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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Europe should stop bullying Poland and start respecting democracy

Isn't it for the Polish people to decide what is best for their country rather than European technocrats

Anti-government protesters raise candles in Warsaw last weekend. Alik Keplicz / AP
Anti-government protesters raise candles in Warsaw last weekend. Alik Keplicz / AP

Critics of the European Union entertained a faint hope after the shock of Brexit, and the unprecedentedly high vote won by the Eurosceptic, far right Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, that the experience might have chastened the extreme Europhiles who dominate the European Commission, and that they might ponder the wisdom of aiming to do less but do it better. We should have known better.

Take the case of Poland. Firstly, let me state that I have no love for the right-wing Law and Justice government of Beato Szydlo. Many will agree with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who has a right to comment on the affairs of his country as a former Polish prime minister, when he accused his successors of trying "to transport us - in the political sense - in time and in space, backwards and eastwards." But secondly let me state that in this context, my opinion is of virtually no relevance, and certainly that there is no conceivable right for it to be enforced on the Poles.

The Eurocrats think differently, however.

The recent fuss, which has seen tens of thousands take to the streets in Poland, has been over the government's plans to overhaul the judiciary. Many, if not most, agree that action is necessary to reform a branch of the state that has undergone insufficient change since the transition from communism. The disagreement is over what kind of action.

The government passed three bills, which would have given them effective control over judicial appointments, and which certainly looked like the attempt to undermine the principle of the separation of powers that so many, from Lech Walesa, the hero of the struggle to shake off the yoke of Moscow, to an array of Catholic bishops (normally Law and Justice supporters), said it was.

As it happened, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda - usually seen as a cypher for Law and Justice's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski - said he would not sign the two most controversial bills, so the confrontation will die down until the government decides how to repackage or rewrite them. The checks and balances of Polish democracy have performed just as they should have done.

But so would they have done if president Duda had chosen to sign the bills. Many find them objectionable, it is true. But no one can say that there has been anything illegal in the legislative process. If Poland has no constitutional bar to the government making the judiciary subservient to politicians - and maybe they will succeed on the next attempt - then it will be for the people of Poland to decide if they want such an administration to continue in office at the next election.

But the European Commission, led by its vice president Frans Timmermans, does not believe that. He evidently thinks it is his right to intervene, bully and threaten a democratically elected government when it acts in a way of which he disapproves. He warned Poland's government that the EU was close to triggering Article 7, on the grounds that the proposed bills constituted a "serious breach" of the EU's values, which include "respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights".

Such a move could lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the Council of Ministers, a "nuclear option" that would be the greatest slapdown in the history of the EU - and could cause the country to leave the 28 nation bloc.

Who is Mr Timmermans to make such a threat? He must surely be someone very important, you may ask. Indeed so. He is a former Dutch foreign minister who was nominated to be the number two in the European Commission. He is, as Poland's foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski has put it, part of "a selected body of bureaucrats [which] does not have democratic legitimacy". But they, unfortunately, constitute the power centre of the EU, and as Mr Timmermans is demonstrating, they do not hesitate to wield that unmandated authority to override democratically elected governments.

In On Liberty, the great 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others... There are good reasons for persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

Transpose "individual" for "state", and it is obvious that the Polish government's proposals do no harm to other states. Mr Timmermans can persuade all he likes, but it is not enough. He prefers to compel, and to threaten to "visit evil" upon Poland, to use Mill's term. He will not accept that the country, and its people, are sovereign -- just as in 2015 the Commission dismissed Greece's overwhelming rejection of austerity in a referendum as "neither factually or legally correct", and, for good measure, declared that a write-down of the country's 380 billion euro debt was now "off the table" as punishment.

I say again: I have no affection for Law and Order, nor do I approve of their proposal for the courts. But I do think that’s for the Polish people to decide. That is democracy. What part of that do Mr Timmermans and his fellow Eurocrats still not get?

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

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