The right-wing Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party was victorious in the 2015 parliamentary elections in poland, forming a new Government with over 37% of the popular vote. However, on coming to power the government has passed laws which many see as weakening constitutional checks and balances. This demonstrates the growing influence of socially-conservative religious values in the political sphere, as the party argues that a secular, liberal and multi-ethnic Europe threatens religious values and sovereignty. The primary concern to the EU has been a curtailing of the power of the constitutional court, but the government has also passed legislation leading to the reform of the supposedly independent security services, civil service and public broadcasting.

The controversial party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who once said that migrants carry ‘various diseases’, was side-lined during the election, but now has a significant role in the government, while the moderate Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has now herself been side-lined. The Polish government’s actions have led to the first ever EU investigation into the rule-of-law of a member state, headed by Europe’s democracy watchdog, the Venice Commission.

A 'systematic threat to the rule of law'

In December 2015, the new government sacked 5 judges appointed by the previous government. They then proceeded to ban the constitutional court from publishing a judgement that criticises new executive controls over judges, which immediately put at threat the independence of the judiciary.

The commission announced in late July that there was a ‘systematic threat to the rule of law in Poland’, as the commission’s vice-president Frans Timmermans called on the Polish government to respond by guaranteeing the independence of the constitutional court within three months. The next step by the EU would be to suspend Poland’s voting rights in the bloc.

However, this would risk further isolating Poland at a time when integration should be a top priority. Also, any possible sanctions called for by the commission would have to be supported by all other EU member states; but Hungary, an EU member following a similarly undemocratic path to Poland, has said that it would never support such sanctions.

'Heavy consequences' for human rights

As the EU’s sixth-largest economy and the biggest ex-communist state in the bloc, Poland is also a significant beneficiary of EU funds. However, political analyst Wojciech Jablonski has argued that the Law and Justice Party will not back down unless its actions endanger the money it receives from the EU’s common budget to help it catch up with western European living standards; this comes despite the dispute leading to a significant fall in business investment in the country. Indeed, the Polish government has responded by arguing that the EU should instead be focusing on solving the migrant crisis and also on ensuring that more EU members don’t leave the bloc as Britain is doing.

Legislation was rushed through the Polish parliament in early July in an attempt to resolve the crisis before the NATO summit held in Warsaw later in the month. However, this legislation has not yet been signed by President Andrzej Duda and has thus yet to become law. On the first day of the summit, in a private meeting between Duda and Obama, the US president stated unequivocally that more needed to be done to strengthen democratic values and institutions in Poland, in an unusual move of rebuking a close American ally; this perhaps shows how seriously the US, and therefore the EU, is taking the threat to Polish democracy. Indeed, the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental human rights organisation, stated that this ‘prolonged paralysis’ of Poland’s constitutional court ‘bears heavy consequences for the human rights protection of all Polish citizens.