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MEPs from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party want the dismissal of Katarina Barley from her position as the Vice President of the European Parliament. As a reason, they cite a statement about “financially starving” Hungary she made during an interview with a German public radio station Deutschlandfunk. For the past week, Polish public media channels have been propagating a doctored version of Barley’s comment implying that she seeks to starve Poles and drawing parallels with the mass killings of Polish citizens (many of whom were starved to death) committed by Germans during WWII. Reading her statement in the same context as the right-wing media, even Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had condemned Barley’s words as undiplomatic and scandalous.

Katarina Barley, aged 52, is a member of the German Social Democratic Party and a former Minister of Justice. She is an advocate of adopting strict measures that would suspend the access or limit EU funds in cases when a member country violates the rule of law or undermines media independence.

So far, the only Vice President of the European Parliament to ever be dismissed was Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the Law and Justice party. Mr. Czarnecki was dismissed after calling his fellow Polish MEP, Róża Thun, a “szmalcownik” – a slur referring to Polish Nazi collaborators. 

A conversation with Katarina Barley, the Vice President of the European Parliament

Bartosz T. Wieliński: Have you packed up your office yet? The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expects you to turn in your resignation.

Katarina Barley: No. Why would I do that?

You’re being accused of willing to starve Poland. At least that’s what you allegedly said during an interview with a German public radio station.

- That is simply not true. My words referred specifically to Prime Minister Victor Orbán, his misappropriation of EU funds, and the nepotistic system he created in Hungary. I believe that corruption must not be tolerated and that we should stop feeding the political circle around Orbán with European money. 

The outrage in Warsaw comes from the fact that the word „starve” evokes strong associations with German atrocities and mass killings of Polish citizens during WWII.

- But I didn’t even speak about Poland. I have great respect for the Polish nation. We have celebrated the 30th anniversary of German reunification only a couple of days ago. I am acutely aware of Poland’s contribution to lifting the Iron Curtain. It is partially thanks to the Polish effort that my country could overcome its division. At the same time, however, I am also critical of the current Polish government and its policies.

The Polish and Hungarian governments cannot tolerate any kind of criticism, be it from abroad or from their political opponents at home, and are using it to serve their own political purposes. It suffices to look at the attacks on independent media or judges who have had the courage to question the decisions of political authorities. Those holding power in Poland and Hungary believe that the majority support they have won in the elections entitles them to do whatever they please. This is not how democracy works. The ruling party isn’t always right.

Nevertheless, your words were extremely powerful. Is the situation really that serious? 

-If we consider the case of Viktor Orbán and the corrupt system he created, then the answer is yes. His son-in-law and his school friend are now some of the richest people in Hungary, all thanks to misappropriated EU funds. Orbán had a large football stadium built in his home village, right next to his dacha. He used EU money to connect the village to the railway infrastructure. He misappropriated millions of Euros promising better living standards to everyone in Hungary. Instead, using EU money, he only made his family and friends richer. Citizens of other EU member countries have all the right to feel deceived. People don't want to see their taxes being used for corrupt purposes. It only weakens the European Union.

What we are seeing in Poland, on the other hand, is an assault on the rule of law. The ruling authorities believe that they can get away with anything, even with dismantling democratic institutions. This goes against fundamental democratic principles. The European Commission pointed this out in a recently published rule of law report.

German politicians have rarely been outspoken about issues concerning the rule of law. Even if they do criticize Hungary or Poland, they’re not nearly as direct as you are.

- It is a question of political affiliation. European Conservatives are mostly rather lenient when it comes to conservative governments. They have protected Orbán for an entire decade, thus inciting anti-democratic forces in other countries to follow in his footsteps.

As the Minister of Justice, I have always taken a clear stance on the attacks against judicial independence and the Polish courts. I have often brought this up in conversations with my Polish colleagues. The Polish government always repeats that the European Commission’s criticism of regulations restricting judicial independence is unfair, because other countries, such as Germany and France, implement similar policies. It’s true that each country has its own, distinct legal system, developed over the centuries. After all, "unity in diversity" is the motto of the European Union. That’s why we shouldn’t analyze any single regulations or laws, but rather look at the broader context. If you look at the changes pushed through by the Law and Justice party in recent years, it becomes clear that their aim is to make the government immune to democratic checks and balances.

Since the Law and Justice MEPs often evoke the example of Germany to support their case, let me explain what I mean by referring to the German context. After the 2013 federal election, my own party, the SPD, formed a coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), thus forming the so-called great coalition. It gave us considerable power in the Bundestag, putting the opposition at a disadvantage. But in order to allow the opposition to serve its function, we decided to lower the necessary signatures required to propose legislation. Thus, recognizing that in a democratic system the opposition plays a crucial role, the ruling camp has strengthened the rights of its political opponents. It was clear to us that even though we have a majority in the parliament, we cannot just push through our agenda, without even subjecting it to democratic debate. That’s why we have increased checks and balances.

The European Union is now in the midst of a debate about introducing a legal mechanism that would tie the access to EU funds to respect for the rule of law. How would such an instrument look like?

-The mechanism is meant to ensure that the member states who break our fundamental principles face consequences, also financial ones. But it is the governments that purposefully violate the rule of law, not the citizens, who should carry the burden.

Thus, we must find a way to ensure that the Hungarian society receives enough support from the EU budget, while at the same time prevent the money from passing through the hands of people closely related to Prime Minister Orbán. In Poland, we must focus our efforts on supporting the civil society, i.e. all those who fight against discrimination, but also local governments that further a democratic agenda.

The Polish government claims that this would be a violation of the European treaties and argue that restructuring the judicial system is a sovereign matter of particular member states.

- Respect for the rule of law is not a sovereign matter of any single member state. All the member states in the European Union are bound together by complex legal ties, so it is of utmost importance that all of our courts are independent. After all, there is a real possibility that you might have to rely on a court decision in another country. Besides, if we are dealing with governments that suppress critical voices or undermine media freedom, then access to a fair and impartial legal aid is also more difficult. The European Union is a community based on the rule of law. If someone decides to violate it, then the stability of our entire community is threatened.

I’m afraid that despite your strong words, in the end, Chancellor Merkel will strike some sort of a rotten compromise with Orbán, and, as a result, the rule of law mechanism will be watered-down. All things considered, the situation in Poland and Hungary stays the same.

-It’s not about names, but about the very structure of the European Union. Poland and Hungary would like to see the decisions to be made solely in the European Council, by the leaders of the member states, because it would give them enough room for negotiation and blackmail. Arguing that the Commission or Parliament is treating them unfairly, Poland's ruling authorities could threaten to block other crucial projects in retaliation. That is why the Council did not take a clear position on the mechanism yet. The European Commission, on the other hand, has already done it. Vice-President Vera Jourová and Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders made a fair analysis of the state of the rule of law among all the member states and found clear instances of serious violations in Poland and Hungary.

And there is also the European Parliament. All three institutions must now arrive at a compromise. I don't know what it will eventually look like, but there are many voices in the Parliament calling for real consequences, and for that an effective mechanism is necessary. Some of these voices even come from the European People's Party which still includes Orbán’s Fidesz. We have several reservations as for the draft budget, but without an effective mechanism to protect the rule of law, we definitely won’t support it.  

We don’t really have a choice here. We cannot expect countries outside the EU to respect democratic principles, the rule of law, or media freedom if we are facing similar problems. Members of the Law and Justice party and Fidesz claim that they have a different interpretation of how democracy or the rule of law should work. They ask us to recognize this and strike some sort of a compromise. To them, I say “no”: everything can be negotiated, but the fundamental principles are not up to debate.

***

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