The new Polish government policy has sparked outrage of Brussels and Berlin, but an old friend from Hungary came to the rescue. The European Union will soon face a choice – liberal values or political unity.
Having gained undivided power at the Polish elections, the conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) is adopting one controversial law after another. As soon as their EU colleagues finished discussing the most disputed and massively protested Polish law on the Constitutional Tribunal, President Andrzej Duda signed a no-less arguable law on public media on the eve of Orthodox Christmas. The document promptly removed the heads of the Polish Public Television (Telewizja Polska, TVP) and the Polish Radio (Polskie Radio). The law also terminated the open competition on the respectable vacant posts. Now the top managers of the public media will be appointed and fired directly by the treasury minister, and their work will be regulated by the National Media Council, which has close ties to PiS. The public media, along with the Polish Printing Agency, is being transformed into “cultural institutions” - a move that adds another level of control. The reform will have a wide effect. TVP covers 30% of the country’s broadcasting market, and is viewed by 90% of the Poles.
PiS justified these steps as a fight for media objectivity, declaring a course to cleanse the media of any political party influence, mostly referring to their opponents from the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and the leftists. “We hope that finally the media narrative with which we don’t agree with ends, and we’re able to reach Poles with our message in an unbiased way.” said PiS lawmaker Beata Mazurek. Deputy Sejm Speaker Ryszard Terlecki also blamed the “extreme bias” in the media, which the party aims to eradicate.
You can’t shut us up
The opposition immediately saw PiS’ steps as a move to strangle media freedom and a hostile takeover of public broadcasting. There were concerns that public media will de facto stop being “public”, instead becoming a mouthpiece for the government and the ruling party. Under this pretext, on January 1, not waiting for the president to sign the law, the heads of TVP1, TVP2, TVP Kultura and Television Information Agency all resigned in protest. “No one can force Poland to shut its mouth,” said the head of TVP Kultura Katarzyna Janowska on her resignation. “No one can force me to shut my mouth.”
The Western press also was mostly surprised by how the events were unfolding in Warsaw. “The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed,” declared The Guardian. “That’s like George Osborne getting to decide who runs the BBC,” said the paper in disgust while trying to explain the essence of the Polish novelty (George Osborne is the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer aka the treasurer). Under European standards, the public media like the BBC, French France Télévisions, German ZDF and ARD are being funded from the budget with taxpayer money, yet the state can’t directly interfere with their policies.
Remember the values
Warsaw was bombarded with open letters from angered journalist organizations. The European Federation of Journalists, Association of European Journalists, as well as international organizations Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists, have voiced their protest against PiS’ actions. Several letters of concern were sent by the European Broadcasting Union, known among other things for organizing the Eurovision song contest. The Council of Europe and OSCE also spoke out against the Polish law. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović voiced concerns that the hastily adopted PiS law can “endanger the basic conditions of independence, objectivity and impartiality of public service broadcasters”. On 30 January, First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans wrote PiS a letter. He warned the conservatives against attacking pluralism and media freedoms and reminded that EU members must follow common values. On 3 January, PiS received a similar letter from European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Günther Oettinger. “Many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and for us to place Warsaw under monitoring,” said Oettinger to German media.
You know nothing about Poland
PiS reacted to the onslaught of criticism in their usual style. The conservatives accused the Europeans of double standards and hinted that the European officials are not quite objective themselves when media freedom is concerned. The government posed a rhetorical question: why didn’t the EU notice the lack of pluralism on public television when the Civic Platform was in power? The second trite and true argument was that Europeans just can’t comprehend the delicate fabric of Polish politics. Earlier the Polish Foreign ministry already called the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz ill-informed and not versed in Polish matters. While replying to Timmermans, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymański assumed that the European Commission is receiving false or misleading information on the events in Warsaw. Therefore, the Polish politicians intend to help “fix the knowledge” for the “unaware” European Commissioners. Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro’s answer to Oettinger turned out quite colorful.
“In your country, Germany, there is a saying: “cuius regions – eius radio,” which means “who have power – have a radio” It boils down to a simple principle that heads of public radio and television are appointed by politicians currently exercising power. The Media Act, which is being worked on by the Polish government, provides a much more democratic solution.”
Ziobro grabbed the moment to school Germany on belated reaction of the media to the New Year’s Eve migrants’ assaults on women in Cologne and decided to bring up the European Commission’s silence when the previous government carried out searches in the offices of the opposition papers. PiS also couldn’t resist the urge to make a shout-out to Poland’s tragic history. “Such words, said by a German politician, cause the worst of connotations among Poles. Also in me. I'm a grandson of a Polish officer, who during World War II fought in the underground National Army with “German supervision”, protested the minister. Polish Foreign ministry meanwhile also found the remarks of German politicians unacceptable, so it was about to summon the German ambassador for a though talk. Earlier the government summoned the EU ambassador for similar reasons.
They are hitting our guys!
When the European Union buzzed about with timid talk on how the rebellious PiS may lead to Poland losing voting rights in the EU Council, the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán stood up for Warsaw.
"The European Union should not think about applying any sort of sanctions against Poland, because that would require full unanimity and Hungary will never support any sort of sanctions against Poland," strenly said the Hungarian PM.
Orbán’s right-wing conservative government has been considered an ideological ally of Law and Justice for a long time. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński calls Orbán a friend and an inspiration. On January 6, the politicians had an informal meeting behind closed doors, lasting six hours. The head of the Polish Foreign Ministry Witold Waszczykowski noted that the Hungarian experience of defending their vision in front of their European partners may be useful for Poland. That is why, on protests rallies, the Polish opposition called against the “Orbanization” of Poland and turning Warsaw into Budapest. During his reign, Orbán has become notorious for his nationalist rhetoric, rode the wave of anti-migrant public opinion and compared the refugees to the Ottoman invasion, and became the leading critic of Brussels’ stance on many issues. Not only on the refugee settlement mechanisms, but also on sanctions against Russia, delegation of power within the EU and the European cultural policy. Orbán became a symbol of a successful “right-wing revanchist” in Europe and gets a lot of criticism for his pressure on democratic procedures. There are also periodical calls to strip the Orbán’s Hungary of the EU voting rights.
The Haider affair
Both Orbán and Kaczyński, along with Duda, undoubtedly annoy Brussels. However, there is a question of what actual measures the EU can use to quell the conservatives. The last time Brussels had a serious confrontation with nationalists was more than 15 years ago. It is connected with the Austrian politician Jörg Haider. In 1999-2000, Haider’s right-wing Freedom of Austria Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) had did good in elections and formed a coalition with the Christian democrats from the Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP). The very prospect of nationalists being part of a ruling coalition of a European country terrified the European Union. Brussels quickly remembered that the far-right weren’t in power in Europe since 1945 and decided to apply pressure on Austria. Curiously, the biggest outrage at the time was targeted at Haider’s statements on migrants and foreigners, leading to accusations of racism and xenophobia. After a discussion, the European Union, for the first time in history, imposed sanctions on a member state. All diplomatic ties with Austria were immediately frozen.
The European officials realized that it would be difficult to isolate Austria from a practical standpoint, especially on the level of working committees, but, nevertheless, the gesture of recalling the envoys and cancelling top-level meetings had a strong symbolic effect.
Instead of becoming Chancellor in accordance with Austrian tradition, Haider gave up the post to his coalition partner Wolfgang Schüssel and then resigned from the positions in the party. The coalition soon fell apart. Austria peacefully lived under European sanctions for seven months until the special EU panel estimated that the sanctions were counterproductive. In addition, it was determined that the collective pounding of Austria had a negative effect on the European climate in the wake of the adoption of the common European currency, the euro, and may hinder the accession of the new EU member states. The EU formally made peace with Austria and lifted all restrictions. The Minister of Foreign Affairs from the Austrian People's Party Benita Ferrero-Waldner later even became the European Commissioner for Trade and European Neighborhood Policy.
The “Haider affair” later led to the Nice Treaty (2001) specifying how to act in the situation if a member-state sways away from democracy and European principles. The mechanism was rather cumbersome: the EU Council with the agreement of 4/5 of its members and the approval of the European Parliament can establish that a state violates the fundamental rules of the European Union.
The right-wing is coming
With the EU’s further expansion, it became a lot harder to employ measures against specific countries. The number of member-states doubled from 14 to 28. Brussels and Old Europe had to deal with the fact that each new-accepted Eastern European and Baltic country had its nuances and peculiarities, including the dislike of the leftist liberal ideas and the tendency to move towards the right. This is exactly what happened with Hungary. Jarosław Kaczyński didn’t look up to Orbán for nothing - the PiS triumph last year almost exactly mirrored the success of the Hungarian Fidesz party (Hungarian Civic Alliance) six years ago. Even certain details of their journey to power match. In Poland, the ratings of the ruling Civic Platform were badly demolished by the eavesdropping scandal, when waiters in a few luxury restaurants wiretapped the private dinner talks of politicians, which later became leaked to the media. The prime minister had to apologize to the Polish nation for the words of her party members. The Sejm Speaker, a few minsters and their deputies had to resign. The public embarrassment of the government helped PiS to win the parliamentary and presidential elections. A similar scandal rocked Hungary in 2006. The media published the speech of the socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány on a closed party meeting. The politician outright admitted that the party lied to the voters on numerous occasions. The news led to a riot in the capital. A few years later, Orbán’s Fidesz enjoyed a landslide victory and took 2/3 of the parliament seats.
Using the rhetoric of curbing the communist legacy just like PiS, Orbán began rapid reforms. The constitution was rewritten in a nationalistic tone, adding passages on God, the Magyar people, Christian traditions, traditional family values and special treatment of the titular nation.
Despite the protests of judges, the reforms led to the increased control over the Constitutional Court, the media and the election process. European Union officials occasionally criticize the Hungarian way, but didn’t mount anything similar to the obstruction of Austria in 2000.
In 2014, Latvia sneakily amended its constitution, following the Hungarian example and adding clauses on the special role of the Latvian nation. The economic crisis and the influx of refugees led to a new surge of nationalism. The May 2014 elections saw many representatives of the far-right parties and euroskeptics getting in the European Parliament, nationalists have also strengthened their positions in many countries. Brussels’ reaction was weak. The EU has developed a tolerance to the right-wing, while the Brussels muscles have withered from inaction. If Haider’s admiration of the Waffen-SS and the downplay of the concentration camps was a shock for the European Union, the election of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia to country’s parliament, whose members admire the Third Reich and are highly xenophobic, was almost unnoticed. Similarly, the EU preferred to not raise commotion when Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia in recent referendums spoke out against same-sex marriage. Nobody wanted to shake Haider’s hand. While the EU officials give Orbán’s playful slaps on the cheek, followed by a fatherly hugs and a “Hello, Dictator”.
Nevertheless, in 2014, the European bureaucrats created a tool to potentially punish the member-states in case they undermine democracy. If the a systemic threat to the very principles of the rule of law is established, the European Commission can now open a case on the violation of the basic European values. The countries at fault can be restricted in their rights within the EU. This fate may await Poland. There was a leak in the media, that the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to start the investigation of Poland. However, this case will be first such precedent for the European Union, which will be a serious stress test for the European project as a whole and may lead to a reformatting of the relations between Brussels and specific members. It is increasingly difficult to reach consensus on certain states. Hungary is already standing in defense of Poland. The Czech Republic may follow suit, whose leader Miloš Zeman shares Kaczyński’s and Orbán’s stance on migrants and refugees. The Baltic states would also be a in precarious position, as they are used to unconditionally following Brussels’ orders and at the same time providing moral support for Poland and going hand in hand with Warsaw on a whole range of issues – migration, energy, NATO, the Ukrainian crisis. It is a bad time for a public execution of PiS, considering the preparation for the UK referendum set for 2017 on the possibility of leaving the EU, which means Brussels may be at war on two fronts at once. And the whole situation of the acute refugee crisis leaves little leeway.
So it is unsurprising that PiS feels itself comfortable and is not shelving their Napoleonic plans on liberating Poland from “communist and oligarchic yoke”. On the contrary, the conservatives are eagerly inviting the timid Europeans to come to Poland and check the situation on the ground. They don’t believe in wrath from Brussels. “Aside from the debates in the European Commission and the European Parliament, nothing else will happen. It will all end with that, because nothing serious is happening in Poland,” said Witold Waszczykowski, anticipating the talks. The Polish issue will be discussed in the European Commission on January 13, and, on 19 January, it will be discussed in the European Parliament (the attempted debate in December failed). If it will be established that Poland is going against the EU principles, it will be presented with recommendations as homework. There will be no problems beyond that. Aside from Poland losing some points in the global freedom media rankings, as Hungary did before. But, as history has shown, that is far from fatal.
Translated by Pavel Shamshiev.