Membership of the EU and Nato requires adhering to western values. In the decades since the fall of communism, Poland has often been hailed as one of the EU’s great success stories, proof that democracy can flourish in what was once a Soviet satellite. Since the election of the nationalist Law and Justice party last autumn, however, the excitement has begun to fade. In what seems an orchestrated power grab, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader, has been reining in the independent judiciary, the country’s media and its security services. This is a cause for alarm among Warsaw’s allies in the EU and Nato.
On Wednesday, the European Commission signalled its disquiet over the direction the Polish government is taking by declaring that Warsaw has violated the principle of the rule of law. This is the first time Brussels has formally accused a member state of undermining democracy.
The EU is especially concerned by changes that Law and Justice has made to the Polish constitutional court, appointing supporters to the bench and changing procedures in ways that undermine the court’s ability to block new legislation. Although it is far from clear what Brussels can do to reverse these moves, Mr Kaczynski would be foolish to ignore the EU’s request that he should do so.
A decision by Brussels to censure constitutional changes within a member state is bound to be controversial. The Polish government has reacted furiously, arguing that it was democratically elected with a strong parliamentary majority and that EU officials are interfering in internal politics.
However, the EU is right to insist that its 28 members should maintain the highest democratic standards. The EU is built on common values enshrined in its treaties, including democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Arguably the bloc’s biggest achievement has been to insist that applicant members should achieve those standards before being granted accession. After failing to check Hungary’s backsliding over freedom and the rule of law in recent years, Brussels cannot afford to make the same mistake in Poland, a much larger and more strategically important state.
The EU’s ability to force Law and Justice to change course is limited. If Poland fails to comply with its request, Brussels could impose fines on Warsaw or deprive it of voting rights in the EU’s Council of Ministers where major policy decisions are approved. Such penalties would require unanimity from all EU members. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s premier, who appears to be acting in close concert with Mr Kaczynski, has said he would vote against them.