When Poland's government announced last year it would roll back the country's abortion laws to make the procedure almost completely illegal and a jailable offense, hundreds of people in Brussels came out onto the streets to support the thousands in Poland marching for women's rights. The government, led by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, backed down that time in the face of its population's outrage.
But now, rejecting a demand by the European Commission (EC) that it abandon or alter plans to consolidate government control over the judiciary, the Polish leadership does not appear interested in compromise. EC Vice President Frans Timmermans said the written explanation Warsaw gave this week after its one-month warning was not at all responsive to the problem. "The Polish government has repeatedly made clear that it does not accept these concerns," Timmermans told European parliamentarians, "and that it won the elections and that it is fulfilling the will of the people."
Polish citizens abroad mobilize against government
Many of those people are actually aghast at the systematic breakdown of democracy in their country. Among them are Natalia Macyra and Katarzyna Koziol, young Polish professionals living and working in the heart of the European Union. They agree with the EC that their government is taking the country in the wrong direction in a number of ways, not least in the continued assault on reproductive rights that only got a short respite after last year's demonstrations.
Macyra and Koziol participated in the pro-choice protests last October, even though, living in Brussels, their rights are not under the same kind of threat. "I felt that it was very important to show our solidarity," Macyra told DW, "because if we ever decide to come back to Poland, I don't want to go to a country that basically limits my rights to decide about my future."
Koziol thinks the same way. "I feel that governments can create incentives for people to have children," she said, "but cannot decide for them when to have them or what kind of children to have." She's working on a petition against a new effort by the Polish government to outlaw abortions in the case of unhealthy fetuses.
The passionate pro-choice protests were a precursor to those that took place across Poland in July, when citizens carried signs reading "EU: Save Us!" as they expressed their anger at four new proposed laws that were the final straw for the EC too. The most egregious power grab, according to the commission, is a proposed law that would give the government the right to dismiss and appoint supreme court justices at will.
Poland first country to face potential Article 7 sanctions
That's what has led the commission to finally, after years of criticism, threaten its so-called "nuclear option" for the first time. The invocation of "Article 7" could include suspending Poland's voting rights or cutting off its EU cash. "The Commission does not contest the right of the Polish government to introduce judicial reform," Timmermans told the European Parliament's civil liberties commission Thursday. "But we do maintain that judicial reform must respect the rule of law as one of the fundamental values which all member states signed up to when they joined the EU."
Poland said its response Monday "provided exhaustive clarification concerning doubts raised by the European Commission, hoping to continue the dialogue on the merits of the case without any political elements." It also said the EC had no right to interfere in lawful national reforms.
Timmermans, however, said his invitation to the Polish government to send an envoy to discuss the dispute had been rejected by Warsaw as not worthwhile.
EU legitimacy on the line
Corinna Horst with the German Marshall Fund believes one of the problems that led to this standoff is that both Eastern European nations and the EU may have underestimated the effort needed for their transition into the bloc.
"It wasn't as easy as we hoped," Horst told DW. "And the West and the rest of Europe is required to really also have a fundamental conversation about what these values are, what we stand for and we cherish and realize we can't take them for granted."
For whatever reason the crisis arose, Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch insists now the EC must not let it continue, for the sake of its own future as well as that of Polish citizens. Dam, a specialist on Eastern Europe, notes this anti-democratic trend is hardly limited to Warsaw. He pointed to the situation in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban even used EU funds to campaign against Brussels.
Hungary has criticized the EC action against Warsaw and pledged to veto any punitive measures that require unanimity.
"[T]he lack of [EU] reaction is simply empowering leaders instead of containing them," he argued. "The EU cannot be credible in defending and promoting human rights outside of its borders if it's not able to call out member states within its own borders." If the EC backs down on Poland, Dam told DW, it could be disastrous for the entire bloc.
But Carnegie Europe's Tomas Valasek, himself formerly a Slovakian diplomat, says there's something else the EC should consider in its response to both Poland and Hungary - and to any other populist government looking for a fight: not conveniently filling the role of "villain."
"The definition of populism is that you blame others, you blame 'them,' some sort of dark outside force, for your own country's ills. They need that perception that somebody else is out to get Poland, somebody else is out to get Hungary to keep themselves in power," Valasek explained. "Once that sense of endangerment goes away, they will be held accountable by their own populations for things like prosperity, living standards, actual rule of law and the ability of getting justice when needed. And these are things that these governments are not particularly interested in and are not good at delivering."
Valasek suspects the Polish government is going to keep this case open as long as possible.