Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic: the countries that lie to the east of Germany and Austria don’t feature much in European discourse – except for the odd head-shake over the latest populist or nationalist tendencies. Stories from the Eastern West (SFTEW) delves beyond the familiar narrative and tells the “hidden history” of these places.
The episode ‘EXPERIMENT’ recalls the story of how the first studio producing experimental electronic music was founded in Poland in 1957 – in a climate dominated by authorities hostile towards new, and especially Western forms of cultural expression. Jazz music, for example, was banned. But Eugeniusz Rudnik manoeuvred through the political obstacles to achieve his dream: to make the Polish Experimental Radio Studio a place for the creation of unheard sounds and recordings.
Warsaw’s ‘Law and Justice Party’ is now embroiled in three major disputes with the EU and Germany. Judy Dempsey writes in Carnegie Europe that Poland is alienating itself from its neighbours, and must stop ‘damaging its own interests’.
By Max Caskie
Warsaw’s parliament research service has concluded that the country has a ‘right to demand reparations from Germany for the loss of life and damage it suffered during World War Two.’ The statement was issued on Tuesday, and has been met with ire in the German capital. Poland maintains that it was ‘bullied by the former Soviet Union not to seek reparations’ in 1953, and that the figure could be as high as $1 trillion. Six million Poles, including three million Polish Jews, were killed under Nazi occupation. Several cities were destroyed, with Warsaw having been razed to the ground after a failed uprising in 1944.
Angela Merkel’s government responded by saying that Germany has already paid reparations on an ‘enormous scale’. Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, stated, ‘In the German government’s view, there is no reason to doubt the validity under international law of the act of declining reparations 1953…Therefore this question is in our view resolved both legally and politically.’
Since July, tensions have increased between Poland and Europe over logging in Bialowieza, home to the continent’s oldest forest. According to Deutsche Welle, Poland argues that ‘the logging is necessary to fight an outbreak of bark beetles.’
Currently, an injunction has been ordered against Poland to cease logging as the EU high court investigates the case. By ignoring this injunction and continuing to allow logging, Poland risks further infringement procedures, and the EU executive may ‘withhold EU structural funds from Poland – something allowed in EU treaties, but never used before. Poland receives 21 billion euros ($25 million) in EU structural funds each year, much of it for environmental protection.’ If found guilty, Poland could face a minimum fine of 8.4 million euros.
The Polish Judiciary
Simultaneously in July, the European Commission raised a separate legal battle against Poland over a new domestic law that may undermine the independence of Polish courts. The new law enables the Minister of Justice to choose (and remove) Court Presidents, prolong the mandate of judges who are of retirement age, and discriminates over gender through introducing different retirement ages for male and female judges. The Commission has given Poland one month to amend the law, or face a referral to the European Court of Justice.
Poland has lost an ally with Brexit – the former believed Britain acted as a counterweight to the ‘Franco-German axis’. But rather than reaching out to its neighbours —Poland ‘is alienating Germany, the bloc’s most important country.’
Until recently, Poland was in favour of a strong European Comission (the very commission that it now faces in court), and European integration. Now, fighting two separate legal battles with serious ramifications, the latest decision to revisit the reparations issue will ‘only exacerbate its already strained ties with Germany.’
The ruling Law and Justice party’s (PiS) “serious attack on the rule of law” has the EU considering unprecedented action against Warsaw, reports The FT.
A proposed law to allow Poland’s government to handpick Supreme Court judges and gut the body that nominates judges (the KRS) has put Poland and the EU on ‘a potential collision course.’
The vice-president of the European Commission (EC) Frans Timmermans said the law – which Polish MPs are debating this week – may push the EC to ask EU countries to issue Poland a formal warning under the previously unused Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU.
This would be a ‘highly confrontational’ move, says The FT, as ‘governments are reluctant to issue formal declarations on the political and constitutional affairs of their peers.
“It should come as no surprise,” said Timmermans, “that given the latest developments, we are coming very close to triggering Article 7.”
The next step in the disciplinary process would be to strip Poland of EU voting rights, but officials said that option was not yet being considered.
Timmermans was most concerned about four legal reforms to the court system, which would give PiS ultimate power over the Supreme Court and the KRS, the body that chooses Poland’s judges.
“If these are applied, justice will fall under political control,” he said in Brussels. “We’re not talking about details here. We’re talking about building blocks of what the EU is and our societies are.”
He added that the rule of law was not “a plaything for lawyers,” but was “what keeps our society open, democratic.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday that he would veto the proposal unless the bill required support from three-fifths of MPs rather than a simple majority.
But the move was “not a solution,” said Agnieszka Pomaska of Civic Platform, the biggest opposition party. “The decisions on appointing members of the KRS will still be taken by politicians. PiS haven’t changed their approach at all.”
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president of the PiS said that the proposed ban was “a political act,” said Le Monde.
He described the EU’s action as “an abuse” of power on Polish TV on Wednesday evening (19/07).
“The subjects in question are of an exclusively national nature,” he added.