Pelosi expected to raise judicial independence on Poland visit

US Democrats have asked Poland’s president to veto legislation which they say undermines the separation of powers.

Nancy Pelosi - reuters
Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, is due to meet with the Polish Senate speaker to raise the subject of judicial independence [Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE]

Warsaw, Poland – During a brief visit to Poland on Tuesday, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi will meet with Marshall of the Polish Senate Tomasz Grodzki. 

While precise details of the meeting have not been disclosed, the two opposition figures are expected to discuss the Polish government’s latest salvos in the controversial battle over judicial reform, which has dominated politics here over the past month.

The proposed legislation, nicknamed the “muzzle law”, which has returned to the lower house of the Polish Parliament after being rejected by the Senate on Friday, would let politicians sack or fine judges who question the government’s judicial overhaul.

Pelosi’s visit follows a letter of concern regarding the reform being published on Sunday by American Democratic representatives Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and William Keating, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment.

Addressed to Polish President Andrzej Duda, the letter said that the reforms undertaken since the Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015 “fail to respect the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers”.

Thousands protest in Warsaw against Poland’s ‘muzzle-law’ [2:02]

The letter asked Duda to veto the bill, which it said “would represent a significant step backward for Poland’s historically strong leadership in democratic reforms in Europe”.

The idea for the meeting reportedly came from Pelosi’s team. “To be precise and clear, it is not me who wants to meet, but rather Mrs Nancy Pelosi who wants to meet with me,” Tomasz Grodzki told a radio station on Monday.

“Please remember that that is our greatest ally… the main force of NATO, and I am honoured that such an important American politician wants to talk with me.”

Ruling coalition politicians retorted that Pelosi “embodies the politics of Washington, which are not popular with the rest of the country [US]”, in the words of MEP Adam Bielan, speaking to a radio station on Tuesday morning.

Pelosi will be visiting the site of the former Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tuesday, ahead of the 75th anniversary of its liberation, before heading to the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on Thursday.

A friendly relationship

Professor Artur Wroblewski, a lecturer in American studies at Warsaw’s Lazarski University, told Al Jazeera that the meeting could be seen as a “follow-up” to the letter.

Yet experts doubt that Pelosi’s visit would have any meaningful effect on the passage of the legislation, or even on US-Poland relations.

“The visit will have no consequences, except for the reputational success for the opposition which has managed to get Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in Congress, to issue a declaration criticising the Polish government,” said Wroblewski.

Culture wars: Art world reflects Poland’s political divide [2:54]

He added that the practical consequences of the meeting would be negligible. “It’s the Republicans who are in power, and who shape the country’s foreign policy, which has thus far been good for Poland,” he said, citing recent Polish-American agreements on 5G technology and President Trump’s decision to boost the US military presence in Poland by 1,000 troops.

But Professor Tomasz Grosse, of Warsaw’s Sobieski Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera that the US could have an interest in magnifying the European Union’s internal divides.

“It would be in the interest of Brussels to make peace with Warsaw, while it could actually be better for Washington to fuel the conflict,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mounting international pressure

Over the past few weeks, international pressure has been mounting around the government’s judicial changes, described by critics as an assault on the rule of law.

On Tuesday, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to intervene directly by suspending Poland’s newly created Disciplinary Chamber, which was set up by the ruling party to discipline judges. In December, the Supreme Court ruled the Disciplinary Chamber was not independent.

Ignoring the ECJ’s request could result in stinging financial sanctions, according to Robert Grzeszczak, a law professor. Ultimately, he said, Poland could also face political isolation, the freezing of EU funds and non-recognition of judgements by Polish courts, which could hurt European firms registered in Poland.

On Thursday, the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, concluded in an urgent report that the bill placed judges in an “impossible situation”, where they could be punished for making rulings required by the European Court of Human Rights and EU law.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have also condemned the reforms.

On January 11, European judges joined around 1,000 of their Polish counterparts in a 30,000-strong silent march in Warsaw, protesting against the judicial overhaul.

If the Senate’s rejection of the bill is overruled by the PiS-dominated lower house of parliament, the legislation will await final ratification by the president.

But the Polish president is reportedly willing to sign the bill regardless of the controversy surrounding it.

“There is nothing that citizens demand more from the government,” he said, “than radical, decisive changes in the judiciary.”

Source: Al Jazeera