Polish News Update – Covid-19, EU ‘Rule of Law’ Mechanism, and IPN Seek to Charge Serving Judge
The top Polish news stories over the past week have included not only the latest on the Covid-19 situation with the government announcing new economic stimulus measures, but also intense diplomatic activity over the EU budget standoff and a case that brings back memories of the martial law era. The headlines have included:
· Total reported Covid-19 cases go over the 1 million mark but with new daily numbers remaining relatively stable
· The government announces new economic stimulus measures dubbed Financial Shield 2.0
· The Polish and Hungarian Prime Ministers meet twice within five days to coordinate their positions in opposition to the EU’s so-called ‘rule of law’ mechanism and
· the Institute of National Remembrance asks the Supreme Court to lift the immunity of one of its members in a case involving a martial law era judgment.
Polish health officials announced on Wednesday that the country has crossed the milestone of 1 million Covid-19 cases being reported, following five other European countries with large populations - France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany - in doing so. As of Wednesday the total number of reported Covid-19 cases in Poland stood at 1,013,747 with 18,208 deaths. 13,855 new infections and 609 new deaths were reported on the day. However, new infection numbers over the past week haven’t approached the levels seen earlier in November, when the highest number to date – 27,875 – was reported on November 7th.
Meanwhile last Thursday Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced a range of new economic stimulus measures targeting businesses in the face of Covid-19 and the associated restrictions on economic activity. The government has dubbed the new measures – which Morawiecki said are worth at least 35 billion złoty or approximately €7.8bn – Financial Shield 2.0. The new measures include non-repayable subsidies, exemptions from social insurance contributions and additional social security benefits for employees. The government has repeated claims that the earlier Financial Shield measures announced in March were responsible for saving 6 million jobs – a claim which may be somewhat of an exaggeration given the relatively healthy overall state of the Polish economy. That point was brought home by a report from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, on Wednesday which, using their methodology, put the rate of unemployment in Poland at just 3.5% in October.
The Sejm last Saturday approved a government measure reducing the number of Polish companies who’ll be required to pay corporate income tax, overriding amendments made by the opposition-controlled Senate. The measure will come into force from January.
The past week has seen a flurry of diplomatic activity centring on the standoff over the EU’s new ‘rule of law’ mechanism, including two meetings within five days between the Polish and Hungarian Prime Ministers, which it was said were designed to coordinate their positions.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Last Thursday Mateusz Morawiecki and Viktor Orbán met in Budapest, after which Morawiecki warned that linking the ‘rule of law’ issue to EU funding risked the break-up of the union. Although the two sides, Poland and Hungary, with support from Slovenia on the one hand, and the EU institutions and the German Presidency of the European Council on the other, are reportedly working on a resolution to the standoff which is threatening the EU’s six year 2021 to 2027 budget as well as a new Covid-19 economic rescue fund, the Polish Prime Minister maintained a strong stance in a conference call with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday. He said afterwards that he had reaffirmed Poland’s ‘readiness to veto the new budget if we don’t find a solution that is good for the entire EU, and not only for some of its members’. On Monday the Hungarian leader travelled to Warszawa for a further meeting with Morawiecki. Government spokesperson, Piotr Müller, said that the two leaders discussed ‘the coordination of positions’ between Poland and Hungary during their hour and a half long meeting. He said that ‘Various options regarding a possible agreement were considered today, but we are still waiting for proposals from the German presidency’.
The Prawo i Sprawiedliwość MEP, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, on Monday accused unnamed EU officials of ‘dishonesty and manipulation’ by allegedly ‘keeping secret’ a legal opinion dated October 25th, which he claimed showed the ‘unlawfulness’ of the new ‘rule of law’ mechanism and it’s ‘incompatibility with the Treaties’. He posted excerpts from the opinion by the Legal Service of the EU Council on his Twitter account.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said that if Poland and Hungary have an issue over linking the ‘rule of law’ with EU funding, they should seek a ruling from the European Court of Justice rather than maintaining a veto over the 2021 to 2027 budget.
The past week has seen further demonstrations over the abortion issue in Poland, following on from October’s Constitutional Tribunal ruling restricting the legal grounds for abortion. Saturday’s demonstrations were in Warszawa, Kraków, Wrocław, Łódź, Gdańsk and Lublin. At least 10 protesters were arrested in Warszawa after according to a police spokesperson a ‘very dangerous’ incident in which ‘a group of protesters ran onto the road, despite heavy traffic’. The demonstrations came on the 102nd anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote in Poland in 1918.
As in many countries with a history of brutal dictatorship within living memory, echoes of the Communist era are never very far away in Poland and this week we had a further manifestation with the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (IPN) - Institute of National Remembrance in English - asking the Supreme Court to lift the immunity of one of its own members, Józef Iwulski, so he can be charged in connection with a ruling he made in 1982 while a judge during martial law claiming it was ‘in line with the repressive policies’ then being carried out.
The IPN is the government body tasked with documenting and prosecuting crimes committed during communist rule. In July the government removed the statute of limitations on communist era crimes.
The IPN claims that while a judge of the Warszawa District Military Court, he ‘unlawfully sentenced a worker from Oświęcim, Leszek W., to three years imprisonment for producing and distributing leaflets depicting the contours of Poland surrounded by barbed wire’, according to the state news agency. Leszek W. was convicted of ‘publicly ridiculing the People’s Republic of Poland’ and ‘encouraging riots and strikes’ by distributing the leaflets.
The Instytut Pamięci Narodowej says this ruling was illegal even under the criminal law then in force or the martial law regulations. The conviction was overturned in 1992 after the fall of communism with the Supreme Court finding the leaflets represented a legitimate expression of opinion and did not constitute mockery of the state, while only participation in strikes, and not simply encouraging them, constituted an offence. The IPN claim that ‘the judgment was, therefore, an act of state lawlessness, and the judges who issued it cannot benefit from the protection afforded to judges (carrying out) their statutory rights and obligations’. It maintains the abuse of court procedures made the trial unfair and that it was meant to serve as a ‘deterrent’ to other anti-communist activists and was therefore ‘in line with the repressive policy of the PRL authorities’.
Two other lower ranking judges, who’ve been prominent critics of the Polish government’s judicial reforms, have recently been stripped of their immunity from prosecution by the controversial Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court. The chamber itself has been the subject of adverse rulings by the Polish Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice.
On Monday, the European Union’s Justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, expressed concern about the fact that the chamber has recently deprived judges of their immunity. He was addressing a meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs about developments in Poland and Hungary. The session heard strong attacks on the human rights records of both countries as well as references to the standoff over the EU budget and the ‘rule of law’ mechanism with one MEP stating that it was very important ‘that other member states in the Council do not succumb to blackmail by two corrupt autocrats’. Polish MEP Beata Kempa, a member of Solidarna Polska, responded that ‘This is a slander’. She added that ‘In my homeland nothing is happening that is unusual in Spain or France, but it is us that the European Commission ruthlessly attacks.’
That’s all for this week.