EU drops hints of possible "nuclear option" against Poland

EU drops hints of possible
By bne IntelliNews January 4, 2016

The European Commission will review Poland’s commitment to EU law and report its findings at a meeting on January 13, officials confirmed on January 4, as alarm in Brussels rises over the Law and Justice (PiS) government's bid to rapidly consolidate power.

The move comes after the populist government pushed through on December 30 amendments to the law on public media that will see PiS handpick new heads for public television and radio. The government is also embroiled in controversy over the Constitutional Court. and has launched a wide scale cull of security agencies and state companies since coming to office in November.

Brussels has already expressed concern several times, provoking fury in Warsaw, but is now upping the ante. While EU officials say there is no plan for now to trigger the "nuclear option" Aritcle 7 against Warsaw, Brussels is clearly sending a message that it is growing increasingly alarmed by events in Warsaw. Aritcle 7 could strip Poland of its voting rights in the bloc.

The new law on public media was passed through both houses of the Polish parliament inside just two days. It is expected to be signed by PiS-friendly President Andrzej Duda shortly.

The law gives the treasury ministry the right to pick the managers of public television (TVP) and radio (PR), two powerful media platforms that retain large audiences. To date, executives of the public media were appointed by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT).

It will also end the terms of the current supervisory boards and executive boards. Several managers at TVP did not wait to be sacked, but handed in their resignations on December 31.

PiS insists the changes are necessary, because public media have been “extremely biased” in recent weeks, especially in covering the tussle between PiS and the opposition over Poland’s constitutional court. Party officials have increasingly spoken of a mission to reconstruct the Polish state and end the "liberal dictatorship" and cronyism that they say has become entrenched over the previous eight years of rule by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO).

“If public media imagine they will keep Poles engaged with criticism of our changes or what we plan to change, then it must be stopped,” the head of the PiS’ parliamentary group Ryszard Terlecki told journalists on December 29.

“Authorities must carry out pro-state and national policies, for example in terms of education, health, culture, or security, and they must have means to do so,” Krystyna Pawlowicz, an MP from the hard right nationalist party wrote in a letter to Catholic Radio Maryja on January 3.

Busy break

With the law pushed through during the Xmas and New Year holidays, the international storm had to wait to begin with the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Guenther Oettinger on January 3. He claimed the new rules could result in launching an EU mechanism to probe infringement of “European values”.

“There is a lot to be said for activating the mechanism on the rule of law and putting Warsaw under supervision,” Oettinger said. His words followed up a letter sent to Warsaw by the deputy head of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans. It was the second time Timmermans has addressed Brussels' concerns to Poland within a week following a missive questioning new legislation on the constitutional court dated December 23.

“It’s not because Timmermans had nothing to do during the [Christmas] holiday break, but a sign there is an enormous concern in Brussels," an EU source told Gazeta Wyborcza.

The European Commission will now review Warsaw’s controversial moves next week, a spokesman for President Jean-Claude Juncker said. It plans an “orientation debate” over the laws at a scheduled meeting of the EU executive on January 13, but will not start formally monitoring Poland for straying from democratic standards at this point, spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters.

The "nuclear option" Article 7, which threatens to strip member states of voting rights in the bloc, has never been used before, and European Commission officials were keen to stress the current plan will not include discussion of such extreme action.

However, the reference to the measure has been made widely enough to suggest Brussels is keen to remind Warsaw that it has in its arsenal a big gun that could be wheeled out in case of "serious and persistent breach of EU values". Indeed, the commission says it will use powers that allow it to monitor "systemic threats" to the rule of EU law.

“That the Commission is considering using [the “nuclear option”] is alone a proof of Poland’s deteriorating position in the EU,” Gazeta Wyborcza claimed in an editorial on January 4.

However, Brussels is notoriously slow to act hastily in such instances, reflecting its preference to negotiate - and likely curtail accusations from the likes of Warsaw that it rides roughshod over sovereign states. PiS might look south for an example.

It's little coincidence that Poland follows Hungary in facing Article 7 threats. Analysts at BZWBK suggest Warsaw's apparent "copy/paste of Hungarian policy," is becoming a major risk to the zloty and debt markets.

The Commission accepted a petition from NGOs calling for Article 7 to be triggered over Budapest's treatment of migrants in November. The European Parliament called for the use of the article against Hungary in 2011 after Budapest passed a similar media law. However, stiff penalties have yet to be handed to Hungary.

Meanwhile, Poland’s established opposition is struggling to mount much resistance to PiS, or to make gains amongst voters. PO's support continues to dwindle close to single figures according to recent polls. At the same time, PiS has seen its support slide. It now trails to the new liberal Nowoczesna party's rating of around 34%.

However, it maintains control of both houses of parliament and the presidency, and passed the media law in the Sejm in typical fashion with a late night vote. The government ignored the concerns not of the opposition, but also from a number of international organisations including Reporters Without Borders, the European Broadcasting Union and the Association of European Journalists.

“We were promised a [Polish BBC], but it turned out the law does not import BBC standards, but rather the ones employed by Putin in Russia Today,” Grzegorz Furgo, an MP for Nowoczesna, claimed during the parliamentary debate.

Journalists at TVP and PR have also made their opposition clear. Some leading news anchors at TVP made it clear last week that they may be departing. PR’s Programme One resorted to voicing its protest by playing Poland’s national anthem and the EU’s anthem alternatively each hour, although newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported this did not go down well with all journalists.