It’s complicated: The EU and the Rule of Law in Poland

Following the Reform of the Polish Constitutional Court in December 2015, the EU launched its “Rule of Law Dialogue” to restore the independence of the Polish judiciary. The Dialogue between Poland and the EU has since been ongoing, but it takes two to tango and so far the two parties have not gotten much closer to a solution acceptable to both sides. In Poland the opposition has showed its disdain for the December Constitutional Reforms and thousands of demonstrators have marched in the streets in opposition to the move by Poland`s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). On May 23 it was expected that the EU would deliver a scathing Opinion on the status quo in Poland, but instead the European Commission took the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to “constructive dialogue”.

Last week we sat down with Dr Bartłomiej Nowak, Foreign Policy advisor to liberal opposition leader Ryszard Petru (Nowoczesna) to find out what he thought of the latest developments and the way forward for Poland.

On May 23 we expected the European Commission to issue its Opinion on the Rule of Law situation in Poland, after months of difficult relations between Brussels and the ruling PiS party in Poland. On Monday the Commission backed away from this perspective. From the position of the Polish opposition party Nowoczesna, is the Commission showing wise restraint in this case, or should they press the Polish government harder?

In general Nowoczesna stresses that the constitutional crisis should be solved on the domestic level. We consider the external pressure as the last resort. So in every case the European Commission should keep restraint, otherwise the effect can even be contrary. However the PiS government must prove that it’s declarations of getting into dialogue and compromise are serious. Until now we do not see this.

You have seen the situation in Poland evolve since the EU first invoked its Rule of Law Mechanism in the case of Poland. How has the political climate in Poland developed?

The support for PiS remains fairly constant. In one way it is natural that within two years of the election it will not change dramatically. The fact that both the European Commission and the European Parliament interfere in the conflict is additionally mobilizing the PiS electorate. However the biggest surprise for PiS was the scale of “on the street” demonstrations and the creation of non-partisan Committee for the Defence of Democracy. It shows that Polish civil society  remains vibrant and that the scenario taken from Hungary is unlikely. The opposition parties have less than 50% of votes in the Parliament so they can do very little there. But over time we believe that the societal dynamics and outrage will turn against PiS especially if the opposition works together on the most important issues.

EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans visited Poland last week and his message was one of the need for “constructive dialogue”. Can we expect such dialogue to restore judiciary idependence in Poland?

Nowoczesna and the rest of the opposition is looking forward for constructive dialogue. But there have been no serious steps on the side of PiS yet. We stress that the whole conflict is not a political one, as PiS suggests, but it is about the rule of law and the fundamental role of Constitution in Poland.