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A protestor holds up a copy of Poland's constitution during Thursday's demonstration
Almost since the day it retook power in October, Poland’s Law and Justice government has courted controversy over policies party boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said are part of a plan to “fix” the country. At the centre of the squabbling has been a law passed in December that overhauls the way Warsaw’s constitutional court operates, changes that critics say limits its ability to strike down government policies it finds objectionable.
The law has drawn scrutiny from Brussels, which launched its first-ever review of a member’s government for possible violations of the EU’s “fundamental values” after the measure was passed. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which was asked to review the law as well, came down hard on Warsaw in a draft decision that was leaked to a Polish newspaper. This week it was the turn of the court itself, which ruled that the laws curbing its powers were unconstitutional. But in a decision that stunned many, Poland’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, announced she would not allow the court’s ruling to be officially published, meaning it will not be enforceable. “This is not a judgement, it is a political position,” said Poland’s foreign minister. Read more
After weeks of waiting, Gunther Oettinger has replied to a letter from the Polish justice minister that compared the German commissioner’s criticism of Poland’s media reforms with. . . the Nazi’s crimes of the second world war.
The letter, which we’ve posted here, is surprisingly polite, with a perky hand-written “Dear Colleague!” to start. This marked a shift in tone from the original missive from Zbigniew Ziobro, who tartly complained last week:
You [Oettinger] demanded that Poland be placed under ‘supervision’. Such words, spoken by a German politician, have the worst possible connotations for Poles. For me, too. I am the grandson of a Polish officer who, during World War II, fought in [Poland’s] underground Home Army against ‘German supervision’.
But Brussels is determined not to get into a war of words with Warsaw. This tactic was tried and failed with Viktor Orban, the populist leader of Hungary, who was happy to spar in public with the commission over his reforms while becoming increasingly popular at home.
After receiving two pointed letters from Warsaw, Timmermans seeks a meeting with minister
For days, EU officials had been signaling they would only issue a strongly-worded démarche to Warsaw for its new laws that critics argue undermine democratic norms. But on Wednesday, the European Commission took the unexpected step of moving forward with a formal “rule-of-law procedure” to determine whether the two new laws – one dismissing the management of state TV and radio broadcasters, the other limiting the powers of the constitutional court – pose a “systemic threat” to European norms.
Frans Timmermans, the commission vice-president in charge of rule-of-law issues, announced the decision after Wednesday’s meeting of the 28 commissioners. But he also formally notified Warsaw in a letter that we got our hands on and posted here.
Mr Timmermans letter comes in response to two missives from Warsaw that were far more pointed – including a particularly invective-filled one sent by justice minister Zbigniew Ziorbro on Monday – effectively telling the Dutchman to butt out of Poland’s internal affairs.
EU officials insist that the decision to move forward with the review were unrelated to the impolitic letters. Instead, they say, commissioners felt the procedure would lend some structure to their dialogue with Warsaw; otherwise, it would have remained unclear how either side would proceed. Read more
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Flag-waving protesters demonstrate against Poland's new media law in Warsaw last week
“I regarded your letter as an attempt to exert pressure upon the democratically elected parliament and government of the sovereign Republic of Poland.” Not a phrase you’d normally expect in official governmental communications between two ministerial-level politicians in the EU. But it was part of an invective-filled response to Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice-president, from Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro sent Monday night ahead of today’s highly-anticipated European Commission debate on two new laws that many critics believe undermine rule of law in Warsaw.
Despite the tendentious tone of the letter in response to questions on legal changes that will make it difficult for the country’s constitutional court to overturn legislation – and a similarly direct letter from senior diplomat Aleksander Stepkowski in response to concerns about a new Polish media law – officials tell us that Brussels is likely to keep its powder dry at today’s meeting, at least for now. Read more
The Polish government has sent a punchy defence of its media reforms to Brussels, accusing the EU of getting its facts wrong and warning of the “undesirable effects” any crackdown on Warsaw will bring.
The letter to the European Commission’s first vice president Frans Timmermans, which can be read in full here, lays out Poland’s defence of its decision to sack senior management at state media outlets. Read more
The Belchatow power station in central Poland, one of the largest coal-burning plants in the world
While Brussels winds down for the summer and preoccupies itself with finding new commissioners, there will be some very busy people left working on a climate policy conundrum that needs to be solved by autumn. We’ll be hearing quite a bit about it, so here at the Brussels Blog we’ve decided to give it a name: The Polish Puzzle.
By October, the EU needs to agree a target for reducing greenhouse gases by 2030. This is one of the most critical numbers for the determining the course of European industry over the next 15 years, so it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The commission has proposed a cut of 40 per cent from 1990 levels.
Poland, which derives about 85 per cent of its energy from coal, does not like this target one bit. The alternative – switching to cleaner gas – could make it more vulnerable to imports from Russia, which would be anathema in the current geopolitical environment. Unless one side gives, a climate deal by October could prove elusive. Read more
Juncker, left, heads Eurogroup of 17 euro finance ministers. Rostowski, right, the Ecofin of all 27.
UPDATE 2: The Polish presidency has just made the official announcement. They say the cancellation allows heads of government to decide the things finance ministers were originally going to tackle. Despite negative market reaction to the news, several EU diplomats insist this is a diplomatic miscue by the Poles rather than a sign of things to come.
UPDATE: European diplomat confirms meeting of 27 EU finance ministers has been cancelled.
It’s getting uncomfortably close to crunch time for eurozone leaders, with just over 24 hours left before the summit-to-end-all-summits. But will they actually be able to agree on the big euro rescue plan? A letter sent last night by Jacek Rostowski, the Polish finance minister, makes it seem doubtful.
Since Poland currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, Rostowski is charged with convening a meeting of all 27 EU finance ministers tomorrow ahead of the big summit to lay the groundwork for a final agreement.
But officials tell Brussels Blog the so-called “Ecofin” council meeting is now likely off, and in a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who chairs the group of 17 eurozone finance ministers, Rostowski makes it appear the cancellation is due to a failure to agree on outstanding issues. Read more
A Polish priest who was murdered in 1984 by secret policemen working for the then ruling communist authorities was beatified last weekend by the Vatican, a step that puts him on course for eventual sainthood. The news meant a lot to me because, although I’m not Catholic, I came to know the priest well when I lived and worked in Warsaw as a young reporter in the 1980s.
His name was Jerzy Popieluszko, and he was famous throughout Poland for the anti-communist ”masses for the homeland” that he used to hold at his church, St Stanislaw Kostka, in the Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz. No Sunday evening was complete without a visit to the church to hear the singing of patriotic hymns and the voice of Popieluszko denouncing the latest injustices of the communist regime. Thousands upon thousands of Poles used to attend these masses, filling the streets all around the church. I and other Western reporters used to slip into the vestry to make sure we could hear every word of his sermons.
When I wrote stories about Popieluszko for my employers, the Reuters news agency, the editors would sometimes ask me to file a note for English-speaking readers giving guidance on how to pronounce his name. I came up with something like ” YEAH-zhy Pop-yeah-WHOOSH-koh”. Read more
There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group. This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions. “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. Read more
If you search for information about Garwolin on the internet, you will find that it is a simple but attractive little town in eastern Poland, about 50km east of Warsaw. Yet 25 years ago, when I lived in Poland, Garwolin was the scene of a nasty confrontation between the forces of communist secularism and Roman Catholicism that has echoes in a landmark judgement last week by the European Court of Human Rights.
The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian state school classrooms unlawfully restricted the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs. The seven judges contended that the presence of crucifixes could be “disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists”. Read more
It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue. This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989. By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage. But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.
The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs. It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column. Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped. Read more
With Czech President Vaclav Klaus the chief remaining obstacle to final ratification of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, there has been a fair amount of loose talk about how the Czech Republic could – or should – be punished if Klaus refuses to sign it. On the one hand, supporters of the treaty say it is intolerable that the EU’s eight-year effort at redesigning its institutions should be sabotaged at the finishing post. If Klaus carries on his delaying tactics much longer, they warn, the Czechs should be denied a seat in the next European Commission.
On the other hand, opponents of the Lisbon treaty are painting the same scenario for quite different reasons. Just you watch, they say. The EU will reveal itself as an intolerant, anti-democratic machine, whipping the Czechs merely because they have the temerity to resist the imposition of a treaty they fear undermines their sovereignty. Read more
Predictably, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war provoked a few rhetorical skirmishes this week between Russia, Poland and Poland’s western allies. It reminded me of an unusual evening that I spent in 1989 in Waldkirchen, a small town in southern Germany near the Czech border, on the 50th anniversary of the war.
I was the guest of a German friend who in her youth, when I was a young boy, had lived as an au pair with my family in the UK. She had spent months walking me to school, taking me swimming, reading me stories and fixing meals for me. As we grew up, we stayed in touch, and now I was staying the night with her and her husband in Waldkirchen. Read more
If it were not funny, it would be tragic. The UK Conservative party’s decision to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion. The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.
On Tuesday the Tories relinquished the leadership of their new “anti-federalist” faction, the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to Michal Tomasz Kaminski, a Polish politician. They felt obliged to do so after Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, refused to respect a deal in which Kaminski had been promised one of the parliament’s prestigious vice-presidency posts. Read more
There are two ways of looking at the imminent appointment of Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, as the next president of the European Parliament. The first way is to applaud Europe’s politicians for doing the right thing and giving one of the European Union’s top jobs to a man from one of the 10 former communist countries in central and eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004-2007. This is the highest honour yet accorded to a public figure from one of the EU’s new member-states. Poles are justifiably proud.
The second way, however, is to be honest and recognise that the job of parliament president is about the lowest-ranking position someone could be given without its looking like an insult. Buzek, who belongs to the legislature’s main centre-right group, won’t even hold the job for the assembly’s full five-year term: under a deal with the socialists, he will step down after two and a half years and hand over the reins to a socialist. The fact is that, by giving this post to Buzek, older and bigger member-states in western Europe are making sure that they will get all the really big jobs when they come up for grabs later this year. Read more
Mikolaj Dowgielewicz is truly a new Pole. Not yet even 37 years old, he is a minister (for European Union affairs) in Poland’s centre-right government, speaks fluent English and French, was educated partly in the UK, and has spent more of his life in an independent democratic Poland than in a Soviet-controlled communist Poland. When I was listening to him speak at a think-tank breakfast in Brussels this morning, it struck me with force that he would have been just a small boy when I first visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk in the summer of 1980 and witnessed the emergence of the free trade union Solidarity.
Now, like other new Poles, Dowgielewicz talks breezily about Poland’s growing weight in the EU, which it joined five years ago, and its prospects for adopting the euro as early as 2012. Poland doesn’t want or need the eurozone’s entry rules to be bent, he says. “We’re not proposing any amendments to the entry criteria. Not that we think they make absolute sense, but it’s not feasible. You’d have to change the EU treaties. We think the criteria strengthen the eurozone’s credibility. It will have to be down to the merits of each individual country.” Read more
Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers of the European Parliament elections?
Top of the winners’ list are surely Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Merkel’s Christian Democrats destroyed her Social Democrat coalition partners at the polls, and Sarkozy’s UMP party brushed aside the opposition French socialists. Merkel and Sarkozy will feel vindicated in their approach to the global economic crisis, particularly as regards the need to introduce tougher financial regulation (and to lecture central banks from time to time). Read more
The closer the European Parliament elections, the sneakier the stratagems of British centre-right politicians and activists in Brussels.
As David Cameron made clear on May 18 when he launched the election campaign of his opposition Conservative party, the Tories are poised to leave the mainstream European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group soon after the vote. They plan to set up a new centre-right group in the EU legislature that would be strongly opposed to more EU political and economic integration. Read more
Among the various headaches keeping European Union leaders awake at night is the prospect of a thumping Conservative victory in the UK’s next general election, which must be held by June 2010. The fear is that the new Tory government would be so anti-EU that it would make the 1979-1997 governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major look like Jacques Delors’s European Commission in its heyday.
The nightmare inched one step closer on Wednesday when the Conservatives confirmed their intention of leaving the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s main centre-right political group. This is a club with members from all over the 27-nation bloc. It is the largest group in the parliament, with about 37 per cent of the seats, and it will probably retain that position after June’s European Parliament elections. Read more
At long last, the message is getting across that, as far as the financial crisis is concerned, it makes no sense to view the ex-communist countries of central and eastern Europe as one homogenous bloc. European Union policymakers, both in Brussels and at national level, have been trying to make this point for some months. Only now, perhaps, is it really sinking home.
For example, a report by Moody’s credit ratings agency on Tuesday drew a clear distinction between various countries in the region. Some, such as Hungary, rashly allowed a huge expansion in credit in recent years, much in the form of foreign currency-denominated mortgage loans. Others, such as the Czech Republic, did not. The first group is more vulnerable, even if much will ultimately depend on the willingness of western European banks to continue supplying funds to the regional banks they own. Read more