today, two generations later. And it is with the former, rather than saving the world, in mind that Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski attended a meeting of world leaders in New York on Monday to discuss ways of reforming the United Nations.

The meeting will be chaired by US President Donald Trump who, during his election campaign, criticised the UN as an inefficient and expensive institution. After assuming office, the Trump administration came up with a plan to increase the effectiveness of the UN, including limiting the UN’s budget. According to US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, more than 120 countries have supported the proposed reforms, including Poland.

The Polish foreign minister is, however, sceptical about whether it will be possible to reform the UN Security Council. “A debate has been in progress for many years on whether the five permanent members of the Security Council are representative enough of the international community. Unfortunately, these five countries are blocking reforms in this area” Waszczykowski said. Poland will become one of the elected members of the security council next year, success in that election being one of the objectives of Waszczykowski’s visit to the UN last year, when he announced that he had enlisted the support of a number of countries, including Sam Escobar whose greatest diplomatic triumph, like that of Satan, is to have convinced the world it doesn’t exist.

Be that as it may, Waszczykowski’s busy schedule included attending on Friday, coincidentally the International Day of Democracy, a meeting of the 30 member governing council of the Community of Democracies, an international body of over 100 countries, founded by the United States and Poland in 2000 as an organisation to sustain and strengthen democratic values, and having its permanent secretariat in Warsaw. Waszczykowski welcomed US Secretary of State’s Tillerson’s “many references to Poland, to Warsaw, to history and to President Trump’s visit to Warsaw” in his opening speech. Waszczykowski also announced that Poland was awarded the honour to hold a half-year presidency of the CoD in 2019, and would host a meeting of the governing council. Tillerson and the newly-appointed COD Secretary General, Thomas Garrett, praised Poland’s commitment to the CoD, albeit not, on current form at least the malcontents might argue, completely to the ideals it represents.

The meeting discussed Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and the role of democracy in counteracting terrorism. And it was in relation to the current threats to regional and global security posed by North Korea – which could certainly lead to the world destroying itself if folk start firing off nuclear weapons hither and yon – that Waszczykowski made his most significant contribution. He stressed that Poland is in a unique situation as “one of seven or eight EU countries to have an embassy in Pyongyang and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea having its representation in Warsaw”. As a result, in his view, Poland may act as a channel of communication between the parties, adding, however, that the key to solving the problem of North Korea lies in China.

While some uncharitable folk might question whether, in an ideal world, you would allow either Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un anywhere near nuclear weapons (at least the former is surrounded by sensible advisers) this seems to be exactly the stable environment in which the delicate, deft diplomatic touch of Poland might usefully be deployed. From relations with the EU over the rule of law, and logging in a primeval forest, through to the question of German war reparations, there has been nothing quite like Poland’s conciliatory diplomacy.

Cynics will no doubt disagree, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and extraordinary men, and here foreign minister Waszczykowski and his colleagues come into their own. It may well be, as in the film Argo, that “this is the best bad idea we have by far”, but the execution of that plan had a happy ending against the odds, and so might this. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

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“Justice in the life of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” The words of Plato, and whatever feelings of justice may reside on the hearts and souls of Polish citizens, for the Polish prime minister the state’s justice system is in need of extensive reforms.

Beata Szydło was speaking on Friday at the launch of a campaign to inform the public of those changes to the country’s judiciary which the government believes to be indispensable. The campaign is entitled “Justice” and will be run in Poland and abroad by the Polish National Foundation, an organisation set up by 17 state-owned companies that aims to promote Poland internationally, whose head, Cezary Jurkiewicz, told reporters that, despite claims by critics, the campaign was “purely informational” and neither political nor designed to promote the view of a single political party.

The campaign is designed to show people “just how dysfunctional the Polish justice administration system is,” Szydło said, arguing that the legal changes were “expected by the Polish people.” “We do not want things to be the way they used to be; we want them to be different. And ‘different’ means that the Polish justice system should serve citizens,” Szydło said. Continuing her argument, she said that the campaign was needed in order to counter “information disseminated among the public, especially abroad, that the changes in the Polish judiciary are undemocratic.” According to the prime minister, this kind of message discredits Poland on the international arena.

It might be argued that there is a hint of shoot the messengerism at work here, since the changes thus far proposed have caused no little concern internationally, including the Venice Commission, European Parliament, and have caused the EU Commission to begin rule of law proceedings against Poland. Even Poland’s own president felt compelled in July to veto two of the three government backed bills to reform the judicial system, reforms which the opposition claimed were a threat to the rule of law, not least by the extensive power given to the minister of justice and chief prosecutor over the selection of judges. And that is to say nothing of the other spats with which Poland is engaged with the EU, nor the question of German war reparations, none of which, in the way they have been handled, do much to enhance Poland’s reputation.

For his part the Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, at the time described the president’s decision to veto those bills as a “serious mistake”. He said that judicial reform was vital, adding that the Polish courts were “sick” and “sick courts means a sick society.” The difficulty in the eyes of some, of course, being that the proposed cure seemed rather worse than the disease, although not in the eyes of the party leader with his unique insight into the health of society. A theme which no doubt figured in a meeting on Friday evening between the president and Kaczyński to discuss judicial reform.

President Duda supports “a real reform” of the judiciary, his spokesman, Krzysztof Łapiński, told reporters after the talks, adding that the president also said he hoped his proposals for reorganising the country’s Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary would be supported by the legislature. Duda “offered assurances” that the judicial proposals he had undertaken to draft would be fully “in line with the constitution” and “free from the flaws that the president previously identified in his vetoes,” Łapiński said. For her part, Law and Justice party’s spokeswoman, Beata Mazurek, said that the Duda-Kaczyński meeting focused on the president’s proposals for judicial changes and took place “in a very good atmosphere”.

Nobody would deny that Poland’s judicial system could be improved. Cases take far too long to make their way through the courts, something which could be vastly improved by the relatively simple step of improving timetabling and setting down cases for hearing in blocks of consecutive days rather than having individual hearing days held months apart. Similarly, if individual judges are thought to be corrupt, bring forward evidence and remove those who are adjudged guilty. But the problem with what has been proposed hitherto is that it involved a greater degree of political control over the appointment of judges and concentrated more power in the hands of the justice minister, than is generally considered to be prudent. Of course, if one believes that politicians, of any party, anywhere, are to be trusted to exercise divine standards of impartiality and wisdom, there is nothing to fear. But since this side of heaven lesser standards apply, so safeguards for justice are required. And judicial independence is one of those.

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“Every dictator is an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law.” The words of Demosthenes, which no doubt the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, had in mind as she delivered her latest broadside against the European Union, with dictatorship and law very much on her mind. She said that Poland insists on compliance with EU treaties and does not accept being dictated to by the larger EU member states. Both German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron have recently criticised the Polish government both as regards the rule of law and what they see as Poland’s failure to cooperate over migrants.

In an interview with weekly magazine Sieci, the prime minister spoke about the pressure in Poland from the EU to accept migrants under the EU to resettle those currently in Italy and Greece. “”We cannot be blackmailed that we will lose part of our EU funds as punishment because we do not accept the compulsory relocation of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East,” she said. “EU funds, cohesion policy are as much a pillar of the European Union as the freedom of movement of goods and services – we are simply entitled to them,” the prime minister continued. Thus “Poland is insisting on compliance with EU treaties and we do not accept being dictated to by the largest states,” she said.

Poland has strong arguments in its favour, according to Szydło. “We want to be in the EU, we value it and that is why we have the right to press for respecting the rules, for a truly common market, for security, for development,” she said. The prime minister also said that claims that the government wished to take Poland out of the EU are “the lie of all lies, a terrible manipulation”.

And she may well have a point. Leaving aside the wishes of the migrants themselves, many of whom would doubtless prefer to be in Germany or elsewhere, if past experience of re-settlement is anything to go by, it is not clear that the current treaties would legally allow cohesion funds to be withheld in this way. It may well be a desirable policy, and it is understandable that those member states that have done their bit feel somewhat aggrieved by the attitude of the Polish government, but the law is the law. After all, is it not the EU that is so critical of Poland for deviating, as it sees it, from the rule of law? Of course, being somewhat inclined to miss the wood for the trees (those it hasn’t cut down at least), the government’s riposte was not phrased in those terms.

Meanwhile, Poland’s foreign minister does seem keen to engage with Germany, suggesting on Monday that both countries “should sit down for serious talks” in order together to find a way “to deal with the fact that German-Polish relations are overshadowed by the German aggression of 1939 and unresolved post-war issues.” Speaking on radio RMF FM, Witold Waszczykowski said the issue had been left neglected for 70 odd years.

While the issue of reparations “is beyond dispute morally,” Waszczykowski said, “in legal terms, the matter is ambiguous for various reasons, because there was no conclusion in terms of a peace conference with Germany or a peace treaty, but also because of the meanders of our history.” Waszczykowski also said that the government in Warsaw was still “preparing” its official position on reparations. He did not say when a final decision could be expected, but suggested the material losses alone were close to USD 1 trillion.

Waszczykowski has previously said that opposition in Poland to raising the issue of reparations for World War II is a barrier to potential negotiations with Germany. In fact, in a resolution adopted in 1953, Poland’s then communist government recognised that Germany had fulfilled its obligations regarding Poland and decided not seek compensation payments. The government’s view appears to be that decisions made by the communist-era authorities are not necessarily still valid because they were made under pressure from the then Soviet Union.

To many it might come as surprise to be told – indeed, it seems only to have become an issue in the eyes of the current government – that Polish-German relations are so overshadowed, especially given Poland’s entry to EU membership, into which Germany is the largest payer. Apart from the great benefit Poland has derived being the largest recipient of EU funds, the considerable German investment in Poland has had a significant impact. Therefore, this talk of reparations is at best a distraction for domestic consumption, at worst rather clumsy diplomacy. But since Poland will not, as she sees it, be dictated to, we may expect more of the same.

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“It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.” The words of French poet, Charles Baudelaire. And when it comes to a lack of understanding which, in life as opposed to poetry, has thus far lead to a lack of agreement, Poland’s continuing tussle with the EU Commission over the rule of law is a case in point.

The Polish government is giving no ground in the fight over its judicial reforms. On Monday, announcing its reply to the Commission’s notice last month giving Poland a month to answer grave concerns about proposed judicial changes, the Polish foreign ministry announced that “in the spirit of sincere cooperation” between a member state and the Commission, it had been passing on reliable information about the situation in Poland. In response to the Commission recommendation of 27 July 2017 that proceedings be begun against Poland, the foreign ministry stated that it had underlined that the continuing legislative measures aimed at reforming the judicial system, “are in line with European standards and respond to many years of growing social expectations in this regard, and so they groundlessly raise the Commission’s doubts.”

The foreign ministry statement also noted Poland’s reservations concerning the EU’s rule of law procedure launched by the Commission. This was on the grounds that subjecting legislation to evaluation while the legislative process is continuing contradicts the original communication received from the Commission since the two of the laws analysed were not applicable following the president’s veto. The statement concluded by expressing the hope that “the exhaustive clarifications” provided in Poland’s response to the recommendation will be carefully analysed and help to clear up any doubts.

Well that clears up the problem – it’s all just a misunderstanding. As Politico reports, quoting a Polish diplomat who spoke anonymously, “the government is not certain that the Commission has the competence to interfere in the Polish judicial system. The government doesn’t understand why the Commission is able to be so active in the rule of law framework – the member states and the European Council should be responsible for that.” It seems that any lack of irony is make up for by a touch disingenuousness.

And while none is more committed to the unity of the EU than Chancellor Merkel, she said on Tuesday in Berlin that the principles of the rule of law cannot be abandoned for the sake of EU unity. “The unity of the EU at the cost of abandoning the rule of law — that would no longer be the European Union,” Merkel told reporters that she was taking the matter very seriously. The chancellor will be holding “exhaustive” talks on the rule of law in Poland with Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Berlin on Wednesday. “Although I would very much like to have very good relations with Poland, which is our neighbor … we cannot simply hold our tongue and say nothing in order to keep the peace. This is about the foundations of cooperation in the EU,” Merkel said.

Be that as it may, President Duda reiterated his message that Poland needs a new constitution, describing the current 20 year old constitution as a “transitional constitution” that needs to be replaced by one with more precise wording. He was speaking in Gdańsk during a debate organized with Solidarity trade union with title “A Constitution for Citizens, not for the Elites?”

According to the president, the current constitution has many imperfections that need to be addressed, such as the imprecise distribution of power amongst different state institutions, and the fact that the constitution defines Poland as a social market economy, which he contends does not yet exist in practice because it is still being built. It is not clear that the latter point would be at the top of most folks’ worries about the constitution, but there you are.

President Duda has suggested 11th November 2018 as a suitable date for a referendum on a new constitution. When proposing this in May, he said: “Poles have a right to say whether the constitution, which has been in force for 20 years, should be changed,” adding that Poles themselves should be able to decide on the directions of the country’s development. Perhaps Poles would simply like the right to see the existing constitution respected and upheld by the president against the machinations of politicians. Or perhaps it’s simply been a misunderstanding after all.

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“Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul.” The words of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. And if there is one person who certainly will not be guilty of conforming to what others do or slipping into lethargy, it’s Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło.

Speaking to public broadcaster TVP Info on Saturday evening, and asked to comment on the terrorist attacks in Spain, Szydło said that Europe must “wake up from its lethargy and finally start thinking about the safety of its citizens” (unless from home grown pollution, and so forth). In the prime minister’s view Europe “must not be afraid to talk about terrorism”, and should “finally replace political correctness with common sense.” The attacks in Spain had left at least 14 people dead and 100 injured in two separate attacks.

Relating this to the domestic agenda, the prime minister continued: “There is no price at which the safety of the Polish people could be sold, so the most important thing for me today is to have partners in Europe, among the European elites, to talk about what should be done to combat terrorism.” Szydło added that the migration policies of Europe’s leaders, especially those of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “have benefitted those who are now sowing death” among European citizens, before suggesting, without further details, that Central and Eastern European countries have developed their own ideas on how to deal with terrorism.

Meanwhile Paweł Soloch, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau (BBN), told Polish state broadcaster TVP on Monday that there were ties between the attacks in Spain and “at least certain factions of … radical Islam” because “terrorist propaganda … refers to Islamic religion and is undoubtedly linked with religion”. He did say that Islam should not be condemned as a whole, but that links between terror and Islam are “concentrated where there is a Muslim community mainly from Arab countries”, and that Muslim communities “integrate poorly” and are a “natural base for those terrorists”.

He added that while Poland would be in solidarity with the EU in its fight against terrorism, it would not take part in the EU plan to allocate a quota of refugees from camps in Italy and Greece to other member states, in response to which refusal the EU has decided to launch legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 2015 the EU decided to relocate some 160,000 of those migrants in Italy and Greece, but so far only some 20,000 have been re-settled, with Finland and Malta the only countries to have met their targets. For his part Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Jarosław Gowin, said that politicians from Western European countries increasingly backed the Polish government’s stance against the EU’s migration policy.

Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Błaszczak sees the matter as a clash of civilizations. He told state broadcaster TVP Info that Poland is a safe country, adding: “In Poland we do not have Muslim communities which are enclaves… which are a natural support base for Islamic terrorists.” “Europe should wake up,” he added. For him, resettling migrants encourages millions of people to come to Europe and “this ends tragically. We are dealing with a clash of civilizations. This must be said outright and it is a problem for the whole of Europe.”

Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that Europe faces a growing problem, which can only be solved by injecting some common sense into the discussion. We need to distinguish between refugees who are fleeing some immediate danger and who are in need of assistance and those who are simply seeking a better life in Europe because the circumstances of their own countries are far from ideal. These two groups are, of course, wholly different from the terrorists, many of whom are home grown Europeans – which explains Poland’s reluctance to allow such communities to take root – who may well use the refugee and migration crises, caused in no small part by the mistaken belief that regime change in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria would of itself usher in an era of peace of democracy, to advance their nefarious aims.

We would do well also to recognise that unlike most terrorists, those of the radical Islamic persuasion want nothing we have – apart from the destruction of our way of life – so there is nothing about which to negotiate with them. They simply despise us for what they see as decadence and immorality, which makes it easier for them to justify to themselves each terrorist act. Perhaps if we were clearer about our own culture and why it is worth defending we would at least have fewer home grown radical Islamic terrorists.

Perhaps it’s even simpler. Climate change, water shortages, and population growth have left many angry young men with nothing to do and, absent anything else, they tend to fight. Whatever the cause, and however much one may disagree with it, the approach of the Polish government is not illogical, absent a coherent international approach to the problem.

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“I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.” The words of author Gunter Grass. And as far as Poland’s primaeval Białowieża forest is concerned, what the EU has to learn is, in effect to mind its own business.

On 28th July the European Court of Justice issued a preliminary decision ordering a halt to logging in the forest after the European Commission claimed that Poland was breaching EU laws, including those related to the birds and habitats directives. Last Monday, Poland’s environment ministry announced that it would continue to “act”, having earlier said that logging was part of a fight against a European spruce bark beetle plague which was destroying the forest. Environment Minister Jan Szyszko said Poland that would respond to the Commission’s accusations by 4 August.

True to its word, a response has been sent, the contents of which have not been disclosed since the ministry of the environment deems them to be confidential. However, the Polish press Agency PAP has reported that that the ministry had said in its response that to stop logging would cause approximately EUR 750 million worth of damage to the environment and that the logging did comply with the EU birds and habitats directives. “The Ministry of Environment (…) is only conducting actions aiming to ensure public safety in the Białowieża forest, including protective measures for endangered habitats and species,” ministry spokesperson Aleksander Brzózka told Polish Radio.

Be that as it may – and the balance of opinion seems at odds with that of the ministry – the Commission has announced that if the logging continues, the matter will be included in the rule of law case against Poland. Poland has been given a month to address the “grave concerns” caused by the judicial changes, a continuation of a row which began which began when the government introduced changes to the functioning of the Constitutional tribunal and which has continued ever since. The Commission recently said it was ready to trigger a formal warning by the EU if Poland dismisses or forces the retirement of Supreme Court judges, one of two bills which the president recently vetoed.

The difficulty for the Commission is that any attempt to suspend Poland’s voting rights under article 7 of the EU treaty would require unanimity and Hungary has stated that it will side with Poland in any such vote. But this is part of a wider problem whereby the Polish government simply ignores Brussels while gorging on the fruits of EU membership – in 2015 Poland received EUR 13.4 billion, three per cent of its GDP at the time. While this approach may play well with Law and Justice’s (PiS) supporters, over the longer term it is fraught with danger. European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said last week that there is a question mark over Poland’s European future. While expressing understanding the emotions of Poles who are concerned about the courts, he said the souring of relations “smells like an introduction to an announcement that Poland does not need the European Union and that Poland is not needed for the EU. I am afraid we are closer to that moment.”

And as if that weren’t enough, the atmosphere is set to be further poisoned by the question of German war reparations. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS , which said at a convention last month that Poland never received compensation for the damage it suffered in World War II, losses which “we have really still not made up for”. PiS deputy Arkadiusz Mularczyk said a report from parliamentary experts on whether Poland can claim reparations from Germany should be ready by the middle of August and seeking war reparations from Germany was a “moral duty”.

Marek Jakubiak, a deputy from the Kukiz 15 grouping, puts the figure at PLN 1.5 trillion and told Polish Radio: “The fact that we are a poor country does not come from the fact that we are idiots. The Germans burned our homeland. We lost 50 years.” Jakubiak added: “I do not want a war with the Germans, I do not want bad relations with Germany… The Germans have to pay for the damage done to Poland and then we will talk normally as partners,” he said.

Leaving aside the question as to whether this issue was settled – the view of the German government – by Poland’s waiver of reparations on 1st January 1954, it might well be argued that as the largest net contributor of EU finds of which Poland is the largest net recipient and it’s the investment in Poland by German companies, Germany has done and continues to do much for Poland. Of course, that will not satisfy everybody, but one has to question whether picking a fight with everybody over everything is really a sensible approach for any Polish government to take.

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“The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.” The words of Dwight D. Eisenhower which have become more apposite following recent developments in Poland as the government seeks to enact its reforms of the judiciary prompting widespread protests that the rule of law and democracy is under threat and causing the president last week to veto two out the three contentious bills passed by parliament (please see Veto). The passing of the third bill was enough to cause the European Commission on Saturday officially to launch enforcement proceedings against Poland.

The Commission has been warning of this possibility for many months starting from the tussle over the changes to the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal which began after PiS assumed government following its victory in the October 2015 general election. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also entered the fray, and the Polish government, which has dismissed these interventions as unwarranted attacks on Poland’s internal affairs, has hitherto taken little notice.

The Commission has now sent a “letter of formal notice” requesting the government to respond within a month. It has identified several provisions in the new legislation that might contravene EU law, including discrimination on the on the basis of sex and the discretionary power given to the minister of justice. The Commission said that the law introduces different retirement ages for male and female judges and that “the new rules allow the minister of justice to exert influence on individual ordinary judges through, in particular, the vague criteria for the prolongation of their mandates thereby undermining the principle of irremovability of judges”, something which is contrary to article 180 of the Polish constitution. Still, one man’s constitutional safeguard is another man’s minor bump in the road to total power, as is seeming to be the case here.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans sent a letter on Friday inviting the Polish foreign and justice ministers to a meeting in Brussels “at their earliest convenience in order to relaunch dialogue.” Meanwhile, Krzysztof Szczerski, the head of the Polish president’s office, told the PAP news agency on Saturday that “with regard to the Polish reform on the judiciary, the EC is looking for pretexts to demonstrate its competence in cases where it obviously does not have it”. “The way the justice system is organized is an internal matter of every state and that is why it differs so much across the EU,” Szczerski said. According to Szczerski, by launching the procedure the commission has entered “a road that leads to nowhere,” although one might well contend that the Commission’s destination is to be preferred to the government’s direction of travel.

For its part, the Polish foreign ministry is sticking to the party line. In an interview for the PAP news agency, deputy foreign minister Szymański said that the new law contained “procedural guarantees and legal remedies,” adding that the ministry considers the Commission’s decision to be “unjustified.” “It also needs to be remembered that social policy and the organization of the judiciary are the competence of member states”, he added. Which is true, although that is within the context of generally held principles, the apparent breach of which by this legislation is the Commission’s concern. Representatives of opposition parties Civic Platform , Nowoczesna and the Polish People’s Party told PAP that they expected the government to resume the dialogue with the commission.

Apart from the philosophical arguments and the potential danger inherent in any system where the minister of justice and chief prosecutor has an influence who presides over a court, there is the practical effect on the Polish economy to consider. On Monday ratings agency Moody’s said in a report that the continuing row between the Commission and Poland could affect investor confidence, since the planned reforms threatened the independence of the courts and separation of powers which could lead to a rise in corruption. Moody’s said that since Hungary has said it supports Poland, and sanction require unanimity, it does not expect the EU actually to enforce sanctions against Poland, but investor sentiment could still be negatively affected.

Nor did Moody’s draw much comfort from the president Duda’s announcement that he would draw up alternatives to the two bills he vetoed since the agency believes that they will be similar to the government’s proposed bills, given the president’s closeness to PiS. Be that as it may, and with the government determined to have its reform, this story is far from over.

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“Today, the most important political instrument in the hands of the opposition is the presidential veto.” The words of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and former prime minister of Poland. And today, it appears that that instrument has been successfully wielded as President Duda announced on Monday that he will veto two of the three bills (please see Judicial Independence) – those dealing with the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary – aimed at reforming Poland’s judicial system, in particular the way judges are appointed.

“I have decided that I will send back to the Sejm (lower house of parliament), which means I will veto the bill, on the Supreme Court, as well as the one about the National Council of the Judiciary,” Duda said. “I regret that I, as president of the Republic of Poland, was not consulted over this initiative before it reached the Sejm. I couldn’t carry out consultations, and nor could the other interested entities.” “I feel that the reform in this shape will not increase the sense of security and justice…And that is why I decided that I will veto the two reforms.”

This decision follows days of protests with thousands taking to the streets all over Poland to protest against the PiS government’s changes, including candle-lit demonstrations outside the Polish parliament, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace, and calling for the president to veto the bills. Voicing concern over social unrest, Duda said: “I do not want this situation to deepen, because it deepens division in society.” Duda said that “wise” changes to the judiciary are needed and that within two months he would draw up new bills on the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, whose role is to safeguard the independence of courts and judges.

While PiS has said sweeping changes are needed to reform an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system, accusing judges of being an elite, self-serving clique often out of touch with the problems of ordinary citizens, many have seen the proposed cure as worse than the disease. “What we had was not a reform, but the appropriation of the courts. I congratulate all Poles, this is a great success, really,” said Katarzyna Lubnauer, head of the parliamentary caucus of the opposition party Nowoczesna.

While the president’s veto is as welcome as it is unexpected, it is too early to say whether this is a genuine rejection of reforms which threatened judicial independence and, potentially, the rule of law itself, or a short-term political manoeuvre. After all, the president has had a record of towing the PiS party line and has remained somewhat sanguine in the face of apparent breaches of the Constitution by the PiS government, including the effective neutralization of the Constitutional Tribunal. As I said on France 24 last week (please see The Debate ) while any one of these changes may have had merit, taken as a whole they in effect placed the whole judicial system under the influence of one political party, something which has not tended to end happily wherever it has been tried.

What next? Former president, Lech Wałęsa has urged the protests to continue until the president Duda exercises his veto over the third bill (which deals with the appointment of heads of lower courts) and it seems unlikely the PiS will accept the veto without a fight. At present, PiS does not have the parliamentary majority to overturn the veto but, on past form, that seems unlikely of itself to deter the government from its wish to rid the judiciary of what it sees as post-Communist vested interests and corruption.

And to an extent PiS has a point. Nobody would deny that the Polish judicial system does need reform, not least in some of the practical matters such as the timetabling of hearings which instead of being held in blocks of days are typically held one day at a time, with months between each day. There are no doubt some corrupt individuals and by all means deal with them, but to suggest that the best way of tackling these problems is to give one or two politicians effective control over the whole system is not the way to go about it. The fact that these bills were rushed through parliament, at night, and with scant regard to opposition voices or proper procedure, suggests that there was more at stake than simply a wish to bring about sensible reform.

While Poles may be breathing collective sigh of relief today, it is as well to remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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Judicial Independence

“All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous judiciary.” The words of United States president Andrew Jackson have assumed greater relevance in Poland as many thousands took to the streets in Warsaw and other Polish cities to demonstrate against the latest changes to judicial arrangements brought forward by the government.

According to demonstrators, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is dismantling the rule of law and, in effect, “introducing dictatorship” by the ruling party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. PiS supporters have criticized the courts for taking too long to hear cases and have accused judges of being an elite, self-serving clique out of touch with the problems of ordinary Poles. For its part, the government has said that changes are needed to reform a judicial system which is in its opinion inefficient and sometimes even corrupt.

In Warsaw there was a protest outside the Supreme Court on Sunday evening, following a demonstration outside the Polish parliament. A spokesperson for the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a constitutional body tasked with safeguarding the independence of courts and judges, and one of the bodies that is to be reformed, said: “We are at the precipice of dictatorship and breaking all the rules of the constitution”.

So what are the changes? A government-backed bill would see the judges of the Supreme Court (not to be confused with Constitutional Tribunal) being forcibly retired with their reinstatement possible only with the approval of the justice minister. While the government has said that only “highly qualified” and “ethical” people could become judges, the opposition believes that this change would give excessive power to the justice minister, thus undermining the independence of the court. A second bill would change the way that heads of district and appeals courts are appointed, making the justice minister solely responsible for such decisions. And a third bill would change the composition of the KRS itself, with the terms of 15 of its members who are judges being phased out, and their replacements selected by parliament — not by other legal professionals, as is the case at present.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also the chief public prosecutor, told public broadcaster TVP that the changes serve democracy and citizens. In his opinion, the Polish judiciary had “almost totally broken away from democratic control mechanisms”, and the justice system would now be equipped with “tools to deal with increasingly frequent irregularities in the judiciary”. He is certainly going to be very busy, and PiS’s commitment to hard work was demonstrated by yet another nocturnal legislative effort last week to pass the first bill.

The opposition Kukiz ’15 grouping, has proposed that judges on the (KRS) be chosen either directly by citizens or by a qualified majority in parliament. Party leader Paweł Kukiz met Polish president Andrzej Duda on Monday to discuss the changes. Following the meeting he said that while his grouping believes “the Polish judiciary requires “thorough reforms and profound personnel changes”, the courts “cannot be politicized, and it is absolutely unacceptable that only one party and its justice minister decide on their shape.”

What does this mean? Each change, of itself, may have had some merit, but it is the cumulative effect, starting with the neutralizing of the Constitutional Tribunal, that is a cause for concern. While those behind the changes may be honourable men and women acting from the highest of motives, the fact remains that laws may be passed and applied with no independent scrutiny simply because, at each stage of the process, from deciding whether the law is constitutional to the decision in each case in which the citizen is involved, the judges will be persons owing their appointment to one political party.

If one believes in a democratic system where the electoral winner takes it all, and where any suggestion that the government has a duty to rule for the good country as a whole, may be rejected as the disloyal bleating of losers or, worse, as challenges to the democratic will, so be it – there is nothing to fear. If, however, one has a sufficient sense of history to recognize the wisdom of Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, one is apt to be a little less sanguine.

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Energy Independence

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together”. The words of US publisher Malcolm Forbes. And, when it comes to Poland’s gas needs, diversity of supply to lessen dependence on gas supplies from Russia is the objective, with the longer term aim of becoming a regional supplier, so that Poland and other countries may be independent together.

According to Poland’s deputy prime minister, Poland wishes to achieve energy independence within five years, and to become a gas distribution hub in the next ten. Mateusz Morawiecki made his comments following President Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw last week, with Poland considering more purchases of US gas following the delivery of the first one-off consignment in June. After meeting Trump on Thursday, Polish president Duda said that the delivery opens the way to new contracts. For his part, Trump told a press conference: “America stands ready to help Poland and other European nations diversify their energy supplies so you can never be held hostage to a single supplier.” He added: “We look forward to making the economic ties between the US and Poland even stronger,” and that trade relationships should be “reciprocal.”

“The government policy of diversifying gas supplies means we will be getting an ever larger group of suppliers,” Morawiecki said. “Within the next five years we want to lead to Poland’s full energy independence”, Morawiecki said. “Today we are bound to the Russian [gas] monopoly [Gazprom] by a bad deal, we pay more for gas supplies than Germany.” Morawiecki suggested that US gas would be competitively priced.

Since its Liquified Natural Gas terminal opened in Świnoujście in late 2015, Poland has been importing LNG from Qatar, and there are discussions about a Baltic pipeline to enable Poland to receive supplies from the North Sea. The president of Croatia has said that planned gas terminal on the island of Krk would be linked to Poland’s Świnoujście terminal. This is significant since Marowiecki said that Poland’s regional energy ambitions hinge on the Three Seas Initiative, which is a joint Polish-Croatian project aimed at strengthening trade, infrastructure, energy and political co-operation among countries bordering the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black seas.

“As the largest country in Central and Eastern Europe, naturally we think about our responsibility to the energy security of not only Poland but also the remaining countries of the Three Seas initiative and, for example, Ukraine,” Morawiecki said. “We want to be a partner which will, in real terms, bring about the diversification of energy supplies for all countries in our region.”

Twelve countries are part of the initiative: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Last week the presidents of ten of those countries (the presidents on Austria and Czech were not present) met for a summit in Warsaw, at which President Trump put in an appearance describing it as “incredibly successful.” Polish and Croatian logistics and transport companies signed the first deals under the Initiative, and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Polish President Andrzej Duda were at the signing.

Which all seems eminently sensible for the long term, and suggests that whatever may be happening elsewhere within the Polish government at least the economy is being run rationally. Thus, international ratings agency Fitch has kept Poland’s rating unchanged at A- with the outlook stable. The reason for the A- rating is because of the high share of foreign currency loans in Poland’s government debt which means that the level debt is dependent on currency exchange rates.

Fitch also forecast GDP growth of 3.3 per cent for 2017, up from 2.7 in 2016. According to Fitch people are benefitting from record low unemployment and the monthly benefit payments under the government’s 500+ programme. It also said that the inflation rate of 1.5 per cent year on year was lower than the central bank’s target of 2.5 per cent, but that both wages and prices would rise as a result of low unemployment. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 per cent in June which is the lowers June rate for 26 years. Unemployment was down 0.1 percentage points on May, and 1.5 percentage points down on a year ago, with 1.15 million people being registered as unemployed at the end of June, down by 49,300 from May.

If all goes to plan, the Three Seas Initiative will indeed have demonstrated the truth of Malcolm Forbes’s words, with benefit to Poland and the region.

Posted in Business, Current Affairs, Economy, Energy, Foreign policy, Russia, Security, Trade | Leave a comment