This week Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal has been tasked with determining whether the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty aimed at tackling violence against women, is compatible with the country’s constitution.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro recently announced that Poland would begin the process of withdrawing from the convention on the grounds that it contains “elements of an ideological nature.” Specifically, its provisions on gender as being “socially-constructed” have been deemed by some as incompatible with traditional religious and family values in a devout Catholic nation. Amidst counter-protests from civil rights groups, the matter was subsequently referred to Poland’s highest court.
In Brussels, the European Commission has responded by rejecting applications for twinning grants from six Polish cities that had adopted ‘LGBTI free zones’ or ‘family rights’ resolutions, on the basis that these are incompatible with the programme’s objectives of “equal access and non-discrimination”. European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli warned; “EU values and fundamental rights must be respected by member states and public authorities.”
This latest dispute is one of a series of disagreements that has come off the back of the high-stakes Presidential Election earlier this month. Polish voters narrowly re-elected incumbent President Andrej Duda, aligned with the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, who ran on a platform of nationalist and traditional values and frequently employed rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community during his campaign.
President Duda’s re-election is expected to further complicate relations between Brussels and Warsaw. The President and the PiS-controlled legislature intend to pursue further changes to Poland’s judiciary and media, as part of a controversial reform programme that some say amounts to democratic backsliding.
The Commission has previously charged Poland’s conservative government with violating EU rules. In April, the EU executive instigated legal proceedings against Poland over legislation that would discipline judges who pass rulings critical of the government’s judicial reforms. These proceedings are one of four legal cases the Commission has brought against Poland in the EU’s Court of Justice since the PiS-led government began instituting judicial reforms.
The Commission has also initiated ‘Article 7’ sanctions proceedings against both Poland and Hungary that could theoretically result in the suspension of their voting rights in the European council. Hungary has also been a frequent cause for concern in recent years, following Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s tightening of restrictions around the independence of the media, judges and academics.
EU leaders notably diluted conditions pertaining to the rule of law during the recent landmark agreement on a recovery package and long-term budget during the latest Council Summit. The initial proposal of coupling payments to adherence with the rule of law was watered down in the final text after several rounds of negotiations. This was interpreted by some as the bloc’s immediate economic stability taking precedence over European values. It also demonstrates the negotiating clout of individual leaders in agreements requiring unanimity from all Member States.
Brussels ultimately relies on national judges and civil servants to implement EU law in the Member States. The Polish government’s review of the Istanbul Convention may simply be intended to test the resolve of the European Commission, but the coming years will serve as a measure of how far the European Union is willing, or able, to go in order to preserve judicial independence.