Who is the EU to lecture Poland about democracy?
At least the Polish government is accountable to the people.
Polish president Andrzej Duda may have put an end to an ongoing battle between Poland and the EU. He announced on Monday that he would veto the Polish government’s controversial reforms to the judicial system. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has succeeded in passing three judicial reforms through parliament which would allow the justice minister and parliament to appoint judges. Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets over the weekend to protest the reforms, which would effectively destroy the judiciary’s independence.
Following the protests, Duda has said he will veto two of the reforms: one which would have forced all of the Supreme Court judges to resign, and a second which would have put the National Judicial Council, which appoints judges, under parliamentary control.
But the protesters were not the only ones putting pressure on the Polish government over the judicial reforms. The EU threatened Poland with sanctions and even a removal of its EU voting rights if it followed through on the reforms. Last Wednesday, the EU Commission presented Poland with an ultimatum, saying the government had one week to change its mind over the reforms or would face serious consequences. EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said the commission was ‘very close’ to triggering Article 7, which would remove Poland’s voting rights. Poland’s reforms would, Timmermans said, ‘considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law’.
The words pot, kettle and black spring to mind. That the unelected vice-president of a wholly unelected body thinks he has a lesson to teach about democracy is laughable. Naturally, European Council president Donald Tusk, himself a former prime minister of Poland, has weighed in. In an attempt to avoid ‘bleak outcomes’, Tusk called Duda. Following the conversation, Tusk made a public statement: ‘It is my belief that [Poland’s] most recent actions go against European values and standards, and risk damaging our reputation… Bringing judges under the control of the governing party in the manner proposed by the Law and Justice Party ruins an already tarnished public opinion of Polish democracy. We must therefore find a solution which is acceptable to the Polish public, to the parliamentary majority and to the opposition, to the president and to the European Union.’
The arrogance of scolding a nation for ruining the EU’s reputation is hard to stomach, but beyond this lies a strange logic. The EU wants to correct the actions of Poland’s democratically elected parliament, which it sees as a threat to democracy, by blackmailing it through an unelected body. If Tusk thinks public opinion of Polish democracy is ‘tarnished’, what does he think the public thinks of the EU?
But then the EU has form when it comes to trying to influence the politics of sovereign states. Both Hungary and Poland have been threatened with EU sanctions over the past few months for challenging the EU migrant quotas. And Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has previously been threatened with sanctions over what the EU regards as his undemocratic policies. Unsurprisingly, Orbán has announced he will back Poland in this latest EU battle.
Of course, Poland’s planned reforms were a problem for democracy. Keeping the judiciary independent from government and parliament is a key check on political power. Interestingly, the Remain-leaning press in the UK was quick to point this out. ‘Europe stands for democracy. Where does Poland stand?’, said an Observer editorial. Yet, throughout the Brexit debate, the Remainer press has been dismissive of Leave voters’ dislike of the explicitly anti-democratic EU. In fact, Remainers only began talking about democracy when the British judiciary got involved. When the Daily Mail published its ‘Enemies of the people’ front page, about the High Court judges presiding over the Article 50 case, the tabloid was accused of undermining democracy. Conversely, the idea of a democratic referendum being overturned by a second referendum or blocked by the courts produced no such outcry.
It is becoming clear that pro-EU types are only interested in discussing democracy when it comes to the rule of law – the one part of democracy which does not involve the demos. And we should be dubious of commentators who will stand up for democracy to support the independence of judges, yet cannot summon up the courage to speak out for the votes of ordinary people.
While an independent judiciary is an important check on power, the foundation of a democratic nation ultimately lies with the people. The EU has absolutely no business sticking its nose into the affairs of a sovereign state. But the fact that it does, time and time again, is not surprising. The unaccountable Brussels elites made their distaste for democracy clear long ago.
Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht