Daniel Freund

6. March 2023 Anti-Corruption

Trip to Poland: Shocked about quick dismantling of democracy and fundamental rights

Fundamental rights and central pillars of the rule of law are under enormous pressure in Poland. Last week, I traveled to Łódź and Warsaw in Poland to get an idea of the situation. I met with representatives of civil society, local politicians, journalists, judges and members of our Green sister party. The main finding: the PiS government’s attacks on free media, the judiciary and the rights of women and LGBTQI persons continue unabated. At the same time, EU payments amounting to more than 100 billion euros have already been put on hold because the Polish government is purposefully violating fundamental European values. The organized corruption in the country with public money is also on the rise. The main findings at a glance:


EU funds: Those who vote for opposition go empty-handed

The city of Łódź, southwest of Warsaw, has around 700,000 inhabitants. Currently, 120,000 refugees from Ukraine and Belarus are being cared for here. The problem is that the EU funds for the city are distributed on the regional political level – where a confidant of the PiS government is in charge. Łódź, however, is governed by an opposition mayor – Hanna Zdanowska (PO). Hanna Zdanowska tells me that she gets 90% less EU money compared to the previous funding period. The figures from Łódź are particularly shocking but the problem applies in most of Poland.


The government in Warsaw is positioning itself against opposition-governed cities. The signal to the population: if you vote ‘wrong’, you will not receive money. A tax reform has taken 50% of the revenue away from municipalities, many of which are governed by the opposition. Procurement guidelines have been reworded so that the city can no longer apply for certain EU funds. Yet the money is urgently needed for subsidized housing. Opposition-led cities are systematically being cut off. This politically driven (non-)granting of EU funds must be stopped. It’s perverting EU assistance as a means to pay off loyalists and punish democratic opposition.


Judiciary: Under full government control

The scope of the Polish judicial reforms sometimes only becomes apparent in personal stories. I met a prosecutor in Warsaw who was punitively transferred for applying EU law. She had to vacate her post within 36 hours and was transferred to the other end of the country – away from her family, home and social network. Such disciplinary measures violate EU law. They prevent Poland from gaining full access to much-needed EU funds. And yet they continue to be common practice. 


The Polish government has attacked the free judiciary so systematically in recent years that the rule of law situation here is even worse than in Hungary. Courts and the judiciary are controlled by the government. The PiS government can de facto no longer lose court proceedings. The dimension is huge. A representative of the Polish Association of Judges tells me that the elimination of free justice is comparable to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Russia. The EU Commission must not accept bad compromises in its dispute with the Polish government. The independence of the judiciary is a central pillar of the rule of law and is not negotiable!


Free Press: Restricted with frightening speed

The media landscape in Poland is much more diverse and free than in Hungary. And yet several journalists tell me that the free press in the country is increasingly targeted by the government. Critical TV and radio stations are currently not getting their licenses renewed – without giving any reasons. Their future is uncertain. At the same time, pro-government media are spreading more and more propaganda and lies. Members of the opposition are being targeted by smear campaigns.


What gives hope: Strong women, strong civil society

In recent days, I have been very impressed to see how strongly organized and active the civil society is in Poland. Judges, journalists and women’s organizations are able to put public pressure on the government for its policies. They manage to mobilize tens of thousands of people for demonstrations. I was particularly impressed by the commitment of the women. In Poland, there is no access to medical support for abortions. Women die because they are denied medical help. The women’s fight against these unbearable conditions is incredibly courageous. 


Poland’s citizens will soon feel even more intensely that EU payments amounting to billions of euros will be held back because of the dispute over the rule of law. The PiS government’s uncompromising stance is to blame. The conflict with the EU will continue to escalate. It is important that the EU continues to stand firmly on the side of the Polish citizens and does not accept a bad deal with the PiS government. Because one thing I experienced very clearly during my trip: Poles are fighting for democracy. And they trust in the European Union.