March 1, 2018 / 10:25 AM / 4 months ago

EU lawmakers back action against Poland amid democracy concerns

BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) - EU lawmakers on Thursday supported the European Commission’s plans to take unprecedented punitive steps against Poland over reforms of its judiciary and state media that they say threaten the rule of law in the ex-communist country.

In a further sign of Warsaw’s deepening international isolation, a new Holocaust law that has angered Israel and the United States, Poland’s close NATO ally, came into force on Thursday. The law imposes jail sentences of up to three years for saying Poland was complicit in Nazi German crimes.

The European Union’s executive Commission has recommended a procedure that could theoretically lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the EU unless it concedes ground by March 20 on the issue of political control of the judiciary.

The European Parliament voted on Thursday 422 in favour to 147 against, with 48 abstentions, on a non-binding resolution to support the Commission’s tough stance towards Poland.

The vote adds to pressure from Western European governments who have told Poland, once an earnest champion of democratic changes after the fall of communism, that time is running out for it to address their concerns over democratic freedoms.

Poland’s nationalist ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) says its reforms are an internal matter and are needed because the courts are inefficient and steeped in a communist era-mentality.

Its new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has sought to soothe the tensions since the start of this year and is due to meet Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker again on March 8.

Stripping Poland of its EU voting rights remains unlikely because it would require unanimity among all other EU governments and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, himself seen by the EU as weakening democratic checks and balances, has promised to block any such action against his Polish ally.

But it would be politically very embarrassing for Poland if the EU ever comes to vote on sanctions, even with a Hungarian veto.

The dispute could also prompt member states to cut funds allocated to Poland in the next EU budget that runs from 2021. Poland is currently the biggest beneficiary of EU handouts for infrastructure and other projects.

REASSURING ISRAEL

Meanwhile, a Polish delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki held talks in Israel on Thursday in an effort to defuse the row over Poland’s new Holocaust law.

Israel and the United States say the law could criminalize truthful scholarship on the role some Poles played in German crimes. Opponents accuse PiS of politicizing World War Two to build a nationalist sense of grievance among Poles.

PiS, which sees Poland solely as a victim of Nazi German aggression, says the law is needed to protect national honour.

“We are here ready and open to answer all the questions and to clarify whatever is left to be clarified with regard to the anti-defamation law recently amended in Poland,” Chicocki told his Israeli hosts in Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem replied: “We must make sure that historical truths are preserved and that there will be no restriction on the freedom of research and speech...”

More than 90 percent of the 3.2 million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland were murdered by the Nazis during their occupation of the country, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from other parts of Europe were sent to be murdered at death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, built and operated by the Germans in Poland.

The Nazis also killed 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens, although there was never a plan to exterminate all of them, as there was with Jews.

Additional reporting from BRUSSELS by Gabriela Baczynska, from WARSAW by Agnieszka Barteczko and Lidia Kelly and from JERUSALEM by Ori Lewis; Writing by Jan Strupczewski and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Gareth Jones

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