Polish President Andrzej Duda’s surprise veto of controversial judicial reforms this week has eased the temperature, temporarily, in a heated row with the European Union. But the two sides are still digging in and straining the EU’s cohesiveness.
Poland’s ruling nationalist Justice and Law Party (PiS) was expecting the politically affiliated President Duda to pass the legislation which would give the government control over the country’s judiciary. But under mounting pressure from Brussels and also street protests at home, the Polish president appeared to relent.
In a surprise move, Duda vetoed two bills which would have given the PiS government authority over the Supreme Court and the appointment of some 83 judges.
But in a deft move the president did sign a third bill into law which gives the Warsaw government a backdoor to extend its creeping control over the judiciary. The trend of increasing government influence over the judiciary in Poland has riled the EU leadership in Brussels, which accuses the PiS government of undermining European principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.
As Deutsche Welle reported: «Duda did, however, sign one bill which allows the justice minister to name the heads of all lower courts, and the ruling Law and Justice Party has vowed to push ahead with the changes».
The European Commission, the Brussels-based executive branch of the EU, appears to have been wrong-footed by the maneuver in Warsaw this week. Given the partial veto exercised by President Duda, the EC has toned down its erstwhile threats to sanction Poland, but it says that it will be keeping the country under review for any further erosion of its judiciary’s independence.
Over the next three weeks, the EC will decide whether to invoke Article 7 – described as the «nuclear option» – which would curtail Poland’s voting rights in the 27-member EU bloc. That sanction has never before been imposed on a member state. If it were implemented against Poland, Brussels faces the danger of inciting further anti-EU sentiments in Warsaw and neighboring Central European states.
The Visegrad Four, a bloc within the EU comprising Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, has warned that they would veto any move to sanction Warsaw by Brussels. The EU has already legal problems with the Visegrad grouping and Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban in particular over the latter’s refusal to accept Brussels’ quotas for refugee re-settlement.
Therefore, the EU has to tread carefully going forward. The Polish PiS government has been rankling Brussels since it came to power at the end of 2015, with its anti-EU populist rhetoric and alleged disregard for «European values». The PiS and its staunch leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has snubbed EU «liberalism» with their Conservative Catholic social policies. It has also extended party control over the courts, the military and public media organizations to the point where Polish political opponents fear a fledgling dictatorship in the making.
Of course, such dissent from Brussels has provoked the ire of the EU leadership which has deplored the «drive to authoritarianism in Warsaw». But, in clamping down on what is viewed as a wayward Poland, the EU establishment runs the risk of further alienating the four members of the Visegrad grouping.
Despite the partial veto exercised by President Duda this week over legislation to control the Supreme Court, the PiS has vowed to forge ahead with its reform plans. The ruling party has denounced what it calls «blackmail» attempts by the EU to interfere in the internal affairs of Poland.
The Polish government’s contention that it is standing up for national democracy against the meddling bureaucracy of the EU may sound plausible. But Warsaw’s attempts at historical revisionism betray a reactionary politics that is far from progressive.
Hardly reported in the Western media was President Duda’s passing of legislation earlier this month which allows for destruction of Soviet-era monuments, including war memorials to the Red Army.
That move is part of a wider revisionist trend pushed by the PiS which seeks to erase Polish collaboration with the Nazi Third Reich during the Second World War, when tens of thousands of fellow Poles were despatched to extermination camps like Auschwitz. Polish revisionism seeks to lionize resistance to the Nazi occupiers, which plays into a modern-day chauvinism among the PiS government.
Russia has responded furiously to the new Polish efforts to destroy hundreds of Soviet monuments. Moscow pointed out that up to 600,000 Red Army personnel were killed in battles to liberate Poland from Nazi occupation during 1944-45.
Russia’s foreign ministry stated: «The Polish authorities understand very well the serious insult they are delivering to the Russian people and people that used to be part of the USSR. Nevertheless in Warsaw, they are consciously going ahead with this outrageous provocation».
This is the point though. The nationalist government in Poland maintains that the Red Army did not «liberate» the country from Nazi Germany, but rather that it was another «occupying force» following the retreat of the Wehrmacht. This dubious version of history defies well-documented narratives of Red Army liberation.
Significantly, this curious, if not contemptible revisionism, is also promulgated by the Kiev regime in Ukraine. The former prime minister in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was launched into power after a CIA-backed coup in Kiev in May 2014, once disgraced himself by depicting the Red Army’s epoch-making offensive against the Third Reich as an illegal «invasion of Ukraine».
Shamefully, too, when US President Donald Trump made his public speech in Warsaw earlier this month, on July 6, he also added fuel to this revisionist movement, when he implied an equivalence between Nazi occupation of Poland and the liberation by the Red Army.
At the heart of Poland’s reactionary revisionism is a mentality of denial in the complicity of Polish nationals with the horrific crimes of Nazi Germany. That denial is leading to all sorts of contorted falsification.
It is this issue, more than any other, which places the Polish government in a position of deserving opprobrium and condemnation. Russia has called on the EU to condemn Poland for this fascistic politics and falsification of history. But Moscow’s appeals have apparently fallen on deaf ears in Brussels.
In all the handwringing from Brussels and from liberal Western media towards Poland’s authoritarian government there has been plenty of commentary about «European values» and «rule of law». But there is scant mention of the darker, truly more disturbing nature of Poland’s «populist» politics. For those politics offer an insidious rehabilitation of fascism, as witnessed by the desire to obliterate historical monuments dedicated to the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Poland.
But, there again, what should we expect? Brussels is fully complicit in the emergence of a Neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine and its three-year war on the ethnic Russian people of Donbas. Brussels hardly has any moral authority to condemn Warsaw’s embrace of fascism. Because the EU is guilty of the same in Kiev. On that important score, they are not poles apart.