Why the Eurocrats can’t stand Poland’s Law and Justice party

Seeing Eastern European countries regain their political agency drives them crazy in Brussels.

by RYSZARD LEGUTO

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Since Poland’s last parliamentary elections in November 2015, members of the losing Euro-federalist party, Civic Platform, have accused the ruling Law and Justice Party of violating the Polish Constitution and steering the country toward authoritarianism. The charge has been loudly repeated by European Union officials. But what critics call authoritarianism is merely an attempt to reclaim for the Polish state the basic instruments of power held by governments in France, Germany and every other European state.

State institutions in postcommunist societies have always been weak and prone to corruption. As one Civic Platform member said in a wiretapped 2013 conversation with a colleague: “The Polish state exists only in theory.” Law and Justice was elected on a promise to reform the Polish judicial system, much of which retains troubling connections to the communist past. Judges who sent anticommunist activists to prison in the 1980s still sit on Poland’s Supreme Court. Some are former members of the Communist Party.

Many Polish judges are unabashedly partisan. They attend political rallies, make public statements on partisan issues, and openly work with politicians to advance certain policies. In 2012 the president of the district court in Gdansk accepted a call from a journalist who pretended to be working for then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a co-founder of Civic Platform. The judge seemed ready to accommodate the phony aide’s requests. Mr. Tusk’s son had been employed by a company owned under a pyramid scheme that had been tried before that very judge, making the judge’s solicitousness all the more suspect.

Law and Justice’s proposed reforms included restoring checks and balances among the three branches of government. The process for staffing the court system is a collaborative one between the legislature and several professional associations representing judges. In most European countries the goal is to incorporate political input while maintaining judicial independence. In Poland, however, the judges have been granted carte blanche to fill out their own ranks. The professional associations are determined to hold on to these privileges.

In July, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, vetoed two of the three proposals put forward by his Law and Justice colleagues, but reiterated his commitment to radical reform. In this, he has the support of a vast majority of the population who are clearly dissatisfied with how the courts work. Whatever their current differences, the president and Parliament are unlikely to give in to EU pressure and drop the reforms.

Why did reasonable reforms provoke such strong reactions from the European Commission and the European Parliament? One reason is the double standards that plague European institutions. When Mr. Tusk’s government changed the law to have the Constitutional Court composed almost entirely of Civic Platform appointees, no one in the EU raised an eyebrow. When the Law and Justice government sought a more balanced court, the EU saw it as a threat to the rule of law. When the previous government sent antiterrorist forces to interrupt an editorial board meeting at Wprost, a weekly magazine that had published transcripts of conversations among high-ranking Civic Platform officials, European newspapers ignored the story.

Poland is now accused of controlling the media, which is an absurd charge. Poland has a robust and independent media, representing a far larger spectrum of opinion than you find in France or Germany. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe where political correctness has not managed to stifle the public discourse.

The European Commission simply has it out for Poland because we dare to oppose the centralizing tendencies in Europe, defend national sovereignty as delineated by the EU founding treaties, and insist that the treaties be respected. The “Rule of Law Recommendations” the commission issued this summer exceeded the power granted to it by Europe’s founding treaties. Targeting Poland is a part of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to make the body “more political.”

Western European governments and the leadership of EU institutions have long treated the countries of Eastern European as adolescents under their tutelage. European commissioner Günther Oettinger asked the Polish government to bring legislative proposals to Brussels before submitting them to the Polish parliament. During an informal meeting with Polish politicians last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel couldn’t disguise her irritation at Poland’s new economic relationship with China, arguing that such an opening should have had the blessing of “friends.”

Most irritating to the Eurocrats has been the growing cooperation among the Visegrád Four—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia—and the Trimarium, composed of the V4, the three Baltic states, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. Poland has played a major role in bringing these Central and Eastern European perspectives together.

The EU functionaries seek to enlarge their power by centralizing it. Watching Eastern European countries regain their political agency drives them crazy. After all, in politics no one likes their power taken away.

Mr. Legutko is co-chairman of the Conservatives and Reformist Group in the European Parliament, a professor of philosophy at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, and author of “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies” (Encounter, 2016).

To read this piece as it originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, click here.