Poland's Plan to Avert EU Reprimand Is a Blast From the Past

Updated on
  • Warsaw signals flexibility, pragmatism in relations with EU
  • New government seeks to ward off rule-of-law investigation

Poland’s plan to avoid European Union punishment for allegedly undermining the rule of law will start with a history lesson.

Warsaw’s moves to overhaul its justice system, criticized by the EU as a breach of democratic standards, has parallels with France’s efforts after the fall of the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi forces, Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will tell French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.

The government is finalizing legislation that would revamp the Supreme Court and give politicians more sway over promoting judges. The ruling party argues that the new system is more efficient and would remove corrupt judges who were active during a two-year period of martial law in the 1980s and oppressed the opposition. The overhaul triggered the EU’s first-ever investigation of a member’s respect for the rule of law and provoked fears of a shift toward authoritarian rule.

“It just so happens that I’m very familiar with the specifics of judicial reform in France after the Vichy government collapse, so I will tell President Macron about that,” Morawiecki told reporters on the margins of an EU summit in Brussels. “Maybe he’ll understand why I don’t really like it that judges who were active during martial law are still Supreme Court judges today.”

France is closely following the judicial revamp in Poland and supports the European Commission on the issue, a French official at the president’s office said in a briefing on the first day of the EU summit. Supreme Court Justice Stanislaw Zablocki, speaking to parliament on Thursday in Warsaw, said he backs reforms to “cleanse” the justice system of individuals who broke the law, but rejected the ruling party’s assertions that the panel is packed with “communist-era torturers.”

Two Supreme Court judges, out of a total of about 80 active justices, were part of the communist regime during the 1980s crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda wrote to lawmakers during the legislative process.

Judicial Revamp

Morawiecki, who impressed investors as finance minister by keeping a lid on the budget deficit while ramping up welfare spending, is seeking to improve relations with the EU. His first policy speech and interviews have signaled that Poland’s negotiating style will be more pragmatic and flexible, a change from the confrontational rhetoric of his predecessor, Beata Szydlo.

Still, even as Morawiecki is willing to engage his European counterparts, he won’t budge on the key issue of the judicial system revamp, which was a key plank of the Law & Justice party’s election program.

Morawiecki will talk to Macron on the same day Law & Justice is expected to finalize a reform that would force more than a third of Supreme Court justices to retire, ignoring objections from human rights activists, a Polish ombudsman and legal experts. Protests took place on Thursday in dozens of Polish towns, including a rally in Warsaw.

“We’re fighting to reform the justice system. The history of France, of Germany and of Spain, which became a democracy only in 1975, is very telling,” Morawiecki said. “I think such analogies matter and thanks to them our partners will be able to understand our situation.”

The European Commission will discuss the situation in Poland at its meeting on Dec. 20. The commission signaled earlier this year that the matter was 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 28-nation bloc. Poland is counting on support from Hungary, which has also clashed with the commission over the rule of law, to help prevent Article 7 from being triggered.

“If a decision has been made that on Wednesday the commission will trigger Article 7, then it will be triggered, that is their prerogative,” Morawiecki said. “From the start of this unfair for us procedure until it’s finished we will continue talking to our partners.”

— With assistance by Helene Fouquet

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