Relations between Poland the EU are deteriorating rapidly on the heels of President Andrzej Duda’s move to approve new laws that allow the conservative (and eurosceptic) Law and Justice (PiS) government to name the chiefs of public TV and radio, and select judges for Poland's constitutional court.
Over the weekend, we highlighted a letter from Polish minister Zbigniew Ziobro to EU commissioner Gunther Oettinger in which Ziobro dismissed criticism of the new laws as “silly.” He went on to suggest that perhaps the Germans should focus on their own domestic issues.
"Such words, said by a German politician, cause the worst of connotations among Poles. Also in me. I'm a grandson of a Polish officer, who during World War II fought in the underground National Army with 'German supervision',” Ziobro wrote, before saying he has come “to a sad conclusion that it is easier for you to talk about fictitious threats to media freedom in other countries than to condemn censorship in your homeland.” That’s an apparent reference to the coverup of the sexual assaults that occurred in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Finally, assuring that diplomacy between the two nations will remain impaired for the foreseeable future, the front page of the Polish Wprost weekly, one of the more popular media outlets in the country, showed the following picture of Merkel, and the EU Commission cronies Juncker, Oettinger and Schultz, with the title "They want to supervise Poland again." Which, as Reuters explains, means "occupy."
Now that the Nazi card has been played it's time for the EU to hit back. "Poland's legal maneuvers have prompted escalating warnings from the EC that it could intervene. The EC's vice president, Frans Timmermans, sent two letters asking Polish authorities for information," Deutsche Welle wrote on Tuesday noting that "the queries infuriated Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who said Tuesday he was 'astonished' by Timmermans' request, slamming it as 'an attempt to exert pressure upon the democratically elected' parliament and government of a sovereign state."
"You had the possibility to receive from me the competent information regarding this issue ... using routine working contacts ... I deplore the fact that you decided not to do so. Thus, I first found out about your unjustified accusations and unfair conclusions from the media," Ziobro seethed.
Well if Ziobro was angry before, he's furious now because Brussels has taken it a step further. "The European Commission has opened an unprecedented inquiry into whether new Polish laws break EU democracy rules," BBC reports. Under the so-called "rule of law" mechanism the Commission can force a member state to change any measure that poses a "systemic threat" to fundamental EU values.
Polish PM Beata Szydlo is having none of it. "Democracy is alive and well in Poland," she told the Polish parliament on Wednesday.
"The Commission has no right to evaluate changles to Poland's public media law," Foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters.
Here are the bullet points on the procedure courtesy of BBC:
- EU introduced mechanism in 2014 to protect fundamental values
- Activated by "systemic breakdown" affecting proper functioning of state's institutions and mechanisms
- Three-stage process: Commission assessment and opinion, recommendation of action with time limit and then potential resort to Article 7 of Lisbon Treaty
- Article 7 can mean suspension of state's voting rights in EU Council, where ministers from 28 states shape EU policy
And here's a bit more color:
The Polish prime minister told MPs she would defend Poland in a European Parliament debate next week and represent the whole of parliament and society.
Four channel directors at broadcaster TVP resigned earlier this month in protest at the government's media laws, which place public radio and TV under a new national media council. That change gives the treasury minister the right to hire and fire management.
Most Poles watch or listen to the public TVP channels and one minister has accused news channel TVP Info of broadcasting propaganda for years.
Shortly before the measures came into effect, another law was signed off requiring most rulings by Poland's 15-member Constitutional Court to have a two-thirds majority with at least 13 members present. The ruling party put forward five names to the court, which then appointed two as judges.
Thousands of Poles have protested against the changes in recent weeks in Warsaw, Poznan, Wroclaw and Krakow.
What's next you ask? Well, here's the EU Commission itself to explain:
A reply to the letter of First Vice-President Timmermans on the media law was received on 7 January and on 11 January on the Constitutional Tribunal reform. On the Constitutional Court reform, the Commission is cooperating with the Council of Europe Venice Commission, which is preparing an Opinion on the matter.
Under the Rule of Law Framework, the Commission enters into a structured and cooperative exchange with the Polish authorities in order to collect and examine all relevant information to assess whether there are clear indications of a systemic threat to the rule of law.
Following today's orientation debate, the College mandated First Vice-President Timmermans to send a letter to the Polish government in order to start the structured dialogue under the Rule of Law Framework. The College agreed to come back to the matter by mid-March, in close cooperation with the Venice Commission.
Ultimately the question is whether Poland's new laws represent an illegitimate an intolerable attempt to bring the media under state control or whether the inquiry is just another example of Berlin and Brussels attempting to impose their will by decree.
One thing is certain: this will do nothing to ease tensions in the bloc where the worsening migrant crisis and subsquent attempt to address it with a controversial quota system has already created quite a bit of animosity and suspicion towards the German government and the eurocrats tin Brussels.