Poland could introduce another draconian law to further restrict civil liberties. The bill, proposed by right-wing activist Kaja Godek, would amend existing legislation on public congregations, banning peaceful protests for LGBT rights. ‘Questioning marriage as a union of man and woman, propagating same-sex marriage, propagating adoption by such couples, propagating gender as separate from biological conditioning’ are all targeted by the law. Poland’s Supreme Court has found ‘no issues’ with the proposals. PiS, who hold a majority in Parliament, are also likely to back the bill. The bill had its first reading in Parliament last week, where lawmakers voted to keep working on the ‘Stop LGBT’ legislation.
This law would only reaffirm the authoritarian tendencies of the Polish state, visible in its neglect of migrants at the border and restrictions against journalists. The PiS-controlled Polish Constitutional Tribunal has stated that EU laws are incompatible with the Polish constitution, effectively undermining the people’s decision to join the European Union in the 2004 referendum, in the name of state-appointed judges. This latest declaration brings the country closer towards a so-called ‘Polexit‘, and is another reminder that authoritarianism has been allowed to grow to dangerous proportions.
Why ‘Polexit’ is not Brexit
Despite the similar name, ‘Polexit’ is a different story to the Brexit debate. During and after the Brexit campaign the narrative revolved around protecting democracy from ‘unelected European judges’, then ‘upholding a democratic vote’. In Poland we see the opposite phenomenon. Legally disputed and unelected Polish judges are undermining Poland’s membership of the EU against the wishes of the majority of Poles.
Furthermore, the EU was never a guarantor of British democracy in the way it has been in Poland. The Polish constitution was written to comply with EU criteria which specify a commitment to democracy that is reflected in its institutions. That constitution has since been ignored numerous times by Law and Justice.
Commenting on the Tribunal’s statement, Laurent Pech, professor of European Law at Middlesex university, said Polish authorities had ‘engineered an (unconstitutional) Polexit from EU legal order’ to ‘establish a Soviet-style justice system so autocratisation can happen undisturbed.’
Financial incentive can work, as illustrated by the decision by local governments to withdraw their ‘anti-LGBT laws’ in order to access EU funds. Poland’s Prime Minister declared that Poland can survive well without EU funding. Most probably, he is lying in an attempt to reassure voters. A more worrying alternative is that PiS actually believe the country would be better off without the EU, emboldening them to drift further away from the Union’s values.
Migrants and journalists under attack
Belarusian authorities have been pushing people on the move into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. No doubt this has been Aleksandar Lukashenka’s response to EU countries denouncing his de facto dictatorship.
Poland’s response has been to militarise its border with guards and a €350 million border wall.
While the EU refused to fund ‘barbed wires and walls’, it continues to press Warsaw to accept Frontex border police at its border with Belarus. The EU’s Frontex border agency is accused of various human rights violations across Europe. Seemingly the EU sees no contradiction in on the one hand condemning PiS for rule of law violations and on the other openly supporting the militarisation of its border. Its only qualm lies with which means of force are used.
Refusing asylum seekers aid from NGOs, a decision which has resulted in the deaths of migrants, and limiting the freedom of journalists, are part of the same process. EU leaders have spilled a lot of ink in criticising the Polish state’s grip on its judiciary. However, when this quasi-authoritarian regime militarises its border and denies basic human rights to migrants, the discursive focus shifts from democratic values to ‘protecting the EU’s borders’.
The handling of the situation at the border is further proof that Poland is no longer a state with any regard for human rights. PiS has taken this as an opportunity to limit journalistic freedom by announcing a state of exception in the 2km-wide border area.
The ban prevents journalists and NGOs from operating in the zone. All the while, there have been more reports of illegal pushbacks into Belarus and asylum seekers being driven into the forest in the middle of the night. As this situation unfolds, the EU has temporarily toned down its previous criticism of Warsaw’s affront on Polish democracy. Political interest is more important than so-called values in Brussels
As German Green MEP Daniel Freund puts it, Poland is ‘saying goodbye to the European legal order’. The EU ‘cannot transfer billions to a member state without being able to legally ensure that the money reaches those for whom it is intended’.
Poland has, under the nose of EU leaders, become an authoritarian state. And it might be too late to change its course. Technically Poland still has free and fair elections. But with a corrupt justice system, laws successfully limiting freedom of expression, and without safeguards from the EU, stealing an election would be no harder for Kaczyński than it was for Lukashenka. Yes, there would be protests for a while, EU leaders would raise ‘serious concern’, and sanctions may be imposed. But at the end of the day, ‘Europe’s last dictator’ is still around, and he may yet be joined by the EU’s new autocrat.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
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