What’s Next for Poland’s Democratic Decline?

Protesters carry Polish flags during a rally, organized by nationalist groups, to mark the anniversary of Polish independence. Agencja Gazeta/Agata Grzybowska

Once a role model for democracy, Poland has rapidly witnessed a series of illiberal moves that threaten the rule of law and its future within the European Union, says Agata Fijalkowski.

December 11, 2017

Protesters carry Polish flags during a rally, organized by nationalist groups, to mark the anniversary of Polish independence. Agencja Gazeta/Agata Grzybowska
Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

To the concern of many in the European Union, Poland, once a democratic role model, has been slipping down an illiberal path. Changes, such as a crackdown on judicial independence and controls over media, have been driven by the governing Law and Justice Party, which rode to power on an anticorruption platform, says Agata Fijalkowski, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University Law School.  The government has so far defied EU criticisms of its policies, saying that it is “exercising sovereignty and taking control,” Fijalkowski says.  Poland is making common cause with another formerly leading east European democracy, Hungary, over issues including EU migration policy, she says. The two countries, she adds, pose a “grave threat to European Union cohesion.”

Why did Poles elect a right-wing government in 2015?

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Scandals plagued the governing centrist Civic Platform party; it was viewed by many Poles as aloof. The Law and Justice Party, known as PiS, offered simple policies that included tax breaks and higher child-care benefits for the less well off. Notably, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, of PiS, was in the background, while the more moderate faces [of his party] presented a successful winning ticket.

Does the public support the new government’s anticorruption moves?

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An important aspect of the PiS platform is to defend the country against interest groups—banks, foreign businesses—that have enriched themselves at the expense of Poles. PiS argues that the courts are part of sustaining this corruption. PiS reforms are aimed at making the courts accountable and serve all Poles, not just the elite. This seems to resonate with the public.

What role has Poland played in the European Union up to this point?

Poland has played an important role assisting in the development of democracy in the region. It has assisted the EU with enlargement. In 2011, the EU presidency, under Poland—Donald Tusk presided over the government at the time—welcomed Croatia’s entry into the EU. Poland has been proactive negotiating and heading talks with Belarus and Ukraine. It also has an important role with respect to the relationship the EU has with Russia.

The entry of Poland and other central and east European post-Communist states has been important for Europe in reevaluating its Western historical narrative since World War II and appreciating and understanding the experiences that these countries underwent during Communist rule. This is seen in initiatives like the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, from when the Czech Republic held the EU presidency.

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The European Union has threatened to strip Poland of its voting rights. Will it follow through?

[Article 7 sanctions, codified in the Lisbon Treaty,] were first discussed as a mechanism to enforce the rule of law, but have never been invoked. This particular mechanism and trigger is actually a protracted process. The office of the EU commissioner would have a dialogue with the state that’s violating rule-of-law norms, and various stages allow for the state to rectify mistakes. In Poland’s case, it would be to review recently passed legal measures that undermine judicial independence. It’s a serious conversation that the European Union is having at this moment, and what could happen is that the EU will sue Poland. It’ll be on the path of doing so until Poland corrects or reassesses what it’s doing and reassures the EU family that it is not out to undermine judicial independence in the country.

What are the chances of Poland leaving the European Union?

What’s occurring in Poland is parallel to what is occurring in Britain with Brexit. At the core of it, the Polish ruling party is alleging that it is exercising sovereignty and taking [back] control.

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There is talk of a Polexit. It is clear that national sovereignty is vital to Poland, and it is often referred to by Polish authorities in response to the EU Commission’s criticisms of its reforms of the judiciary.

Historically, Poland has been suspicious of imposed state rule.

Historically, Poland has been suspicious of imposed state rule, and there are valid reasons for it to be suspicious; it’s been a victim [not just of] Communist rule, but also German and Soviet occupation.

If Poland were to exit the European Union, would PiS take a more authoritarian stance, since the European Union would no longer be watching over it?

The party is already taking authoritarian steps. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal until recently adjudicated the constitutionality of laws. The tribunal has been a critical actor in the protection of an individual’s constitutional rights and, in that way, breathing life into the rule of law. The reforms of the tribunal’s procedures have fundamentally transformed this court into a rubber-stamping body; that will affect the protection of constitutional rights in years to come.

The Polish Supreme Court, the highest common court in the country, functions as a final court of appeal. It also passes resolutions to clarify specific legal points. Recent reforms of the procedure for appointing judges to this court grant this competence to the executive, violating judicial independence.

There are ways the European Union could continue to exert pressure should Law and Justice become even more authoritarian. Pressure also comes from the Council of Europe, a different body Poland belongs to, which [commits] it to respecting the values in the European Convention on Human Rights, including judicial independence.

Are Poland and Hungary threatening EU cohesion?

They are a grave threat to EU cohesion. Like Hungary, Poland offers a new vision of what it means to be European. It is a vision that embraces white Christianity and generally conservative beliefs on family and sexuality. It rejects tolerance and displays a suspicion of nonwhites, most recently evidenced with respect to Muslims. The majority of Poles were against Poland accepting asylum seekers earlier this year.

Like Hungary, Poland offers a new vision of what it means to be European.

In addition to undermining judicial independence, both countries lack parliamentary debates on policy. In both countries, state authorities have sought tighter control over the media and free speech. For example, last month a law was passed in Poland concerning the funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It is a way to curtail donations made by foreign organizations or individuals, and it will be detrimental to individuals wishing to express themselves through NGOs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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