The European Commission is “very closely” following the political crisis in Poland and will “have to act” if the situation worsens and leads to violations of EU law, Věra Jourová warned on Wednesday.
“We’re watching, of course,” Jourová, the Commission vice-president in charge of values of transparency, told Euronews in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Every day there is something happening.”
Poland has for weeks been immersed in a fraught standoff between Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who returned to power last month with a mission to restore the rule of law in the country, and President Andrzej Duda, who is politically aligned with the previous ruling party, the hard-right Law and Justice (PiS).
The eight years under PiS-led governments saw Warsaw engage in a frontal confrontation with Brussels over fundamental rights, judicial independence, press freedom and electoral interference – issues covered by Jourová’s portfolio.
The years-long clash sparked multiple lawsuits, multimillion-euro fines and the blockage of COVID-19 recovery funds. Tusk, an avowed Europeanist, has promised to reset relations with Brussels and bring back Poland to the political centre.
But his government’s first moves to fulfil that goal have been met with criticism, in and outside the country.
Shortly after taking office, Tusk’s cabinet ordered the immediate dismissal of the directors of the publicly owned television, radio and news agency, arguing they were PiS loyalists who had turned the public broadcasters into propaganda machines. The abrupt changes prompted an angry reaction from conservatives and exacerbated the showdown between Tusk and Duda.
“These are completely illegal actions,” Duda said. “This is anarchy.”
The president retaliated by vetoing a new bill that allocated 3 billion zlotys (around €700 million) for the public media, forcing the culture ministry to put the outlets into liquidation while a restructuring takes place.
Asked about the ongoing situation, Věra Jourová said the European Commission was “always worried when we see changes in the public media” and could take legal action if it becomes aware of any possible violations of EU law.
“We are watching. We are very closely assessing what’s happening in Poland in the field of media,” Jourová told Euronews in Davos, noting she had discussed the issue with President Duda in a meeting at the World Economic Forum.
“In case there is a contradiction with the existing EU law, then we will have to act.”
The Vice-President said the Media Freedom Act, which includes provisions to protect journalists and media outlets from political interference, is not yet enforceable, as it still needs to be ratified by the European Parliament and member states.
“This is what I tried to explain today to President Duda: that we cannot act within our competences without having the law,” she added.
The media sector, however, is not the only one making headlines.
More recently, Tusk and Duda clashed after two PiS politicians, who had been convicted of abuse of power, took shelter in the presidential palace to avoid the execution of their criminal sentences. This prompted an unprecedented intervention of the police, who entered the palace to carry out the arrests.
Duda has thrown his support behind the two men, former Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński and his former deputy, Maciej Wąsik, and promised to pardon them, even if he had previously issued a pardon that legal experts considered unlawful.
Separately, Duda blasted Tusk’s government after the justice minister said Dariusz Barski, the country’s top prosecutor, had been released from his function. The president contested the decision because, he said, it was taken without waiting for his formal opinion. But the justice minister struck back saying Barski had been unlawfully appointed by the previous PiS government.
With tensions rising, Duda and Tusk met face to face on Monday, but neither signalled a clear intention to reverse course. Duda said he asked Tusk to “please stop trying to violate the law” while the prime minister said his executive would continue with its mission to “restore the legal order, whether someone likes it or not.”
In her interview with Euronews, Jourová expressed sympathy for Tusk and underlined the need to undo the most harmful changes introduced by the previous PiS administration, including a highly contentious judicial reform that the European Court of Justice ruled undermined the right to have access to an independent and impartial judiciary.
“Donald Tusk and his government came in a situation where there a lot of things to be repaired in the Polish judiciary system,” Jourová said.
“It was always the effort of the Commission to have a dialogue with the government in Poland and ask them: could you please stop the reform which is decreasing the independence of judges?”