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Europe Will Be Watching Trump’s Visit to a Right-Tilting Poland

Opponents worry that the visit will be seen as a tacit endorsement of a Polish government that has been criticized by its European Union partners for moves to co-opt the news media, its political opponents and, most recently, the courts.

Some fear that the visit may further widen a fissure between East and West in the European Union, which Mr. Trump has disparaged previously, and embolden leaders like Mr. Kaczynski and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has been similarly criticized for a light authoritarianism.

One of the few points of tension is Russia, which Mr. Trump seems to like and Poland, as a former Soviet satellite, has a long history of regarding warily.

Poles will also be listening carefully for whether Mr. Trump reaffirms the United States’ commitment to respond to an attack on another NATO member. He failed to do so in a previous European tour, to the dismay of longtime European allies, which he instead upbraided as not paying their fair share for the alliance.

Mr. Trump is to meet Thursday morning with Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president, and attend a session of the Three Seas Initiative Summit, a gathering of Central European leaders.

Finally, he will deliver what the White House is describing as a major speech in the Warsaw square that was the epicenter of the Warsaw Uprising during World War II.

“He will praise Polish courage throughout history’s darkest hour, and celebrate Poland’s emergence as a European power,” Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, said during a White House briefing last week.

“He will lay out a vision, not only for America’s future relationship with Europe, but the future of our trans-Atlantic alliance and what that means for American security and American prosperity,” General McMaster said.

Critics worry that if Mr. Trump makes no mention of the concerns of the European Union and others about moves by the governing Law and Justice Party to assume greater power, it will only encourage Mr. Kaczynski to accelerate the pace of his party’s moves.

The latest is for broad change to the Polish courts, which the government says is an attempt to reform a widely reviled institution. Opponents call it part of a campaign to blunt potential opposition.

The push was quietly delayed by the government in the days leading up to Mr. Trump’s arrival late Wednesday, so as not to overshadow the visit.

“They went step by step,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s official ombudsman, who has come out against the court changes.

Shortly after taking power in late 2015, he said, Law and Justice first hobbled and then co-opted the constitutional tribunal, turning it from a check on the constitutionality of new laws to a rubber stamp for the government.

Then the party removed independent oversight from the secret services, asked the justice minister, a party stalwart, to also act as chief prosecutor and transformed public-owned news media into pro-government mouthpieces.

“And the courts are next,” Mr. Bodnar said.

The early moves against Poland’s constitutional tribunal set the groundwork, said Marcin Matczak, a law professor at the University of Warsaw.

Now, Law and Justice is focusing on lower courts, proposing a law that would change the way judges are selected. Instead of a National Judicial Council dominated by judges making selections, the new law would split the council in two, with judges on one side and political appointees on the other and the added stipulation that judges must be approved by both groups and then by Parliament.

“This government hates anything they don’t have full control over,” Dr. Matczak said. “Don’t you think Trump would like the power to control the courts when it is blocking his immigration moves?”

In late April, the board of the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary described itself as “gravely concerned” with the government’s proposals.

On May 5, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a “final opinion” that the proposed law would have a “negative impact” on the selection of judges and “should be reconsidered in its entirety.”

Law and Justice officials wave away such complaints and insist that their moves are an honest attempt to reform a bloated, entrenched and sometimes corrupt court system by putting the courts under more direct democratic control.

“Judges in Poland don’t pay traffic fines,” said Marcin Warchol, deputy justice minister. “They say it’s against the Constitution to fine them. That is why the public sees them as a privileged group. All we want is for the public to have at least minimal influence on the selection of judges.”

The government also wants to increase the efficiency of the courts, where cases often drag on for years, by streamlining their administration and limiting the scope of cases heard, he said.

Government officials say opponents are overreacting to the new court plan, which is not wildly dissimilar to others in Europe.

“Double standards!” Mr. Warchol said. “Yes, there are international standards, but there is also international hypocrisy.”

Political opponents and others have been less inclined to adopt a benign view of the proposed changes.

“As long as there are no significant protections, they will take over whatever they can get away with,” Mr. Bodnar said. “I have no doubt.”

Mr. Bodnar’s ombudsman’s office was established in the waning years of communism as a way to make sure citizen complaints got a fair hearing and an independent champion.

He has spoken out forcefully against the new proposed court law, thus far without pushback from the governing party. Others were not so lucky.

In late January, Malgorzata Gersdorf, the president of the Supreme Court, wrote an open letter urging judges to fight fiercely for their independence.

“The courts are easily turned into a plaything in the hands of politicians,” she said. “You must show that we are in opposition to the pushing of a democratic state into oblivion.”

Shortly afterward, the governing party asked the constitutional tribunal whether, perhaps, Ms. Gersdorf should be removed from office because of an alleged error in the way she was selected several years ago.

That ruling was expected two weeks ago but, like another expected ruling from the tribunal on the constitutionality of the new court laws, it was postponed until after Mr. Trump’s visit.

Jerzy Stepien, director of the Institute of Civic Space and Public Policy at Lazarski University and a former president of the constitutional tribunal, said he thought Mr. Trump’s visit was likely to offer only a temporary reprieve. The new court law will go forward, he said, with many more to come.

“They are destroying all the institutions we had been dreaming about under communism and that we have been building for 20 years,” Mr. Stepien said.

Source: NYT > World

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