My previous piece about Poland and its new Law and Justice (PiS) government’s manoeuvres has attracted a lot of attention in Poland – see the vivid stream of comments from all sides of the arguments and more.
This morning it has been announced that the European Commission has decided to launch a ‘preliminary assessment under the rule of law framework’ of Poland’s recent legal/constitutional moves. Poland is asked to have a ‘constructive dialogue’ with the Commission accordingly.
Let’s see how this proceeds. No doubt mainly acrimoniously.
In the meantime, here’s my latest Commentator piece in which I am unimpressed with the way EU HQ in Brussels has handled the diplomacy of this question:
First and foremost, the EU top brass need to recall that each EU member state is complicated. There are all sorts of tried and proven ways of achieving modern democratic constitutional ‘balance’. For example, after these changes the Polish Constitutional Court, as before, can strike down new Polish laws as unconstitutional.
In the UK the Supreme Court has no such power, as we craftily don’t have any constitution.
Is the rule of law in Poland under PiS ‘better’ than the UK in this important respect? Hmm. Let’s be careful about weighing in here — best keep a sense of proportion!
Likewise, every EU member state has its own rules and traditions for public service broadcasting, and on foreign ownership of private media outlets. How political balance is maintained is highly contentious. Best not to rush to pronounce on what PiS are now doing without looking closely at the likely new balance of media freedoms in Poland and at how it looks against what’s happening elsewhere in the EU? Less is more!
In short, even if the Martian is correct and Poland has stepped ‘back’ a notch or two, how does the new situation in Poland substantively compare to what everyone else is doing? Are we talking about drastic, dangerous reversals, or mishandled ‘European’ fine-tuning, or something messy in the middle? And in any case how wisely to proceed?
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The job of EU leaders in Brussels in cases like this is to calibrate their responses with extra subtlety and sensitivity. Anyone who knows anything at all about Poland and PiS understands that open, clumsy, foreign pressure on Warsaw from anyone with a German-sounding name will play straight into their political hands.
So much better to have a quiet private and above all respectful word with key PiS Ministers, and take it cautiously from there.
The depressed Polish opposition of course will be hooting for Brussels to ‘do something’ that favours their side. Let them hoot for the time being: the key Brussels task now with these new prickly PiS people is to patiently build good personal relations, so that any eventual interventions from Brussels are made and received in good faith.
Instead of such patient diplomacy we have seen spectacular, patronising, public Brussels bungling that has made everything worse. To the point where European Council president Donald Tusk (previously Poland’s Prime Minister and opponent of PiS) is now warning that ‘exaggerated opinions’ about Poland in Brussels might be ‘counter-productive’.
Really? Say it’s not so!
The key point is that we all know that such ‘preliminary assessments’ under the ‘rule of law framework’ will never be launched by the Commission against France or Germany or Belgium, whatever the dismal goings-on in those member states. There is something subtly paternalistic and dismissive in the way this is being dealt with by the Brussels elite: it conveys a sense that Poland (and Hungary and all those other pesky ungrateful ex-communists over there somewhere near Siberia) are all ‘Other’ – something not quite ‘truly’ European and reliable, and therefore needing to be put firmly in their place by the ‘real’ Europeans when they appear to deviate from Euro-orthodoxy as defined by the Brussels elite themselves.
Remember when France’s President Chirac told Poland and other central Europeans to “shut up” back in 2003? Just like that.
Ugly. But worse, practically unwise and counter-productive. In the EU’s wobbly circumstances today when Germany itself is struggling to cope with self-propelled rule of law issues on its own streets, everything possible needs to be done to play up what we have in common, not what divides us. This Commission move looks to me to be more divisive than helpful, and perhaps done only because it has made a complete fool of itself and has to be seen to be doing ‘something’ to save face.