Donald Tusk’s return to power in Poland’s fall election was interpreted by many as the victory of centrism over populism. The rogue right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) had been cast out and decency prevailed once more: this was, at least, the narrative presented to the world’s media. In Warsaw, things looked very different. On the campaign trail Tusk repeatedly promised to “depoliticize” the state-owned media and restore the rule of law. Once he was sworn in as prime minister last month, it didn’t take him long to resort to authoritarian methods that would have led to an international outcry if a supposed moderate had not been behind them.
On the morning of December 20, riot officers armed with pistols and batons surrounded the headquarters of TVP, Poland’s state broadcaster. Metal barricades were erected, staff vehicles were searched and multiple TV channels were taken off the air. Journalists were locked out of their offices while private security forces in plain clothes attempted to coerce managers into signing letters of resignation.
Tusk may believe his illiberal methods are justified in his quest to vanquish the ‘darkness and evil’ of the past
Leading the purge was Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz (great-grandson of Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz), now the culture minister. Despite his literary pedigree, Sienkiewicz is not an obvious choice for the role. He’s a former intelligence colonel who coordinated the secret services during Tusk’s first premiership. The evening before the raid, the Sejm — the lower house of Poland’s parliament — passed a non-binding resolution asking the government to clean up the public media and restore “constitutional order.” Sienkiewicz sent in the troops, without the clear legal authority to do so.
The election did not dislodge Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president, an independent closely aligned with PiS, whose term ends next year. A former lawyer, it’s his job to protect the constitution and wield the veto in certain circumstances. For example, he has said he will veto a spending bill over his concerns about the media crackdown, calling it “a blatant violation of the constitution and the principles of a democratic state of law.” Sienkiewicz responded by announcing that he would liquidate the entire network.
The same day, TVP World, the English-language news channel, announced that its operations had been suspended. Several high-ranking employees including Filip Styczynski, TVP World’s director, were relieved of their duties, but not sacked. Legally, editors and directors can only be fired by the National Media Council, which was set up by PiS in 2016 and is protected by the powers of the president. Tusk and his three-party coalition government are trying to circumvent the council, whose term of office runs until 2028.
To be clear, TVP is no monument to objective journalism. It was established during communist times and its editorial stance has always favored whichever party held the purse strings. But after PiS came to power in 2015, the broadcaster’s output became pro-government propaganda. “We created propaganda at a worse level than in the 1970s,” Marcin Wolski, a presenter, recently admitted. “The Stalinist logic won: whoever is not with us is against us.”
The logic also backfired. The blatantness of TVP’s bias annoyed Poles so much that it might have cost PiS the election. On the campaign trail, Tusk promised to dismantle the National Media Council within his first 100 days in office. The slight problem lies in his lack of legal powers to do so. He says he’s making good on his pledge to “restore legal order and common decency in public life” but this claim is hard to square with the sight of police surrounding a TV station and his opponents being arrested (two former PiS ministers have been detained, ostensibly on the basis of farmland deals from fifteen years ago). Tusk may believe his illiberal methods are justified in his quest to vanquish the “darkness and evil” of the past eight years, but the fact remains that PiS is Poland’s most popular party and, despite losing its majority, it still has the most seats in the Sejm.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, formerly a vocal critic of PiS, is becoming concerned about Tusk and says the government’s takeover of public media “raises serious legal doubts” and may even violate Council of Europe standards. Should we expect protests from Brussels? After all, Poles are used to the European Commission passing commentary on the pressing need to uphold the rule of law in Warsaw. Brussels often warned PiS that the Commission “will not hesitate to take action in case of non-compliance with EU law.”
When Tusk is the one bending the laws, the EU seems to have a different outlook. He did, after all, call the shots in Brussels for five years as the president of the European Council, and there is no question that his former colleagues approved of his campaign to return to power in Warsaw. Within hours of his taking office, the European Commission announced that it would free more than $100 billion in funding that had previously been suspended.
What does Brussels want to do: defend the rule of law or back Tusk? It may struggle to do both. “We have a lot of expectations and we will certainly support him in his efforts,” said Johannes Hahn, the European Budget Commissioner, recently. But he admitted that Duda had the power to veto many of the changes that the EU wants Tusk to make. Worse, Duda has a year and a half until his term ends. “We certainly will not wait one and a half years,” Hahn said. “So I think there must be a kind of solution.”
For the EU to declare that it “will not wait” to circumvent Poland’s democratic apparatus is not just unhelpful, it plunges the country into a serious constitutional battle. Lieutenant–general Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, who was the head of Britain’s military mission to Poland between the world wars, once observed that: “In Poland there is always a political crisis on tap.” There certainly seems to be one now. And it’s one that appears to have been engineered by Brussels, in close cooperation with Tusk.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK website.