Poland's Authoritarian Shift Spurs Warning of Economic Trouble

  • Investors fret about Polish justice, top EU official says
  • Timmermans speaks in interview before Sept. 25 EU talks

Timmermans Says Poland Must Respect Rule of Law

The Polish government’s anti-democratic actions risk weakening the nation’s economy, according to the European Union official who’s overseeing an unprecedented probe that could strip Warsaw of its voting rights in the bloc.

Frans Timmermans, principal vice president of the European Commission, said the ruling Law & Justice party’s attack on judicial independence has given foreign investors jitters about the credibility of the Polish legal system.

“You would be surprised how many international investors are quietly -- they are not public about this -- asking ‘is this going to be fixed because we are worried about the security of our investment?’ ” Timmermans said in an interview with Bloomberg News in Brussels. “This is also a business issue.”

The alert highlights the range of economic threats to Poland stemming from the EU’s first-ever investigation of a member’s respect for the rule of law. In addition to threatening a suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights, the probe that Timmermans opened in early 2016 has sparked a parallel debate in Europe about whether the country should be denied billions of euros in European regional-development funds after 2020.

Poland, one of the EU’s fastest-expanding economies with growth last year of 2.7 percent, has moved to the top of the European political agenda by provoking fears of a shift toward authoritarian rule that communism’s collapse in eastern Europe more than a quarter century ago was deemed to have ended.

The spotlight is currently on how Law & Justice, which is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, opts to reconfigure two pieces of legislation on the judiciary that Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed in July after sharp criticism by the Brussels-based commission, the EU’s executive arm. The legislation would have dismissed the entire Supreme Court and revamped the Judicial Council, which makes key personnel decisions.

“Especially the issue of firing Supreme Court justices would be an extremely grave situation,” Timmermans said. “We are now waiting for the Polish president to make the amendments” and “we will study them once they are put on the table.”

In a recommendation to the Polish government in late July, the commission signaled that this matter would be a red line for recommending that EU governments trigger the European treaty’s Article 7, which foresees the option of depriving a member country of its voting rights in the bloc.

In the interview, Timmermans said his “final judgment call” on this key question will be based on whether there is “unclarity about the separation of powers” in Poland. He also said the rule-of-law dispute with the country is “multi-faceted” and indicated any move toward Article 7 would depend on various considerations.

‘Many Issues’

“There are many issues we need to discuss,” he said. “There is not one single red line or trigger.”

Duda has signed another law -- on ordinary courts -- into effect that gives the justice minister sweeping power and fixes different retirement ages for male and female judges. This has prompted a parallel, narrower commission action that could end with a lawsuit at the EU court in Luxembourg.

The Polish government is generally flouting the fundamental EU principle that the judiciary must be free from political interference and any commission failure to enforce the standard would be a “dereliction of duty,” said Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister.

“It’s like having a football match and then saying to the referee ‘we don’t need you’ and then applying the rules like you want and saying ‘I’m a sovereign football player; if I want to take the ball in my hands I can do so,’ ” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

With Timmermans due to brief EU general-affairs ministers about the whole matter at a Sept. 25 meeting, he urged the Polish government to show more willingness for discussion and compromise with the commission.

‘Real Dialog’

“I absolutely hope that we can finally start a real dialog with the Polish government to solve these issues,” he said. “Over the last year and a half, I’ve been bending over backward trying.”

Timmermans revealed a degree of exasperation with some Polish attitudes, saying he was “being bashed all the time” and “it’s sometimes difficult to be confronted with people who scream for respect but have not shown any form of respect to the other side; you know, I’m also a human being.”

He dismissed the idea that Hungary, which has also sparked concerns about an erosion of democratic norms under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, poses the same threat to the rule of law that Poland does.

The commission has used its standard lawsuit powers to target various pieces of Hungarian legislation deemed to breach European rules while sparing the country the kind of broad democracy-standards probe covering Poland.

“The situation in Hungary is not comparable to the situation in Poland,” Timmermans said. “I truly worry about the rule of law in Poland.”

— With assistance by Jones Hayden, and Anna Edwards

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