Democratic crisis in Poland : EU must go all the way in upholding its values

Press release
en es

The European Commission took a positive step, earlier this month, to address raising concerns about democratic standards in Poland, by activating for the first time since its creation in March 2014, the ’Rule of Law Framework’. This mechanism allows the Commission to assess the existence of a ’systemic threat’ to the rule of law in EU countries.

FIDH welcomes this move, which testifies to a new commitment by the EU to safeguarding its own founding values in its member states.

"It was high time that the European Commission demonstrate its will to react to threats to the EU founding values, particularly the respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, by member states and that it confronted them on that with the aim to hold them to account"

Karim Lahidji, FIDH President

Recent developments in Poland since the new government led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) took office following the 25 October 2015 general elections have raised serious concerns at home and abroad regarding their compatibility with the values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, that all EU member states have pledged to uphold when becoming members of the EU. These relate in particular to reforms of the Act on the Constitutional Tribunal and a new media law, which threaten the independence of the judiciary, media freedom and pluralism and risk undermining human rights, the separation of powers and the functioning of democratic checks and balances. Several international organisations and bodies – including the secretary-general of the Council of Europe (CoE) Thorbjorn Jagland, the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiẑnieks, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE (PACE) Anne Brasseur, the OSCE representative on media freedom Dunja Mijatovic and the European Union - have been unanimous in condemning the reforms. International criticism extended also to the accelerated procedures used to rush through the new laws and the lack of consultation and meaningful public debate over the proposed reforms.

Despite rebuttals by Polish PM Beata Szydlo at a debate held at the European Parliament on 19 January that the reforms would be in full compliance with Poland’s obligations under the EU treaties, her government’s recent moves have been met with harsh criticism in EU circles. At this occasion, the Commission and Parliament reiterated serious concerns regarding recent developments in the member state as well as their commitment to holding Poland to account on its respect for human rights and democratic standards. The EU’s resolve to act is much welcome, especially in light of its repeated failures to do so in other situations that would require an EU intervention, such as in Hungary.

"We regret that the EU, and especially the Commission, has so far not reacted to similarly alarming situations in other EU member states. Unless the EU sends a strong signal that situations such as the ones in Hungary and Poland cannot have a lucky escape, the authoritarian slide that we currently see happening in these member states will not stop."

Dan Van Raemdonck, FIDH Secretary-General

The reforms

Concerns were raised in particular regarding three laws that entered into force in Poland on 28 December 2015 and 7 January 2016 respectively.

The former, regarding the Constitutional Tribunal, hampers the ability of the latter to review the constitutionality of acts and thus exercise constitutional control over the government’s action. By increasing the number of judges hearing cases (from 5 or 9 to 13 judges) and providing that decisions shall be adopted by a majority of 2/3 instead of a simple majority, among others, the reform significantly reduces the court’s capacity to issue a decision in a reasonable time. Furthermore, it allows the Minister of Justice and the President of the Republic to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the judges of the Constitutional Tribunal. The law was preceded by controversial amendments that were passed earlier in November, allowing the new government to annul the appointment of five Constitutional Tribunal’s judges by the previous government and replace them with five new judges, and to allow for the early termination of the terms in office of the current president and vice-president of the Constitutional Tribunal, despite a Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling of 9 December 2015 declaring both acts unconstitutional, which was ignored by the Polish authorities (the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in a previous decision adopted on 3 December 2015 that only two of the appointments made by the previous government were incompatible with the Polish Constitution, whereas the other three were lawful, thus clearing the way for the appointment of only two constitutional court judges by the new government instead of five).

On 7 January, the so-called ’small media law’ was adopted modifying the rules for the appointment of the management and supervisory boards of the public service broadcasters and giving the minister responsible for the State Treasury the power to appoint and dismiss their members, while limiting the role of the National Broadcasting Council, which is inscribed in the Constitution. Immediately after the law was passed, the government dismissed the senior management of the public TV and radio and replaced them with new ones.

The Rule of Law Framework

The Rule of Law Framework was adopted by the European Commission in March 2014 to address systemic threats to the Rule of Law in EU member states. It establishes a tool allowing the Commission to initiate a dialogue with the Member State concerned to prevent their escalation and the emergence of a systemic threat that could develop into a ’clear risk of a serious breach’ which would potentially trigger the use of the Article 7 TEU procedure. The Framework, which was meant to fill the gap between other instruments that the EU has at its disposal to address specific violations of EU law in its member states (such as infringement proceedings) and Article 7 TEU, has never been used since its adoption.
Read more