All these legal changes infringe upon the independence of the judicial system and encroach upon Polish citizens’ fundamental right to justice. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, in government “it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.” The Law and Justice Party’s policies shift all powers under the control of the arbitrary decisions of the ruling party's leadership. As a respected advisory body of the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, emphasized in its opinion on the matter, the changes proposed by the government “have a striking resemblance with the institutions which existed in the Soviet Union and its satellites,” despite the party's anti-communist rhetoric.
The list of international observers that criticized the new laws is longer than the EU and U.S. State Department, encompassing many other international organizations, foreign media, NGOs, lawyers, and experts in other fields the world over. Last July, I took part in the U.S. Helsinki Commission briefing about democracy in Central and Eastern Europe to explain why weakening the rule of law is the biggest challenge to democracy in Poland.
What is even more important is domestic opposition inside Poland, expressed through street protests, analysis, and public statements. My own organization, the Civil Development Forum, joined more than 50 groups working in different fields – like the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the Warsaw Club of Catholic Intelligentsia – in signing an open letter to President Andrzej Duda with an appeal “to protect the Polish Constitution and the rule of law which it guarantees.” We need more of these coordinated activities in the years to come, among groups and individual who may disagree about many things but share a common conviction that the rule of law is essential for sound democracy and economic growth.
Poland is often compared to Hungary under Victor Orbán. I personally wrote about the Orbanization of Polish politics two years before the Law and Justice took power. In Hungary, Orbán won a supermajority in the parliament and, by changing the constitution, consolidated his powers, while speaking about so-called “illiberal democracy.” Today, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has never won a constitutional majority, follows Orbán’s path - a harmful path for the Polish economy, the rule of law, and democracy. Victor Orbán’s support for the Polish government is now the key to block any further steps mentioned in Article 7, as some of them require unanimous support.
But even without these steps, the Polish government’s role in the EU will be marginalized. Undermining the Polish position in the EU is bad foreign policy, weakening our influence on EU rules and future reforms. But most importantly, the Polish government’s policies are bad for Poland. Brussels will not do the job that Poles – including civil society, NGOs, opposition parties, entrepreneurs, lawyers, academics, and others – must do to defend the rule of law and the myriad of freedoms that are endangered when the rule of law is dismantled.
(Photo credit: Spens03. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.)