Vetoes of two proposed laws that would have dramatically curbed judicial independence in Poland are a welcome pause in that country’s dangerous drift from Western democratic values. But the European Union, the United States and, most important, Polish citizens must continue to press the ruling Law and Justice Party to curb ill-advised, illiberal policies that threaten the extraordinary progress Poland has made since it was freed from the scourge of communism.
That failed ideology isn’t the threat in Poland, but rather a reversion to repression in the guise of the Law and Justice Party (known by its Polish acronym PiS), which has unleashed a political assault on the press, nongovernmental organizations and an independent judiciary.
The vetoes weren’t a total victory: Polish President Andrzej Duda did sign a bill that gave the justice minister control over local courts, and Duda has signaled that he wants the vetoed bills redrafted.
But clearly the public pressure, manifested in massive street protests, affected Duda’s deliberations over the judicial measures. So, too, did the statement from former Solidarity activist Zofia Romaszewska, who told Duda, “Mr. President, I lived in a state where the prosecutors general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” Neither would Lech Walesa — the Solidarity founder, Nobel laureate and former Polish president — who joined the crowds. Nor would Donald Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister who is now president of the European Council. Tusk said recent changes position Poland “backwards and eastwards.”
The E.U. itself needs to be more aggressive in responding to Warsaw’s worrisome tilt toward oppression, but the union is limited because unanimity is necessary for any punitive action, and Hungary’s equally illiberal leader, Viktor Orban, likely would protect Poland’s current government.
The White House should declare its opposition to the PiS. But President Donald Trump, in a bid for a photo-op address with bused-in crowds during his recent speech in Warsaw, only lauded Poland’s progress. That likely gave PiS the green light to advance its judicial bills. The State Department did issue a staid statement that had nowhere near the rhetorical power of the opportunity afforded by Trump’s speech.
The U.S. and the E.U. need to be more vocal — and more specific — about how Poland’s direction under PiS may not only harm diplomatic relations, but ultimately the Polish people, who must resist illiberalism with the same fervor as they pushed back against communism. There’s much at stake, Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told an editorial writer. Curtin, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Warsaw, said, “They risk the amazing transformation they gave themselves in 1989. … It risks their ability to be a leader in the E.U. or in NATO, and that kind of political instability then risks their economic growth.”
Duda must reverse course. Poland’s progress is indeed at stake.