The past week has seen another ruling against the Polish government from the Court of Justice of the European Union over its judicial reforms leading to a highly critical response from Polish government ministers, while the conflict within the Polish judicial system itself continues. Of course, Covid-19 has continued to dominate the news agenda with the recent spike in the number of reported cases continuing, as well as the ongoing rollout of the government’s vaccination program.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
• Ministers condemn the latest ruling from the EU Court of Justice on Poland’s judicial reforms which opposition leader, Borys Budka, labels ‘the victory of the rule of law over lawlessness’
• The number of Covid-19 vaccines administered in Poland reaches 3.47m as the recent spike in case numbers continues
• The Government approves plans for a major reform of the pension system with a move to individual retirement accounts, and
• Poland holds a national day of remembrance for the ‘Żołnierze Wyklęcki ’ – the anti-communist resistance fighters who fought on after the end of the Second World War.
On Tuesday Poland lost another around in its tussle with the European Union institutions over the so-called rule of law agenda, arising from the government’s controversial judicial reforms. The EU Court of Justice ruled that ‘further amendments to the Act on the National Council of the Judiciary, which led to the abolition of effective judicial control of the Council’s decisions on submitting motions to the president for the appointment of candidates for Supreme Court judges, may violate EU law’. The European court said that if a Polish court finds that these changes infringe EU law, it is obliged to refrain from applying them.
The ruling was condemned by the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice, Sebastian Kaleta, a member of Solidarna Polska, who said that ‘The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that national courts in the matter of the judiciary may bypass the Polish constitutional order under the pretext of lack of independence (even if it’s preserved in accordance with the Constitution). It did so despite the fact that the treaties did not give the EU any competence in the organisation of the judiciary’. He added that ‘Before our eyes, another attempt is being made to federalise the EU by the judges of the Court of Justice in violation of the treaties and an attempt to annihilate the sovereignty of the Member States. How else to call it, since the Court of Justice orders the constitution to be circumvented in purely internal matters?’. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro himself described the ruling as ‘unacceptable’, adding that the Polish constitution ‘is the law of the highest rank’, not European Union law. The ruling was welcomed by opposition parties in Poland. The leader of Platforma Obywatelska, Borys Budka, called it ‘the victory of the rule of law over lawlessness’.
On Monday Warszawa district judge Igor Tuleya, a prominent critic of the government’s judicial reforms, was refused permission to return to work despite a court ruling on Friday that his suspension last November was illegitimate. The appeal court ruled that Tuleya is immune from prosecution and can return to work, highlighting divisions in the Polish legal system. The court where he attempted to return to work said in a statement that ‘The president of Warszawa district court respects the resolution of the Supreme Court’s disciplinary chamber to suspend judge Igor Tuleya from duty’. He had been suspended and stripped of his legal immunity by the controversial disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court, clearing the way for him to face criminal charges. The Supreme Court itself has been in conflict with the disciplinary chamber declaring it to ‘not be a court under EU and national law’.
On Tuesday the Ministry of Health reported a further 7,937 Covid-19 cases in Poland and 216 deaths. On Wednesday 15,698 new cases and 309 deaths were confirmed. It brought the total number of reported infections since the outbreak began to 1.74m with just over 44,000 deaths. On Wednesday officials said that to date 3.47m vaccine doses have been administered. This included over 2.25 million people who had received a first dose with over 1.2m having received the second shot.
Above: The Varso Tower under construction in central Warszawa last year. (Photo: “File:27-05-2020 budowa Varso, 4.jpg” by Cybularny is marked with CC0 1.0)
Another Sejm member has exited Platforma Obywatelska, Poland’s main opposition party. On Tuesday a party spokesperson confirmed that Tomasz Zimoch, who was the top party voter-getter in Łódź in the 2019 general election winning 47,648 votes, had left the party’s parliamentary caucus. He had previously worked as a journalist and sports commentator, being employed by Polskie Radio for 38 years until 2016 when he departed in acrimonious circumstances. He’s expected to remain a non-aligned member of the Sejm for now.
In a victory for the government’s stated aim to ‘repolonise’ foreign-owned media, PKN Orlen, the state-owned oil refiner and petrol retailer headquartered in Płock, has completed its controversial acquisition of Polska Press, which owns hundred of local newspapers and websites, from its former German owner. PKN Orlen has stated that the move forms part of a business strategy to strengthen its sales and marketing by gaining access to the 17.4m users of Polska Press’s websites, while opposition politicians claim it’s a way of increasing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość influence over local media. PKN Orlen’s President is Daniel Obajtek, whose name has even figured in media reports as a potential successor at some point to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
As part of a reform of the country’s pension system, Poland’s government on Tuesday approved a proposed new bill to move financial assets currently held in state-guaranteed private pension funds into individual retirement accounts. The reform would see 150 billion złotych in assets transferred into 15 million individual retirement accounts in a move expected to commence later this year. A one-off 15% tax will be withheld on all assets transferred into the accounts. Recipients will be able to request a funds transfer into the state-owned social insurance fund instead with no transfer tax payable, albeit future pensions are subject to income tax. The stated aim of the reform is to build a stable pensions system and increase the rate of saving for retirement.
In an unannounced move without any media fanfare Amazon entered the Polish e-commerce marketplace on Monday night with a local website, Amazon.pl. The move did follow a recent announcement that it intended to launch in Poland. Until now Polish consumers had to content themselves with a Polish language version of Amazon’s German website. The new bespoke site is expected to attract more local Polish customers and sellers and has local payment options. Amazon already has an extensive distribution infrastructure in Poland with around 18,000 regular employees, with many more during peak times.
On Monday, March 1st, Poland marked the national day of remembrance for the anti-communist resistance fighters after the Second World War, known as the ‘Żołnierze Wyklęcki’ or ‘Cursed Soldiers’, who faced a brutal crackdown from Poland’s then Soviet-installed government. The official day of commemoration was introduced in 2011 and while events were scaled back this year, President Duda laid a wreath at a memorial in Warszawa and awarded state honours to survivors and those who have worked to honour their memory.
Poland’s teenage tennis sensation, Iga Świątek, has moved up to number 15 in the latest Women’s Tennis Association world rankings, a gain of three places, following her victory last Saturday in the Adelaide International tournament in Australia – her second singles title following her win in last year’s French Open. She had reached the fourth round of last month’s Australian Open, where she lost out to Romania’s Simona Halep.
Finally, the developer of a new multifunctional complex in central Warszawa claimed this week that the Varso Tower has now become the tallest building in the EU with the erection of an 80 meter high spire, giving it an architectural height of 310 meters, 10 meters taller than it’s nearest rival, the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt. At 230 meters high, minus the spire, the 53-storey skyscraper, being developed by HB Reavis, was already the tallest building in Poland. It’s scheduled for completion next year and will have viewing decks at 205 and 230 metres, twice the height of the viewing deck of the nearby Pałac Kultury i Nauki. The Varso Place complex, located in the Wola district, will comprise a hotel, an innovation centre, shops and offices. The name Varso references the Latin name for Warsaw – Varsovia.
That’s all for this week.