Polish Premier Szydło was applauded by eurosceptics in Strasbourg as she presented her case on the country’s recently introduced disputed changes. The changes have triggered protests throughout this posterchild Central European country. All this occurring a mere two months after her party Law and Justice (PiS) actually started governing.

During the almost three hour-long debate, Szydło brought up Europe’s unity many times, while at the same time stressing that the EU had more important things to do. “We will continue our programme, because that is what the electorate expects from us,” elaborated Szydło.

PiS’ biggest foreign asset

Just two days after the Commission launched an investigation, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), which the PiS is a part of, broke its silence on the PiS’ controversial changes by publishing a sponsored article in both POLITICO Europe and the Euobserver, titled: “What Is Really Happening in Poland?”.

The first half of the article boasts how much better off Poland is doing contrary to a Germany plagued by media censorship, where women are told by the government how to behave. In Poland, on the other hand “New year festivities and other popular events, taking place in Poland is enjoyed in peace, without hindrance, disturbance or acts of aggression,” all references to the recent attacks that have shocked German cities earlier in January, especially in Cologne.

“Why is it that when the last government passed a law to stuff the constitutional court with their nominees before they left office, why is it that the Commission did not open an investigation, or MEPs here did not complain. Why the sudden complaints when the new government seeks to appoint only 5 out of 15 judges on the constitutional court?” said ECR leader Syed Kamall, followed by a big applause all around the chamber.

He echoed Szydło’s comments in her opening statement, saying that the EU should focus on “the real crises facing the EU: migration, the eurozone and low-growth.” Kamall also emphasized on how insulting it must be for the Polish people that German officials are comparing their government’s moves to a coup, as European Parliament’s President Martin Schultz said, or to Vladimir Putin, alluded to by the president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, who said that the current government in Poland was doing “Putin’s work.”

Loudest Voice in the Room

Even though Szydło took a fair share of criticism from the center-right EPP, they could only go so far. After all, PiS is said to be following the model set by the Hungarian government, a government whose ruling party happens to be part of the EPP.

The liberals didn’t hold back in its criticism, since they’re championing Polish MP Ryszard Petru as the leader of the Polish opposition. “It would be a very bad thing to bring Poland eastwards,” said Verhofstadt while being booed by eurosceptics on the right side of the chamber. He then went on “it’s true, I have once used the word Putin, I know that Mr. Kaczyński doesn’t like Putin and Russia, neither do I, I am on the blacklist, he isn’t, but I am. With these policies, I have said that he helps Putin, the inconvenient truth is that Mr. Putin doesn’t like European unity, in fact, he has an obsession, he wants to destroy European unity, and what’s happening in Poland could help him in his cause.”

After the usual flamboyant statements by Polish MEP Korwin Mikke, calling for the “EU to be destroyed,” Verhofstadt then broke debate protocol and pressed on Szydło by asking if she would respect the decision of the Venice Commission “Yes or no?” to which she replied: “The decision hasn’t been made yet (…) I am deeply convinced that it’s [the Venice Commission] going to show objectively that the legal situation of the constitutional tribunal in Poland is excellent.”

It’s Not About Nationality

On behalf of the European People’s Party (EPP), vice-chair Esteban González gave statements instead of its president, Manfred Weber. The reason? González is a Spaniard.

“In the spirit of the greatest respect he [Weber] has invited to take the floor so that nobody would invoke nationality as an excuse or an opportunity to evade one’s responsibility,” González continued “The second biggest nationality of my delegation is Polish, but today, with all due respect, nobody from Poland will actually take the floor on behalf of the group.”

González attacked Szydło by stressing that it’s “not normal” that in Europe one should take precautions so that words won’t be used as “political weapons,” referring to Warsaw’s dismissal of criticism coming from European institutions by calling them “outsiders”.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist, a contributor for the Warsaw Business Journal and Visegrad Insight. He writes mostly about European politics, the Ukraine crisis and foreign policy.

Santiago de la Presilla

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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