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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Statement by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner Günther Oettinger – EP Plenary Session – Situation in Poland

Strasbourg, 19 January 2016

Opening remarks by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans

Mister President of the European Parliament, Madam Prime Minister, Mister Minister, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

On behalf of President Juncker and my colleagues in the Commission I want to set out to you the reasons why the Commission has decided to assess the recent developments in Poland, and how we hope to move forward in a constructive and facts-based dialogue with Poland to prevent the emergence of a systemic threat to the Rule of Law.

The main reason for beginning this assessment under the 2014 Rule of Law framework is the situation concerning the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, and in particular the dispute about the nomination of a number of judges of the Tribunal.

In principle, this should be an issue for the Constitutional Tribunal itself to resolve. However, as things stand, the other institutions of the Polish State have not complied with the judgments rendered by the Constitutional Tribunal on the matter. This has given rise to uncertainty regarding the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Furthermore, the Polish Parliament has decided to shorten the mandates of the President and Vice-President of the Tribunal. On 28 December last year, an amendment to the law on the Constitutional Tribunal entered into force which appears to render the functioning the Constitutional Tribunal considerably more difficult.

Given the central position of the Constitutional Tribunal within the Polish judicial system, we risk seeing the emergence of a systemic threat to the Rule of Law.

Concerns have also been raised as regards the new media law. The rule of law, as defined in our Rule of Law Framework, requires the respect for democracy and fundamental rights. Media freedom and pluralism are also closely connected with fundamental rights, in particular the freedom of expression. This is why the Commission considers it necessary to assess this law in the light of the rule of law. The European Union is founded on a common set of values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which include in particular the respect for the rule of law. Mutual trust among EU Member States and their respective legal systems depends on the confidence that the rule of law is observed in all Member States. When national rule of law safeguards seems to come under threat, the EU needs to act.

I would also note that the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland has a key role to play in ensuring that the legislative reforms currently envisaged in Poland comply with the Constitution. For this reason as well is it essential to resolve the present dispute concerning the Constitutional Tribunal as a matter of urgency, so that the Tribunal can fully play its role as a national rule of law mechanism.

I wrote to Poland twice on these matters on 23 and 30 December last year. However, the replies we received then were not complete and not sufficient to dispel our concerns.

The Rule of Law framework allows us to assess the matter in a structured manner together with the Polish authorities. We should make use of the Rule of Law framework in an open and constructive manner, in a spirit of cooperation not of confrontation. We have just received, I think an hour or so ago, another letter in answer to the letter I sent last week and we will assess it, indeed, in a constructive and cooperative manner to see what the answers are to the questions we sent last week. Obviously, I cannot go into that already now; we need to assess it carefully, as we just received the letter an hour ago.

I would like to stress firstly that we are at the beginning of the process under the framework. The framework has a preventive nature, and the start of a detailed, factual and legal assessment in no way implies any automatic move to decisions at later stages. That will depend purely on the facts - and answering us so quickly will help to stimulate that dialogue and to have a constructive dialogue with the Polish government.

We will engage in the dialogue in an impartial, evidence-based and cooperative way. It goes without saying that the Commission fully respects the sovereignty of the Republic of Poland, and carries out its duties in an objective and non-partisan manner, as for any other Member State in line with the duties imposed on the Commission by treaties that were signed and ratified by sovereign states - the members of the European Union.

Finally, we will conduct our assessment in close cooperation with the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. I welcome that, following my suggestion, the Polish government has itself asked for an opinion of the Venice Commission on the reform of the Constitutional Tribunal.

I want to repeat that this is the spirit in which we wrote to the Polish authorities last week and I have the feeling this is also the spirit in which the Polish government has responded to our letter of last week. We will make a careful analysis of the response and then enter into a further dialogue with the Polish government to hopefully solve this issue shortly.


Closing remarks by Commissioner Günther Oettinger

Herr Präsident, Frau Premierministerin, Damen und Herren Abgeordnete,

In der Europäischen Union kommt den Medien eine eigenständige Bedeutung zu. Die Unabhängigkeit der Medien sind ein hohes Gut und die Vielfalt der Medien sind ebenso ein hohes Gut. Und deswegen, aufgrund von Beschwerden und Anfragen, hat die Kommission nicht nur das Recht, sie hat die Pflicht zu prüfen, ob Unabhängigkeit und Vielfalt der Medien in Europa gefährdet, oder gewahrt und gestärkt sind. Nicht weniger und nicht mehr haben wir zu tun. In dem neuen kleinen polnischen Mediengesetz geht es um drei Gremien. Es geht um den Vorstand, es geht um den Aufsichtsrat von TVP und PR, also dem öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehen und dem öffentlich-rechtlichen Hörfunk von Polen. Es geht um den Aufsichtsrat für beide Unternehmen und es geht um den Medienregulator. Bisher wurde der Aufsichtsrat, der aus sieben Personen bestand, wie folgt zusammengesetzt: ein Vorschlag der Kulturminister; ein Vorschlag der Schatzminister – das heißt zwei von der Regierung. Und fünf wurden bei einem Wettbewerbsverfahren vom Medienregulator festgelegt. Neu, durch die Änderung, die zum Jahreswechsel beschlossen worden ist: der Aufsichtsrat wird verkleinert von sieben auf drei Mitglieder und alle drei werden durch persönliche Entscheidungen vom Schatzminister festgelegt.

Zweitens, der Vorstand. Der Vorstand kann in Zukunft ohne Angabe von Gründen, und jederzeit, berufen und abberufen werden. Und diese Entscheidung trifft wiederum der Aufsichtsrat, der ja vom Schatzminister alleine bestimmt worden ist. In Zukunft kann das Statut von TVP und PR ohne Medienregulator und ohne Parlament geändert werden. Wir machen uns also Gedanken, ob diese Entwicklung, in der nicht die Vielfalt der Parteien, sondern die Regierung alleine, näher an den öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunk heranrückt, die Unabhängigkeit des Rundfunks gefährdet. Die Fragen prüfen wir; sind dankbar, dass dazu die Regierung uns den Dialog zugesagt hat. Wir bieten auch an, diesen Dialog fortzuführen, wie das große Mediengesetz, wie angekündigt, im Februar oder März vorgestellt werden soll. Wir bitten darum, dass dann die Chance auf einen Dialog vor Verabschiedung besteht. Wir fänden es besser, wenn rechtsstaatliche Fragen nicht rückwirkend geprüft werden müssen, sondern einem engen, konstruktiven beratenden Dialog zwischen Kommission und Mitgliedstaat und dessen Regierung und Parlament vor Verabschiedung geführt werden kann.

Besten Dank.


Closing remarks by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans

Thank you very much, Mister President. Madame Prime Minister, Mister Minister, Honourable Members of the European Parliament, there are so many things to which I could react today, but given the hour, I will be very brief. Three points.

The first point is - after hearing all this discussion about sovereignty, I maintain that Poland is now more sovereign, more master of its own destiny than in the thousand years before it became Member of the European Union. By pooling its sovereignty with other European nations, for the first time in its history Poland has borders that are no longer disputed by its neighbours. That is true sovereignty, Madame Prime Minister; that is a true achievement of all European nations – and Poland in the first place.

Secondly: all Members of the European Union have signed of their own free will and ratified by their national Parliaments European Treaties, thus entering into obligations as far as maintaining the rule of law is concerned. Not just that, but even allowing the way you maintain those obligations to be judged by the Court in Luxembourg, to be controlled by the Commission in Brussels, to be discussed in the European Parliament – even to be challenged by other Member States of the European Union. So, when there is an issue of the rule of law, there is no hiding behind national sovereignty, because you have agreed in the Treaty you have signed and ratified that these issues can be discussed at the European level. So, that is a fact, Mister Legutko, who loves facts so much. Let me give you some more facts about the issue at hand – and by the way, Mister Legutko, you are in full right of having your own opinions, but sadly not of having your own facts.

Let me just raise a few issues. We have no objection, Madame Prime Minister, to the principle that the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal should be balanced. We also fully agree that the Constitutional law and customs of Poland should be respected. But our concern that remains is that the Constitutional Tribunal has interpreted and applied these laws, yet these judgements are only partially being followed by you. I am not referring to the judgement you were referring to all the time, which is the one of 3 December, in which the Court said the old Parliament appointed too many judges. But there is also the judgement of 9 December, in which the Court invalidated a law of the new Parliament, because it had cancelled all the previous appointments, including those that the previous Parliament had been fully entitled to make. Please, in our dialogue that we are going to continue, react to that point. And by the way: if you so cherish the opinion of the Venice Commission – and you have asked for it; I thought you did it, because I suggested it, but apparently not - why then not wait with the implementation of the laws until the Venice Commission has time to give their opinion? Because now you just went along with it, so the Venice Commission will have to come afterwards.

Well, the question remains how Poland will solve these issues. Because only by solving these issues of the composition can the Tribunal again fully play its role of a rule of law safeguard. And we also expect clarifications on the other reforms which have been adopted concerning the Constitutional Tribunal. The rule of law and especially – especially – the separation of powers is of concern to all of us. We have learned through painful European history that we need the tripod of democracy, respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law. Neither one can flourish without the other two. You can never use democracy as an argument against the rule of law, nor can you use democracy as argument against the respect for human rights. We learned that through painful history and Poland has always been the greatest victim of that painful history. And now, we see a free, proud, independent Poland not in spite of the European Union, but because of the European Union. And that is why I believe in maintaining a constructive dialogue with the Polish government, because I believe we can solve these issues in conformity with the rules that all Members of the European Union have adhered to. Thank you very much, Mister President.


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