Poland tests rule of law
POLAND is due to host a NATO summit next month, providing its eight-month-old government an opportunity to bask in international attention and celebrate the alliance’s bolstering of its eastern defences. Unfortunately, the ruling Law and Justice party and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are in danger of poisoning their own showcase. Rather than underline NATO’s determination to stand up to a heightened threat from Russia, the summit may be derailed by a divisive debate over another threat — to democracy and the rule of law in Poland. If so, Mr. Kaczynski and his party will have only themselves to blame. Since taking office last fall under Prime Minister Beata Szydlo — Mr. Kaczynski chose to rule from behind the scenes — Law and Justice has moved aggressively to bring Poland’s security services, the state media and, most troubling, the judiciary under its control. The aim appears to be to push Poland down the same quasi-authoritarian path blazed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has curtailed media, civic and religious freedoms while proclaiming his contempt for liberal democracy.
In addition to prompting the rise of a mass domestic opposition movement, Mr. Kaczynski’s manoeuvrings have now drawn the censure of the European Commission. Shortly after taking office, the new government sought to revoke several appointments to the court, pack it with its own nominees and change its procedure to require that its rulings be backed by a two-thirds majority of the justices. When the court found these actions unconstitutional, the govt refused to accept its decision. The EU ruling was not precipitous; it came after months of discussions and negotiations led by Frans Timmermans , the commission’s first vice president. Until recently, it appeared a compromise could be struck under which Law and Justice would give ground on the court’s membership and yield on the voting rules. But Mr. Kaczynski retreated from the deal, thereby forcing the commission’s hand. Now Poland must respond to the EU finding or face at least the theoretical possibility of sanctions. The EU action has been greeted with public defiance by Mr. Kaczynski and his circle, some of whom appear to believe they can ride out the censure. The cockiness is shortsighted. Whether or not the commission’s process goes forward, Poland’s behaviour could well discourage some NATO govts from supporting or contributing to a plan to station troops and equipment in Poland in order to deter Russian aggression. The Obama administration, which has been a prime promoter of that plan, will no doubt stick to it. But President Obama should be prepared to forcefully and publicly challenge the Law and Justice govt over its democratic violations if it does not correct them before his arrival in Warsaw. Mr. Kaczynski must understand that his policies threaten to wreck relations with the US, undermine Polish security. — The Washington Post