Olenka Hamilton

‘The situation in Poland’ — Europe’s new scapegoat

'The situation in Poland' — Europe's new scapegoat
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When an EU country elects a government with nationalist or Eurosceptic policies, the European Parliament calls an urgent investigation into 'the situation' in that country. When Victor Orban became Prime Minister of Hungary in 2010 for example, the European Parliament called a debate entitled 'the situation in Hungary'. Orban’s Fidesz party is known for its conservatism and its regard for national sovereignty. When Orban was democratically elected with a two thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament, he was elected with a mandate to reform the state institutions, which had become corrupt under communist rule and had been stagnating ever since. When he set about enacting the above, the European Parliament accused him of aspiring to dictatorship by replacing enemies with friends within the judiciary. It then drafted a resolution which condemned Hungary for allowing for 'a systemic deterioration of the rule of law'.

Hungary was asking for it. Its nationalist policies were considered a threat to EU integration —and rightly so. In response to the EU’s latest proposals to impose 'quotas' which would share migrants fairly amongst EU countries, Orban said:

'[Hungary’s] problem is that the [European courts] see the world differently. They belong to part of Europe which represents the life that transcends the nation-state and we are below them because we live the lives of nation-states'.

Orban has also taken a tough stand against migrants who were forcing their way into Hungary. He was accused of inciting hate crimes for saying he wanted to keep 'Hungary for Hungarians' and 'Europe for Europeans'. Inevitably, discussions on the situation in Hungary re-opened with renewed vigour and the resolution on the situation in Hungary was updated. 'The situation in Hungary' has, they say, taken a turn for the worse:

'whereas recent initiatives and interference by the Hungarian Government, in particular over the past 12 months, have led to a serious and systemic deterioration of the rule of law as regards media freedom and pluralism, the fight against intolerance and discrimination, the rights of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, the freedom of assembly and association, the freedom of education and academic research, the equal treatment of religion and belief, restrictions on and obstacles to the activities of civil society organisations, the rights of people belonging to minorities, including Roma and LGBTI, the independence of the judiciary and many worrying allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest undermining the rule of law'.

Hungary's tough border controls and its refusal to participate in the EU's asylum proposals have led the European parliament to 'initiate an in-depth monitoring process concerning the situation of democracy...in Hungary'.

Europe now has a new 'situation': Poland. The European Parliament has been calling for a debate to discuss 'The Situation in Poland'. They are outraged because the newly-elected Law and Justice party (PIS) has blocked the instalment of five judges to the Constitutional Tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws. The accusation against the new government, much like that against Orban, is that they are illegally sacking the judges and replacing them with their own people. But the accusations are unfounded: the restructuring of the Constitutional Tribunal had to happen as a result of corruption which took place before PIS came to power.

In June 2015, the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), knowing that they were on track to lose the elections in October, wanted to secure their influence before the new government came to power by ensuring a PO majority in the Constitutional Tribunal. The judges, mostly PO appointees, cooked up a new law which stated that judges whose terms came to an end after the election could have their replacements lined up before the election. This way, the judges would be chosen by PO. The first hint of corruption was that the Constitutional Tribunal is not allowed to initiate legislation, and here it was doing just that. As a result, it is now acting as the judiciary in a trial contesting the constitutionality of a legislation it itself created. The proposal was pushed through by the then-president Bronislaw Komorowski so quickly that nobody saw it happen.

They can’t have seen it happen because there is no way that they would have agreed to it. For once the legislation was passed, the upcoming breakdown of the Constitutional Tribunal was set to look like this: out of 15 judges there would be 13 PO, 1 SLD (social democrats), 1 PSL (Polish People's Party) and 0 PIS. This would mean that no legislation put forward by the governing PIS party would ever stand a chance of seeing daylight. For attempting to de-politicise the judiciary, or at least balance it out, PIS have been accused of playing the President's puppet master, pushing him to restructure the state institutions to increase the government's power. The Economist writes that they 'violated the constitution to replace the previous government's appointees on the constitutional court'. Fact, as we now know, indicates that the constitution was violated before PIS were elected.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has had to drop discussions on the situation in Poland because it knows it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It is obvious that 'the situation in Poland' refers to something else entirely, namely the fact that the Law and Justice (PIS) party are in power again, and are proving to be quite the Eurosceptics. The international media reporting from Poland toes the same line as the European Parliament, and is no less transparent in what it finds so objectionable about the new Polish government. What The Economist is actually annoyed about is that a Eurosceptic party is in power in Poland.

Like Fidesz, PIS is a huge threat to the EU. The Economist’s article, while pretending to be concerned about 'a decay of Poland’s institutions', says as much: PIS, it says, is Europe's new 'headache' and 'will cripple the EU'. PIS are, says the Economist, 'a motley coalition of social conservatives, Catholic nationalists, Eurosceptics, anti-corruption zealots, conspiracy theorists, protectionists and agrarians'. It is obvious that 'Eurosceptic' and 'nationalist' are meant as insults, lumped as they are with 'conspiracy theorists'. You can sense the pro-EU camp’s trepidation as the motley coalition is fast becoming the mainstream.