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15 Dec, 2016 21:17

EU MPs debate stripping Poland of voting rights after new law restricts public meetings

EU MPs debate stripping Poland of voting rights after new law restricts public meetings

Adoption of a controversial law limiting freedom of assembly in Poland provoked a wave of criticism at home and prompted the EU parliament to discuss the possibility of stripping Poland of its voting rights within the bloc.

The debate was provoked by an adoption of amendments to the Polish freedom of assembly law that give priority to the rallies that authorities deem to have “national importance." The move has been sharply criticized by the opposition, as well as some human rights groups and even the Polish Supreme Court, as disproportionate and unjustified.

The legislation proposed by the MPs from the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party and passed by the Polish Senate late Tuesday envisages the possibility for any group to “book” a place for holding “periodical” rallies for up to three years with the consent of local authorities.

All rallies held at the specified place by other groups and organizations during that period would be regarded as illegal, Polish Gazeta Wyborcza daily reports. In addition, any counter-rallies could be held no closer than 100 meters away from the place “reserved” by the authorities for a specific organization.

The bill, which is still pending approval by the Polish president, also provides a legal basis for prioritizing those rallies that the authorities see as “nationally important” – such as those dedicated to commemoration of historical events.

Under the current law, local authorities should give precedence to the organization that was first to file a request for staging a rally, irrespective of its aims. The government said that the new law is necessary to ensure the safety of the demonstrations.

The initial version of the bill also included specific privileges for the rallies organized by the state or the Catholic Church. The legislation said that even if state or church officials file an application for holding a rally at a certain place after some other groups they still should be given priority while the other rallies should be moved to another place or banned.

Although these provisions were eventually scrapped after the Senate debate, the bill still provoked a wave of indignation among Polish and European politicians and human rights activists. The bill was criticized by the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and 158 non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International Poland, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Civic Network Watchdog Poland, according to Gazeta Wyborcza.

Even the Polish Supreme Court spoke against the new legislation, calling it “disproportionate, unnecessary and unjustified.” Following its adoption, almost 200 Polish human rights groups and NGOs appealed to President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday, asking him to veto the bill.

“We call on you, Mr. President, to veto this bill as it violates the Constitution of the Republic of Poland and international conventions ratified by Poland,” 194 organizations said in a petition filed to Duda, as reported by Reuters.

In response, the president’s spokesman, Marek Magierowski, said that the president would ensure that the right to assembly remains as broad as possible in Poland. “The president will analyze the bill with the greatest attention and will take his decision in due course,” he said, as cited by Reuters.

‘Systematic threat against rule of law’

The new legislation also provoked a heated debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday. Ahead of the debate, the Greens/European Free Alliance group issued a statement urging the EU to trigger Article 7 against Poland and restrict its voting rights in response to the freedom restrictions imposed by the Polish government.

"There is a broad support in the parliament to do that," Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld told journalists.

"Like all other EU citizens, Poles have the right to an independent judiciary... Polish women have freedom of choice, and Poles have the right to freedom of assembly, expression and thought," she added, as cited by AFP.

"This is really an unlawful limitation on our constitutional rights and freedoms," said Kamilia Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker with the opposition Modern party, as cited by AP. Some MEPs criticized Poland’s government for continuing to threaten democratic principles and European values.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission also expressed his concern about "systemic threat against the rule of law" in Poland, referring to the new freedom of assembly law as well as to another legislation pending Polish Senate’s approval that would allow Poland's president to effectively nominate the acting president of the Constitutional Court.

At the same time, MEPs from Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and their allies in the conservative European Conservatives and Reformists group accused their opponents of setting up an "Orwellian spectacle," the EU Observer said.

They stressed that the debate interfered with a country’s internal affairs and national sovereignty. They also denied that there were any problems with the rule of law in Poland and accused their opponents of ignorance and partiality.

Some critics of the idea of triggering Article 7 drew attention to the fact that the measure was likely to be blocked in the EU Council representing member states as it requires unanimity to come into force.

Frans Timmermans eventually announced that the European Commission would consider the situation in Poland again shortly.

Wednesday’s debate was the fourth in a row. Parliament held its first debate on democracy in Poland in January when the Commission started a “Rule of Law audit” procedure with regard to the situation there.

Since taking power in last November, the Law and Justice party government has not only taken more direct control of Poland’s supreme judiciary body, but has also brought state-owned media under government control and increased police surveillance powers, provoking uproar in Brussels.

In July, the EU gave Poland three months to reverse changes made to its constitutional court under the threat of sanctions. However, no sanctions have been imposed since that time. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's ruling conservative PiS party, laughed at the EU threats at that time by saying, "It amuses me."

The policies of the Polish government have also been met with a number of anti-governmental protests. One of the biggest demonstrations took place on May 7, with about 240,000 people rallying in the Polish capital.

The latest anti-government protest was staged in Warsaw and other Polish cities on Tuesday on the 35th anniversary of the martial law crackdown by the former communist regime. Thousands took to the streets to voice their discontent with the governmental policy on that day, according to the media.