Polish government faces renewed pressure from EU

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s government faced additional pressure from the European Union Wednesday for the way it is consolidating power, just as opposition lawmakers pushed ahead with a plan to occupy parliament through the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The heart of the issue is whether the populist and nationalist Law and Justice party is taking an authoritarian turn and eroding democratic institutions. The focus of concerns has centered on the independence of Poland’s judiciary and other issues perceived as backsliding on fundamental political rights.

The government stands by its democratic credentials and that street protests and the opposition’s occupation of parliament are attempts at destabilizing the state.

EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans weighed in on Wednesday, voicing renewed concerns over the respect of the rule of law in Poland. He said he has sent a series of recommendations to be put into action and given the Polish government two months to reply.

Timmermans said the 28-nation bloc “will not drop this matter.”

“We feel a strong, strong feeling of solidarity with the Polish people who deserve, like all Europeans, to have an independent judiciary, to have a full separation of powers in their country,” Timmermans said.

Warsaw has shrugged off previous complaints, saying Brussels doesn’t have the right to interfere in the nation’s affairs.

Poland has been in a state of political tension since Law and Justice assumed power in November 2015 and moved quickly to solidify control over state institutions.

Tensions spiked last Friday over a plan by the ruling party to restrict media access in parliament. Opposition lawmakers denounced that as an unconstitutional violation of freedom and began a sit-in around the speaker’s podium that blocked proceedings. Large street protests also erupted and lasted for days.

The ruling authorities have since backed away from that plan, but a dispute over the recent vote on the 2017 budget continues. Opposition lawmakers say that the vote violated parliamentary procedures.

Grzegorz Schetyna, head of the opposition Civic Platform party, said the protesting lawmakers will remain inside the parliament’s main assembly hall in protest until Jan. 11, when parliament is set to resume after a holiday break.

Law and Justice lawmaker Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the behavior of the rebellious lawmakers is of a “criminal nature” and appealed to them to respect the law. Kaczynski is widely considered to be the most powerful politician in Poland even though he doesn’t actually hold a formal position in government.

Though the recent street protests have been mostly peaceful, there have been some isolated scuffles. In reaction, state authorities have increased security outside of parliament in Warsaw, site of most of the protests, erecting metal barriers that keep the protesters further from the building.

“Thousands of Polish citizens have been marching for months now. They wave the flag of the European Union and call desperately for help. We must not let them down,” said the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the EU legislature, Guy Verhofstadt.


Raf Casert in Brussels and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.