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Why Poland’s conservative government is causing alarm at the EU

Former Soviet bloc nations are bracing for a fight with the European Union over how they govern. Recent behavior by Hungary and Poland concerns EU officials, who warn they will crack down on member states that fail to uphold modern European democratic values. But experts say Poland’s special relationship with President Trump may induce it to resist. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: European Union leaders have watched with alarm as Poland has reduced the independence of judges and the press. The E.U. has threatened to crack down on member states that fail to uphold modern democratic values.

    However, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Warsaw, Poland's special relationship with the Trump administration may encourage Poland's resistance to its European neighbors.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    "Free courts now" is the clarion cry. Outside a courthouse in Central Warsaw, demonstrators demand the removal of a judge appointed by the populist conservative government to replace one of a more independent spirit.

    They accuse the country's justice minister of being a judicial puppet master.

  • Michal Wawrykiewicz:

    We are still in a battle for the rule of law in Poland, the rule of law that is dismantled during the last four years permanently.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Michal Wawrykiewicz is a lawyer and founder of a campaign group called the Free Courts Initiative.

  • Michal Wawrykiewicz:

    Independence of judiciary is one of the grounds of the democracy. If the courts are not independent and the judges are not independent, then we have a very serious problem with the democracy.

  • Elzbieta Jastrzebowska:

    We are old enough to remember how it was under the Soviet regime. And, right now, it is incomprehensible to me that this is repeated now, even worse.

  • Jakub Kocjan:

    The rest of the world should be worried about Poland's democracy, because it's the model of Turkey and Hungary, where judges are not independent, which really means dictatorship.

  • Elzbieta Jastrzebowska:

    Under the Soviets, we normal people, we knew that the papers were lying, that the TV is lying.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza sprang from the venerated solidarity labor movement of the 1980s, pivotal in the collapse of communism in Poland and across the former Soviet Bloc.

    But the paper is feeling the squeeze. Government entities have pulled advertising. Its reporters have been denied access.

  • Vadim Makarenko:

    It's pretty similar to America. The media are being demonized by the government. They're calling us fake news every time we're being critical towards the government.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Vadim Makarenko is a senior editor at Gazeta Wyborcza.

  • Vadim Makarenko:

    We have state-owned television which is bringing propaganda to Polish households. My newspaper appeals to the European Union more or less regularly, asking it to preserve media freedom in Poland, as well as judiciary independence.

  • Zdzislaw Krasnodebski:

    Based on the distorting and distorted image of Poland, I consider this as fake news of this century.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Zdzislaw Krasnodebski is a member of the European parliament, and an influential member of Poland's Law and Justice Party.

  • Zdzislaw Krasnodebski:

    It is rubbish to say that in Poland we have any slide towards autocracy or any danger, profound danger to democracy. Of course, our democracy is not perfect, but I think British is not perfect and German is not perfect.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Despite the concerns, Poland of today is nothing like it was behind the Iron Curtain. There are no troops on the streets, and the police did not disrupt the protests over the courts. Nevertheless, alarm bells are ringing.

  • Pawel Marczewski:

    I believe what government is doing can be potentially dangerous.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Pawel Marczewski is an analyst with the Batory Foundation, established by American philanthropist George Soros to promote open democratic societies in Poland and across Central Europe.

  • Pawel Marczewski:

    I do not believe that they're offering enough space in the public discourse to dissenting voices. I think that they're trying to build a monolithic political culture in Poland, a culture that is based basically on the Catholic faith and a certain vision of Polish history, a very heroic version of Polish history, a simplistic vision of Polish history.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Such as the music of Frederic Chopin, Poland's greatest composer and this key monument, the Warsaw Rising Memorial, honoring 63 days in 1944 when patriots fought in vain against the Nazis.

    Behind is a modern battleground, the Supreme Court. Last year, the Polish government forced 40 percent of the court's judges to retire early, in a move the European Commission condemned as illegal.

    A change in leadership at the top of the European Union in Brussels is now under way. And that could make it a lot harder for countries like Poland to resist Pan-European laws and values. The new European Commission is determined to stop what's been called democratic backsliding.

    So, in the future, member states will be subject to an annual review to make sure they're abiding by the rules.

    In the 15 years since Brussels admitted nations from the former Soviet Bloc, business in Poland has boomed, boosted by $14 billion worth of European funds for state-of-the-art infrastructure. It's now the sixth largest economy in the E.U.

    The implicit warning from Brussels is that, unless Poland behaves, the money will dry up. But such sanctions have been threatened before and, according to some E.U. officials, have had no impact.

  • Adam Balcer:

    I think that Poland is going to resist the pressure of the European mainstream.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Foreign affairs analyst Adam Balcer believes the governing Law and Justice Party will easily win this autumn's forthcoming general election and will be emboldened as a result.

  • Adam Balcer:

    They are going to have more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament. And, of course, they count a lot on the support of the United States, which definitely, in the case of this administration, is very supportive of this type of governments in the European Union.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    President Trump looks favorably on Poland, not least because it meets his requirement that NATO members spend at least 2 percent of GDP on national defense.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The United States and Poland continue to enhance our security cooperation. Poland will still provide basing and infrastructure to support military presence of about 1,000 American troops. The Polish government will build these projects at no cost to the United States. The Polish government will pay for this.

    We thank President Duda and the people of Poland for their partnership in advancing our common security.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Poland is planning to buy 32 American F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, total cost, $2.5 billion. President Andrzej Duda was given a personal flyover at the White House last month.

    And in what some critics label an act of outright sycophancy, Duda intends to call the new American base on Polish soil Fort Trump.

  • Andrezej Duda (through translator):

    One of the agreements I signed personally concerned security and military cooperation. As you mentioned, sir, there will be more American troops in Poland. There's going to be an enhanced cooperation.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    So could the bond with the White House thwart the E.U.'s intention to force Poland to conform?

    Building Fort Trump on Polish soil would have a propaganda effect in any confrontation with Russia.

  • Pawel Marczewski:

    But I do believe this is aimed at strengthening Polish position within the E.U., not as a serious alternative to a strong Polish position in the E.U.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This month, Poland has been courting the leaders of Lithuania and Slovakia. It's trying to forge alliances within the E.U. to challenge the dominance of France and Germany.

    If and when Brexit happens, Poland could become more powerful within the E.U. The loss of Britain's moderating presence could make it harder to stop the Poles from marching off the designated course.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Warsaw.

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